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With: Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Drew Barrymore, Patrick Swayze, Noah Wyle, Mary McDonnell, Katharine Ross
Written by: Richard Kelly
Directed by: Richard Kelly
MPAA Rating: R for language, some drug use and violence
Running Time: 113
Date: 18/01/2001
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Donnie Darko (2001)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Cellar Door

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

In October of 2001, the publicist in charge of Donnie Darko booked the one and only press screening at 10 o'clock the morning of Tuesday the 16th. In the same time slot, other publicists had booked a screening of the Jabberwocky revival, there was a press conference for the Film Arts Foundation, and director Richard Linklater was in town promoting his film Waking Life. I had a 9:45 interview with Linklater, which ended somewhere around 10:30 -- too late for Donnie Darko.

My esteemed colleague Joe Leydon caught Donnie Darko and reviewed it for the Examiner. He gave it a poor-to-middling review, and I never bothered to go see it for myself.

But when the DVD came out, I gave it a chance. I was both thrilled at having seen a new cult classic and nonplussed that I was so badly misled during its release.

It turns out that most people missed the film during its initial run, partially due to apathy on the part of its promoters and critics and partially due to the mood of the country after 9/11. But it wasn't long before a cult following started growing, first in midnight screenings and then on DVD. The film's growing popularity has led to a re-release (in a new directors' cut) in 2004.

While most big-budget sci-fi movies (Armageddon, I, Robot) bludgeon their viewers with nothing more than action movie pyrotechnics, a series of small sci-fi movies based on ideas have been pouring out over the past several years. Donnie Darko ranks among Gattaca, Pi and Dark City for pure imagination -- and surpasses them for astonishing execution.

Jake Gyllenhaal gives a superb performance as the title character, a lost, confused, brilliant teenager in the throes of a soul-deadening high school education. He sees a shrink and takes medication for his depression. But things have been getting worse; he's been sleepwalking and waking up miles away from his house.

One night, the sleepwalking actually comes in handy; while he's out, a mysterious plane engine plummets from the sky and lands square in the middle of Donnie's room.

He's alive, but strange things begin to happen. A self-help guru (Patrick Swayze) begins to infest the school and Donnie's favorite teacher (Drew Barrymore) loses her job over a Graham Greene story. One of the local crackpots, Mrs. Sparrow, turns out to be the author of a book on time travel. He even begins dating the new girl in school (Jena Malone). Strangest of all, he begins to have conversations about the end of the world with a six-foot demonic rabbit named Frank.

Like The Matrix and Dark City, Donnie Darko ends with a gut-punch that I don't want to give away to anyone who hasn't seen the film yet. But, even knowing this ending, the film holds up to multiple viewings because first-time writer/director Richard Kelly's skillfully handles everything from dialogue to music to editing.

Set in 1988, Kelly loads the film with jokes about Dukakis and Bush and uses period pop music for his score. But rather than choose a CD-friendly collection of hits, he uses the moodiest, most dramatic songs by groups like the Psychedelic Furs and Tears for Fears. (A new cover of "Mad World" cracked the pop charts after the DVD release and further helped the movie find an audience.)

Kelly manages to imbue every scene with a sense of finality, wrapping up storylines and giving us tidbits of information that we just may need to know when the end of the world comes. When Donnie discusses the possibility of time travel with his science teacher (Noah Wyle), the teacher indulges him for a few moments before stopping. "We can't be having this conversation. I could get fired." He gives Donnie a kind of wistful look as if to say, I wish I could go with you, but you're on your own.

Even better is the scene in which the Barrymore character packs up her things to leave the school for good. She's been fired for teaching Graham Greene's "controversial" short story "The Destructors." As a farewell to her class, she writes two words on the chalkboard: "cellar door." A linguist (apparently Edgar Allan Poe) once decided that of all the possible combinations of all the words in the English language, "cellar door" is the most beautiful. What more could you need when facing the end of the world?

The current Donnie Darko DVD comes with the original theatrical version, plus 20 excellent deleted scenes, which only add more to this already rich story. Kelly provides two commentary tracks: one with Gyllenhaal and one with co-producer Barrymore and several of the other actors. Other extras include the self-help guru's informercials in their entirety, a "Mad World" music video, an art gallery, production stills, trailers and TV spots. The picture is mastered in superb 2.35-to-1 widescreen with optional English and Spanish subtitles. The sound comes in English 5.1 Dolby Surround, English 2.0 Dolby Surround and French 2.0 Dolby Surround.

I suspect that the new "director's cut" will incorporate some of the deleted scenes from this version, and I've heard reports that Kelly has attempted to make the ending "clearer." Either way, I'm reasonably sure that the "director's cut" will eventually have its own DVD release. But I still very highly recommend this one.

DVD Details: The Director's Cut DVD arrived recently, and I checked it out with the director commentary track on so that I could keep track of the changes. Most of the new scenes in the director's cut are available in the "deleted scenes" on the first disc, but Kelly did save a few new ones for the director's cut. Otherwise, he changed around some of the music. Echo and the Bunnymen's "The Killing Time" now comes at the end, and the movie starts with INXS's "Never Tear Us Apart." He has also included new cutaways to the time travel book, allowing the viewer glimpses at the "text," none of which is very impressive or revealing. Personally, I still like the theatrical version better, because that's the film that was created in the heat of the moment and the one that people discovered. It may be a little sloppier, but it's more lovable. Kelly himself says that he does not indend for one to take the place of the other, that the new one is merely an "extended remix." As for the extras, Kelly, in a stroke of genius, invited Kevin Smith to join him on the commentary track to ask questions and spice things up. It's a lot of fun. Otherwise, we get the fan's short film contest winner, a dicussion of the film's cult status, a storyboard-to-screen featurette, a production diary and a trailer.

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