Donnie Darko: The Director's Cut Review

The power of the “cult” film has never been in doubt. Hollywood has always relied on the independent sector to birth new talent; often stealing from the no-budget arena to fuel their own productions. Fresh, vibrant, and often commercially dangerous, the cult film continues to go strong - this years surprise hit Sideways proving that a non-event picture can generate widespread buzz, and respectable box office. Which makes the cult of Donnie Darko all the more perplexing. It sent the audiences of Sundance into a fever, making it an intriguing project. Yet, for whatever reasons, it struggled to gain a distributor, eventually landing in the hands of Newmarket; who had no idea how to promote Richard Kelly’s curious debut. It washed-up in cinemas just after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and left without a whimper, eventually resurfacing on DVD.

Thank the Lord for that cult audience...

They would give Donnie Darko an afterlife. It’s home video release began popping up everywhere - the highlight of midnight screenings, rabid internet discussions, and film school talk. It’s success was aimed squarely at this legion of fans; their word of mouth sparking a phenomenon. Of course, it wasn’t until the UK release that Donnie Darko really became a household name, and an instant favourite of mine. Kelly’s mature, and dizzyingly inventive work was retrieved from the cinematic wasteland, and a modern classic was born. So, why on earth did he feel the need to change it?

Usually, a “Director’s Cut” is created to show audiences the filmmaker’s original vision, i.e. the “genuine” cut. That’s not really true with Kelly’s tinkering - the director is treating it as an “extended re-mix” and not the definitive version. He’s very proud of the theatrical cut, though the desire to explain the films overly complex narrative was clearly too tempting to pass up. The longer and more focused Donnie Darko goes to great lengths to explain some of Kelly’s labyrinth plot, yet leaves us with just as many questions. Of course, those reading this page will already know the story - disaffected youth Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal) is visited by giant rabbit Frank, and told that the world will end. His life soon begins to unravel, as a distant force propels him to commit a series of seemingly random acts. After reading extracts from The Philosophy of Time Travel, Donnie is sucked into a hallucinatory world, where the supernatural is never far away...

The joy of watching Donnie Darko back in 2001, was the sense of confusion that the plot provided. What had we just seen? What did Donnie really achieve at the films conclusion? Kelly had weaved a complex narrative, with a variety of strands, that always threatened to unravel, but stayed together with the strength of a Rube Goldberg contraption. Therefore, audiences felt an overwhelming desire to see the film again, and decipher its unique code. Yet, the film was also remarkably entertaining. Kelly merged genres in a playful manner, making the film impossible to pigeon-hole. It provided comedy, drama, some romance, fantasy and a twinge of horror - the image of Frank’s bunny mask burning into my psyche, with its grotesque beauty used to great effect on the poster.

The film blends conventional themes and surreal imagery well, playing like an 80’s John Hughes picture, mixed with the eccentric stylings of David Lynch. The dreamlike atmosphere is one of the many elements that hooked me on that first viewing - after all, we are never sure if Donnie is psychotic or really experiencing these strange occurrences. To keep us engaged, Kelly exposes the audience to Donnie’s world - his love-life with new student Gretchen (the delightful Jena Malone), his traumatic home life (with the impeccable Mary McDonnell and Holmes Osbourne as his suffering parents), and his frequent meetings with a disturbed shrink (played with sympathy by Katharine Ross). It’s a wonderful tapestry of themes, and thanks to Gyllenhaal’s star-making performance, the character of Donald Darko has become a pin-up for the PlayStation generation. Despite his clear madness, most teenagers can relate to the problems slowly chipping away at Donnie, which gives the film an extra ounce of poignancy.

So, what of the new footage? It’s hit-and-miss, and in my opinion, Kelly’s alternative cut is weaker than his original version. With nearly 30-minutes added to the run-time, the story is more bloated. Most of it is exposition, and Kelly tries valiantly to explain the finer points of his sprawling narrative. Unfortunately, most of this is heavy-handed, especially the way he includes text from The Philosophy of Time Travel - flashing pages onto the screen, in a random and disjointed fashion. Some inclusions are genuinely interesting though, especially his idea that Donnie’s “hallucinations” are triggered by some form of technology; furthering the sci-fi elements, and the notion that Donnie is some kind of superhero. It’s all sketchy at best, and doesn’t possess the streamlined greatness of Kelly’s theatrical presentation. If you’re interested in digging beneath Donnie Darko’s surface, the “Director’s Cut” is worth seeing, but it’s merely a footnote compared to Kelly’s original masterpiece...

You can find a detailed list of the new scenes elsewhere on this site.

The Discs

Released in the States by Fox, this two-disc set is remarkably different to Metrodome’s edition available here. First of all, the box art has been changed - replacing the sleek, shiny packaging that graced the UK discs. That said, it takes the “less is more” approach, with an ever-so stylish design; recalling pages from The Philosophy of Time Travel with its simplistic approach. The discs are also different, with fewer features, and a somewhat disappointing presentation.

The Look and Sound

The “Director’s Cut” is provided with an anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1) transfer, which could have been a lot better. It isn’t unwatchable, but it’s certainly not the high standard Fox have set with their other titles. Detail is efficient, and the image boasts clarity, but it isn’t sharp enough for my liking; with some background elements lost in a soft haze. Colours are better, with the new footage transferred in a clear and vibrant manner (especially those “magic eye” shots). The blacks are also solid, and the transfer manages to please, despite instances of edge haloes and compression. It seems to match the R2 release for overall quality, which is very disappointing indeed. Donnie Darko is barely five years old, and it needs a re-master already...

The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is much more pleasing, as you’d expect from a brand new re-mix (created especially for the “Director’s Cut”). Dialogue is once again clean, and without distortion. Unlike previous releases, the surrounds are fully active, with some decidedly creepy effects thrown in for good measure (the bathroom scene between Donnie and Frank is one such moment). The off-kilter score is also reproduced well, and I have no serious problems to report. Naturally, it’s a pretty low-key affair, and definitely not demo material. That said, it’s the creepiest sound design for Donnie Darko yet, and a minor improvement on past editions.

The Menus

These are brand new, replacing Metrodome’s complex layout. Fox has given US audiences a linear approach to the menu designs, with simple point-and-click interaction. They’re functional and easy to navigate (unlike the confusing maze on the R2 disc), yet the colour scheme doesn’t really fit the movie.

Bonus Material

If you own the UK edition, this release has no real value, with nothing new to offer. Metrodome ported over most of the extras to their “Director’s Cut”, something which Fox wisely skips. Instead of making the original DVD obsolete, they’ve only included the “new” material. Thankfully, the features are pretty enjoyable.

Audio Commentary by Richard Kelly and filmmaker Kevin Smith

I was really looking forward to this track. Two of the biggest cult names in film sit down for a frank and often funny look at Donnie Darko, which amazingly, goes into considerable detail. Smith manages to pry a lot of information from Kelly, and the pair proceed to discuss the story, the casting decisions, the all-important sub-text, and Kelly’s unique film-making style. The Clerks director is often in awe, realising that the meaning behind the picture is still a well-kept secret, and that most of Kelly’s vision is still shrouded in mystery. The pair offer some answers and thoughts on the film, and at one point, Smith questions the filmmaker with some comments made on his messageboard. It’s a fun commentary that doesn’t shy away from deep thought and criticism; making it an ideal appendage to the Kelly/Gyllenhaal track on the original disc.

Donnie Darko: Production Diary

This 52-minute documentary is a wonderful fly-on-the-wall piece, that documents the entire shoot from the crew’s perspective (in chronological order, no less). It includes production obstacles like location scouting, production design, preparing shots and the general day-to-day running of a movie. We get to see several scenes being shot, and hangout with the cast (proving just how bizarre Mr. Gyllenhaal really is). If this wasn’t enough, the entire diary comes with optional commentary by director of photography Stephen Poster, who possesses a great knowledge of this landmark production.


“They Made Me Do It Too: The Cult of Donnie Darko” is a UK-produced affair, that I never expected to see on the American release. It attempts to sum-up why the film was treated more passionately in Britain, yet doesn’t offer a concrete conclusion (most of the contributors assert that Americans are too dumb to “get it”). Featuring interviews with fans and media folk, it has some interesting comments, yet isn’t too well-produced. A mildly diverting featurette, that goes on for longer than it probably should.

“Storyboard to Screen” chronicles 8-minutes of the film. In a split screen, storyboards are compared with footage from the finished article. The 13-minute “#1 Fan: A Darkumentary” is a throwaway piece, but fun all the same. In 2004, held a competition to find the most obsessive Donnie Darko fan on the planet. He’s included here, in a documentary that shows how scary a geek can be. His love for the film goes pretty deep, let me tell you...

Last but not least, is the “Director’s Cut” theatrical trailer.

The Bottom Line

The cult of Donnie Darko is a force to be reckoned with, and most of those fans will already own this longer - and weaker - cut of the film. Naturally, I’d recommend the original version to anyone new to Richard Kelly’s subversive masterpiece. The disc from Fox is a bit of a let-down, and fails in comparison to Metrodome’s deluxe treatment. Despite this, the film is still highly enjoyable, making one long for Kelly’s follow-up - the mysterious Southland Tales...

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