Donnie Darko: Director's Cut Review
Donnie Darko, in its original form, has become the cult film of recent years, and this can largely be attributed to its ambiguity. Of course you get nowhere in cult film without being either extremely good, or extremely bad, and Donnie Darko falls happily into the former category, but it was the oblique nature of the film that really got people talking and turned it into a must see movie. The problem was, despite hours upon hours of expert pub analysis there are still many people that just don’t understand it, and many that argue that it just can’t be understood. This, combined with a desire to bring the film closer to his original cut (which was ordered to be shortened by the distributors) has spurred director Richard Kelly to revisit the film.
First things first, watching the Director’s Cut is not the best way to enjoy Donnie Darko. For the full experience watch the original film, explore the website, delve into the DVD special features, the answers are all there for you to find, and it’s a much more rewarding experience to rack your own brains. After all, that’s just the aspect that made the film a success in the first place, the more you spell out, the less fun it is, and that’s this versions biggest problem. Be warned, this review is written with the expectation of prior knowledge of the film, so spoilers will be abundant.The Director’s Cut clocks in at 128 minutes, quite a step up from the original’s 113, and the changes are myriad. Not content with throwing in chunks of extra footage, the entire running time is littered with additions, from major scenes, to tiny flashes.
The most talked about changes however have been the musical ones, Kelly was unable to secure the rights to two pieces of music in particular, the opening, as Donnie rides into town accompanied by Echo and the Bunnymen’s The Killing Moon was originally intended to be Never Tear Us Apart by INXS. This has been rectified here, but not only does it lack the subtle significance of the Bunnymen track, more importantly, it just isn’t as good. The Killing Moon set such a fantastic tone that the weak INXS track just can’t match, it may not have been the track of choice, but its inclusion was certainly serendipitous, and should have been left well alone. The other musical sticking point was Duran Duran’s Notorious present in the Sparkle Motion dance scene. Here Kelly wanted to use The Pet Shop Boys West End Girls however, for currently unknown reasons, Notorious remains. Musical changes aside though, there are many differences, including a couple of themes that run throughout the film.
Those that delved into either the website or the DVD will be familiar with the contents of Roberta Sparrow’s Philosophy of Time Travel, but Kelly, seemingly aware that many people wouldn’t have made that effort, has included passages from the book throughout the film. Not always in the order they are presented in the book, a number of scene transitions are now overlaid by the text, in an attempt to convey the meaning of the book to the audience. Whilst this does take away from the experience somewhat, it does accomplish its goal of making the film clearer, and is likely to be a product of the reaction to the film rather than part of Kelly’s original intention, but now viewers of the film are familiarised with the concepts of the manipulated dead, and the living receiver, as well as the metal and water concepts and the dreams that haunt the survivors of the tangent universe. Another persistent theme is a number of close ups of Donnie’s eye opening, overlaid with graphics foreseeing event to come, shots of water before he floods the school and fire before he burns down Jim Cunningham’s house. They’re a little heavy handed, implying that Donnie is not only receiving suggestions of what to do from Frank, but also visions, in fact Frank’s influence is something Kelly has very much played up. We now get to hear Frank’s voice many more times throughout the film, signposting events and more forcibly controlling Donnie, for instance telling us to watch closely, less we miss something, during the Cunning Visions video. Presumably hoping more people will notice Swayze’s pat on the behind of the child, foreshadowing the later character revelations, it strengthens the idea of Donnie being the living receiver, but also takes away from a popular interpretation of the film.
Many believe that once the tangent universe collapses, and Donnie returns to his bed, that he makes the choice to stay there, in order to prevent the events that occurred in the tangent universe, and save Gretchen and Frank from their fates. This version makes it clear that this is not Donnie’s role. The tangent universe was not a vision of the future bestowed upon Donnie, it was a freak rip in the 4th dimension, and one that has to be rectified properly or both the original dimension and the tangent will be destroyed. Donnie’s role is now to bring the tangent to a proper end, saving the original dimension, it seems now, as he lies in his bed, he’s laughing not because he’s making the grand choice but because he believes either that the last 28 days were a dream, or that he has changed the future, he doesn’t seem aware of his eminent fate. Donnie looks more like a puppet and less like the hero, a factor which is amplified by a number of exchanges with Karen Pomeroy (Drew Barrymore). Bringing a slightly confusing aspect into the film, Karen seems to have a hand in Donnie’s fate, in a new scene, after Graham Greene’s short story is removed from the syllabus the students begin to study Watership Down instead. Comparing Donnie’s visions to those of the rabbit Fiver, and how those visions save the warren, it seems Karen is pushing Donnie into trusting Frank. Earlier as the police are checking the class’s handwriting, there are extra shots of Donnie looking nervous, something Karen picks up on. This seems to explain the scene between her and Professor Monnitoff (Noah Wyle) “Donnie Darko?” “I know!” implying they were aware it was Donnie that flooded the school. This, combined with her vital cellar door clue add up to something being afoot with Ms. Pomeroy, is one of the few aspects of the Director’s Cut that is likely to inspire more questions than it answers.
With this Director’s Cut, aside from some minor niggles, Kelly has produced a film that now knows where it’s going, it seems the years, and possibly the endless questions, have clarified the concepts of the film in his mind, and those are now much more clearly conveyed to the audience. Kelly has produced a more focused, mature film, it’s still imperfect, but now for different reasons. It's a difficult decision as to which version is superior as this cut does take some of the fun away from the film. It’s much harder to invent mind boggling theories surrounding the film with what we are presented with now, but that was such a large aspect of the film’s success it’s almost a shame that the answers are now so straightforward. I still recommend that people make this the last stop on their tour of Donnie Darko’s world (which, trivia fans, this version places in Sarasota, Florida) as Donnie Darko is as much an experience as a movie, but for those still engaged in heated debate this will certainly settle a bet or two. Kelly however, clearly doesn’t want the debate to end, and has opened a few new avenues for discussion, albeit on less important issues.
A list of changes made in this Director's Cut of the film can be found here