Tagline: Life is one long insane trip. Some people just have better directions.
Synopsis: A seemingly normal high school student experiences recurring dreams that lead him to commit various acts of vandalism in a 1980’s suburbia. Egged on by a stranger in a man-sized bunny suit and mask that only he can see, Donnie Darko’s visions lead to questions about time travel and the meaning of life.
Normally I’d have a “see it” or “miss it” image here but this is one of those rare instances when I would rather say “see the original” and if you must, “see the director’s cut later. Much later”.
Meat & Potatoes: The director’s cut of Donnie Darko is Richard Kelly’s response to the dismal box office receipts (some say only a half a million dollars) of the original theatrical release of the film in 2001. While the first version flopped, speculated in part due to mixed reactions in a post 911 climate and uncertain marketing at Sundance, it has since grown into a cult film with an enthusiastic, if not obsessive fan base. The director’s cut is intended to ‘fix’ some of the loose ends in the first version by including deleted scenes, altering the edit, a new sound design, and new visual elements. The director’s cut runs at just over two hours.
My first impression with this version of Donnie Darko was a feeling I often experience after watching a remake (as in the case of the feature-length Flintstones (1994), Land of the Lost, or The Day the Earth stood still) which is an overwhelming sense of disappointment. In some cases I have returned to a previously released film and experienced the complete opposite – such as the case with Children of Men (2006) – thanks in part to a persistent friend (thanks Eric). I understand the importance of remakes, capturing in no small way new and occasionally decades long fans to bolster box office receipts or address concerns that prevented the original cut from reaching deserved fans, but this generally results in films that fall all over themselves to appease everyone and ultimately appease no one but the most die-hard of fans. I’m toying with a special section on film comparisons between originals and remakes so stay tuned for that.
My second opinion, at any rate, is that what we have here is a film that forcibly, heavy-handedly tells the story with more regard for plot clarity and story definition than subtlety and pace. What happen to character? I think this is the epitome of what happens when a film is revisited and a director tries to incorporate popular opinion into the edit. I remember being drawn into the original version, connecting with Jake Gyllenhaal‘s disaffected, teen angst ridden character and the cloudy circumstances of his world – the slightly skewed parents (Mary McDonnell and Holmes Osborne – who were brilliantly cast), and the sibling rivalry with real-world sister (Maggie Gyllenhaal – who was equally adept at a battle of wits across the table with her on/off-screen brother) was pitch perfect. We also find the late Patrick Swayze here as the sleazy self-help guru. Drew Barrymore plays teacher Karen Pomeroy, a bit uptight and stiff in either film, who thankfully lent her support to the project as executive producer. We follow Donnie without question, dysfunctional and delusional, a teenager with all the trappings that go along with being young, angry, and confused about tomorrow. Donnie Darko lives in a world of believable people and struggles with his sense of identity and oddity. We get that quite adequately in the first film. We quickly realize, however that in the Director’s Cut, Richard Kelly is going to make sure we get it and then some. Subtle writing is a delicate line between vague and excess in screenwriting. My own pursuits of fiction and poetry have seen an overwhelmingly mixed response – too much is too little and too much is, well unpublished. But that is another story for another time.
For those who have seen the first film, fallen in love with it and screened it countless times, we discover more about the Darko world and subsequently the intricate world of his dreams – that being the other world where the man-rabbit comes from or perhaps resides. This sounds like a good thing right? Not really. All the details that were missing from the first film were missing for a reason – because they weren’t immediately important to either characterization or story; the main reasons for leaving them out in the first place is that they slow or detour story or even get in the way of lean, mean character building. As my teachers and mentors at the Academy of Art University schooled me – great scenes expand character AND story.
The nature of the story telling in the first film gave us a lot of loose ends but in so doing made this unnatural world of a strange demonic man-rabbit and doomsday countdown seem approachable and therefore intriguing at a very primal level. The original film gave us a sense of something happening and it didn’t get bogged down with theories, rules. That’s a science project you make in the classroom and then forget about it.
So in the director’s cut, most of the big questions posed in the first film are directly, if not methodically addressed. Check. Where we may have been uncertain about Donnie’s dreams and behavior through the first film, we’re given very obvious and obtrusive devices in the second edit that say too much while answering all of our questions. Sadly, check. Just when we begin to question elements of the story, an answer appears. When Donnie’s parents are in bed together talking about Donnie being out when the engine crushed his room, a new line tells us that “somebody was watching over him”. There is also the use of an eye image that fills the screen and progressively shows more and more imagery that is supposed to represent the fact that Donnie is being awakened by a distant technology or group of people from the future. Instead of his character being allowed to teeter on the idea that he is either disturbed or a messiah figure, the choice is repeatedly defined for us. Check and check. This dehumanizes him and takes away a very base connection we have with his character. His world is pulled away from ours quickly and deliberately in such a manner as to make him less believable and more of a comic book hero. And that isn’t a good thing.
Richard Kelly spoke at length on the director’s cut with Kevin (Clerks) Smith regarding his desire to define the rules of the comic book hero in this edit. What he has done is to introduce pages from the time travel manual of the film as segues or chapter markers containing relevant information. This serves only to stifle the film and instead of revealing the deeper ideas of the character’s journey and purpose, becomes a one-sided plot device. These new elements serve only the story and can only get in the way of characterization. We want to see Donnie making choices and through action define who is really is. We learn more this way. This version of the film feels more like the kind of film a first time director would make than the original, with less originality and subtlety. Some will argue that his clarifications are necessary for the sake of the story but I would argue that there is not enough ambiguity and subtlety in films these days in general. We watch each of these new elements come into play and at each appearance it feels as though we are being told something that had before remained clandestine. When we made a decision before about what we thought was going on, it kept us interested. Now we have a much more concrete explanation for why things are happening and for me it is just too much being told and not enough being shown.
If I have learned anything from watching and consequently writing about the Director’s cut, I would take away with me a reminder that good characters can keep us connected to a convoluted story. Good characters need breathing space just as much as story must be allowed room to develop and provide a place for the characters to thrash about. In this case, the director’s cut has gotten in the way of the breathing space and instead of giving us more details about these people and what they are thinking and doing, the story crowds everything else out-of-the-way. I think the use of the Watership Down material was too much, just like I think Donnie’s poem tells us something that is being explained through action and dialogue. Just as the overlay of the Time travel book got in my way, these elements made me feel like I hadn’t gotten it the first time.
Bits & Bites: A VERY detailed breakdown of the director’s cut vs. the original theatrical version can be found ->here<- Be warned of spoilers abound here, as it is a complete analysis often blow-by-blow of the various aspects of the films, side by side.
Similar Films: See the original, theatrical release, preferably before this one.
The Closer: I know Richard Kelly was addressing a great number of concerns in the director’s cut but when I got to the end of the film, I knew more about the role Donnie played in saving the world but little more about the character; which is the kind of stuff that is generally cut from an edit prior to release – and rightfully so.