Donnie Darko Review
Imagine yourself awakening on an empty golf course, miles from nowhere with no memory of how you got there, only to return home and find the engine from a disabled in-flight airliner has crashed into what is left of your bedroom. For Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal), this is just the beginning of a horrific nightmare that doesn't disappear when he opens his eyes.
Donnie is the sullen middle child of an affable middle class family (Mary McDonnell and Holmes Osborne play his parents). He suffers from sleepwalking, bouts of depression and converses with a hideous imaginary 6-foot rabbit named Frank, who sports a cheesy cloth costume and evil-looking mask. Although Donnie attends therapy and takes medication, Frank manages to get a foothold into his mind and convinces Donnie through flashbacks, that he was responsible for his absence from the house when the plane engine fell. Feeling indebted, Donnie agrees to carry out increasingly bizarre chores for Frank. Meanwhile - Donnie befriends the new girl at school Gretchen (Jena Malone). They share a mutual attraction and strange bond of emotional instability and isolation. Under the watchful eye of his English teacher (executive producer Drew Barrymore) and very wary psychiatrist (Katherine Ross), Donnie's relationship with Gretchen blossoms, as does his psychosis and interest in time warps and wormholes. He sets about trying to figure out why he is suffering from hallucinations, why Frank is convinced the world will end in 28 days, why the old hermit woman down the road makes a daily trek to her empty mailbox and why it suddenly sounds plausible to time travel.
This is not just another teen movie. Writer/director Richard Kelly's first time effort is a tightlywoven psychological exercise in fear that takes place in 1988 suburbia, and Donnie is not just another teen. Gyllenhaal manages to do the impossible - you believe he is slowly losing his mind and has frequent conversations with Frank, yet he retains a likeable quality and determination to rid his community of perceived hypocrisy - and he does so without ever crossing the line into over-the-top incredulity. The film is peppered with a lively assortment of stereotypical and not so typical characters: McDonnell is superb as his very concerned but impotent mom, Patrick Swayze plays a smarmy self-help guru with a secret, Beth Grant gives a bravura performance as Kitty Farmer, the self-righteous bible-thumping P.E. Teacher, and Gyllenhaal's real-life sister (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is engaging as the bitchy older sibling in the Darko household. Michael Andrews' magnificent score is haunting, and the garish out-of-place eighties music underscores the inner turmoil of a teenager whose emotional stability is spiralling downward rapidly.
Twenty-seven year old USC film graduate Kelly, was inspired in part by an Urban Legend involving a chunk of ice that fell from a jet engine onto someone's house killing that occupant while they slept. After modifying it a bit he created the basis for Donnie Darko. He grew up fascinated with time travel and gives proper credit to La Jetee and 12 Monkeys for setting the bar on films dealing with that subject matter. The film was slated for a late 2001 release, but after the events of 9-11, the powers that be felt the nationwide release of a film with a crashing plane might not be appropriate, and with the exception of a limited theatrical release, it was fated for video. Kelly has created a brilliant first effort, and the film's theme song will stay with you long after the end credits have stopped rolling.
The film is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen and the transfer is a bit controversial. I felt the dark murkiness and intentional grain suited the film quite well - others have not been as happy with the look of the disc. Donnie Darko Cinematographer Steven Poster (Une Chance Sur Deux, Someone To Watch Over Me) used scene-specific film (Kodak 5289 - 800-speed emulsion) to achieve the desired creepy effects in the film. After discussion with director Kelly, they decided to use the film throughout to maintain visual continuity. The following is a direct quote from Poster: "The higher-speed emulsions are generally lower contrast films and most people don't think in these terms. They think it's a faster film, so it must be a higher contrast film. Most of the time, when you're shooting with a fast film you're shooting a higher contrast subject. There's more silver in the negative on a higher speed film and it allows for more depth in the shadows. Therefore, it actually helped us in the contrasty outdoor daylight scenes to dig a little more into the shadows." The daylight scenes were stunning, but the darker scenes have been labeled murky, out of focus, not as crisp. I personally felt the unique results worked well with the subject matter. There was as stated above, a bit of grain and minimal softness, but no edge enhancement or pixellation was noted.
Whatever controversy attached itself to the picture quality, it is not present in the dynamic Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. Michael Andrews' score and the film's theme song Mad World sound brilliant. The dialogue and chilling sound effects are clear and hiss free. I watched the film with a friend, and was thrilled to see him jump when Frank's otherworldly voice boomed out of the rear speakers. English and Spanish subtitles are offered and optional English and French Dolby Surround soundtracks are available.
There are two audio commentaries. The first is done by director Richard Kelly and lead actor Jake Gyllenhaal. The second commentary includes director Richard Kelly, cast members Drew Barrymore, Jena Malone, Beth Grant, Katherine Ross, Mary McDonnell, Holmes Osborne, James Duval and producers Sean McKittrick and Nancy Juvonen. Gyllenhaa (who does a dead-on Christopher Walken impression) and Kelly get on well and the commentary never loses steam. Both commentaries are hugely entertaining, but for technical info, the first one is recommended. In the second commentary the cast has a good time reflecting on the making of the film, teasing each other and don't take themselves too seriously.
Chapter Stops and Menus
There are four menus and twenty-eight animated chapter stops. The menus are gorgeous - instead of the usual black-bordered letterbox, they are replaced with misty white top and bottom borders that frame animated clips from the film. The chapter stops are also animated clips from the film presented four at a time against an out-of-focus background that displays ever-changing scenes from the film, and are accompanied by a stormy/sound effects-driven music score.
Theatrical Trailer/TV Spots
An excellent 2.35:1 non-anamorphic trailer is included as well as five TV Spots which are shorter variations of the trailer:
1). TV Spot - Sacrifice
2). TV Spot - Darker
3). TV Spot - Era
4). TV Spot - Cast
5). TV Spot - Dark
Cast & Crew Information
Filmographies of the cast and biographies of the filmmakers are provided.
Deleted & Extended Scenes
Twenty deleted/extended scenes are included with optional commentary by director Richard Kelly.
Mad World Music Video
A terrific 2.35:1 non-anamorphic Dolby Digital 2.0. music video highlights clips from the film and features the song Mad World performed by Gary Jules.
Donnie Darko Website Gallery
Related newspaper articles and stills from the companion Donnie Darko website are included. Depending on the size of your screen, the zoom function on your DVD player may be needed to read the fine print.
Liner notes from director Richard Kelly about the Michael Andrews' score and the cover for Tears For Fears' Mad World performed by Gary Jules are available.
The tongue-in-cheek infomercial Controlling Fear from the film is included with an optional mock commentary. It's hysterical and worth a listen.
A slideshow of cartoon drawings from the film entitled His Name is Frank and two book covers by faux author Jim Cunningham are also included in this section.
Forty-eight Production Stills are provided as well as Concept Art featuring different designs for Frank's rabbit mask, cover designs for the DVD and assorted banners from the high school and dance group Sparkle Motion.
The Philosophy of Time Travel
Stills taken of the book The Philosophy of Time (designed specifically for the film) are presented in slideshow format.
First time director Richard Kelly has created a dark, creepy little sci-fi-psychological thriller that will have you fearing evil-voiced rabbits, sleepwalking and the end of the world. The great cast, outstanding visual effects and Michael Andrews' haunting score earn this extras-packed DVD a very high recommendation and I hope this will be the first in a long line of successful films from a young and talented Kelly.