Blu-ray Review: Donnie Darko (2001) – Limited Edition

Donnie Darko BR CoverDistributor: Arrow Video

BBFC Classification: 15

Director: Richard Kelly

Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Mary McDonnell, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Patrick Swayze, Arthur Taxier, Drew Barrymore

Every decade has its defining movies and during the post-millennial fallout, when nobody was sure what would happen to the internet and the computers controlling our way of life, there were a plethora of movies that tapped into the collective subconscious and tried to relay our fears back at us in an often surreal and non-linear fashion. David Fincher’s Fight Club helped usher in the new century by changing the rules on straightforward storytelling and in 2001 Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko gained a similar reputation, particularly with younger teenage audiences, and picked up a huge cult following, despite bombing at the box office.

I first saw Donnie Darko when it was released on video here in the UK after it was recommended to me by a friend, although it came with the warning that the film may not make total sense. And so it was with a bit of trepidation that on a bright Saturday afternoon I drew the curtains and sat down to immerse myself in this movie I had heard so much about, and quite frankly, once it was over I was ready to tell my friend where to stick his Donnie Darko. The film opened with a young Jake Gyllenhaal (Brokeback Mountain), seemingly a normal teenager, riding his bike home to a 1980’s pop/rock soundtrack; an opening normally reserved for teen/young adult dramas that usually go down certain paths about life as a kid and how the pressures of growing up make you feel the world is against you. Donnie Darko does have that particular plot thread woven into its multi-layered fabric but it isn’t necessarily the meat of the matter, and soon we learn that Donnie (Gyllenhaal) has not taken his medication, something which makes his mother mad and forces her to confront her son in his room, where she is swiftly told to get out. Why does Donnie need medication? We don’t know at this stage but we do know that he is seeing a therapist and that he has visions of a six-foot-tall rabbit named Frank who tells him that the world is going to end in 28 days. While Frank is telling this to Donnie, a jet engine from a plane lands on Donnie’s house but as Donnie was sleepwalking he was nowhere near the danger. While their house is being repaired the Darko’s stay at a hotel, and life seemingly carries on, with the slightly quirky Donnie even landing a girlfriend.

So far, so… well, not exactly thrilling but you know there is something bubbling under the surface; Donnie seems to be losing his grip on reality as his school teachers start to turn on each other, Donnie becomes interested in time travel and a book on the subject that was written by a senile old neighbour and local life coach Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze – Dirty Dancing) – whom Donnie called out for being a fake during a school presentation – being arrested for inappropriate behaviour with school children. And while this is all going on Donnie is still seeing Frank, who seems to be preparing him for the upcoming event, and when it hits – well, you have to watch it to try and make sense of it all.

Which I did way back when, and I have no shame in admitting that I had no idea what the film was about. I was told that there were websites set up where you could look at all the events and details in the film and be given a clue as to what it all meant but I was of the opinion that if I have to look elsewhere to make sense of a movie then the filmmaker can’t have done his job very well, and so it was with bitter disappointment that I left Donnie Darko in that basement at the back of my memory marked ‘Millennial Nonsense’ and locked the door. And now, in 2016, Arrow Video have put together a limited edition Blu-ray set so it was time once again to open that vault and see if the older, wiser, more movie savvy me could make sense of it after so much time had passed.

And the answer is… no, I couldn’t. However, I’m not so sure that this is a movie that demands you make sense of it and after sitting down to watch the Director’s Cut I came away still none the wiser as to what writer/director Richard Kelly was really trying to say but felt somewhat at peace with that conclusion. To be fair, the Director’s Cut did make a little more narrative sense than the shorter Theatrical Cut (also included in the set) and watching it this time I was able to pinpoint certain events in the timeline and see how they related to other things but as a story – with a beginning, a middle and an end – there is still very little here. Perhaps that is the point and Richard Kelly was really just trying to set up a series of events that occur around a central character with no real objective than to try and quantify the emotions and confusions that comes with growing up with mental illness, leaving the conclusion down to your own interpretation. Perhaps not, but whatever the intention, Donnie Darko has managed to stand the test of time as a post-millennium enigma that will continue to pick up fans and detractors alike, being both imaginative, intriguing, amusing and just downright weird but never uninteresting or boring.

So overall, I really couldn’t tell you if Donnie Darko is any good as it really is down to your own interpretation as to what you get out of it. What I can say is that the film is very much the definition of a cult movie, largely ignored by the mainstream and finding its own audience on home entertainment formats via word of mouth, and this comprehensive set is pretty much the defining article when it comes to content. As previously stated, this limited edition dual-format set contains both cuts of the movie on DVD and Blu-ray with a whole stack of extras to try and help you navigate Donnie’s mind, although whether the commentaries and interviews are any help or just confuse things even further is, like the movie itself, up to the individual. However, in terms of picture quality the film has been tidied up a bit but doesn’t really feel like the Blu-ray transfer has done the film many favours. Granted, it isn’t really an effects film but there are a lot of lighting techniques used that don’t really pay off as well as they could have thanks to some muddy edge definition and a grainy image. The audio is greatly improved and, like most movies with a pop/rock soundtrack, a decent surround sound system comes in handy to get the full effect, and coming in a picturesque box with new artwork cannot hurt its value amongst collectors either (a standard Blu-ray set is coming in January if you miss out on this one), but ultimately, did I enjoy the film this time around? I still don’t know but I didn’t hate it, so perhaps ‘appreciate’ would be a better word.

Donnie Darko

Special Features: Audio commentary by writer/director Richard Kelly and actor Jake Gyllenhaal on the Theatrical Cut, audio commentary by Richard Kelly, producer Sean McKittrick and actors Drew Barrymore, Jena Malone, Beth Grant, Mary McDonnell, Holmes Osborne, Katharine Ross and James Duval on the Theatrical Cut, audio commentary by Richard Kelly and filmmaker Kevin Smith on the Director’s Cut, brand new interviews with cast and crew, The Goodbye Place short film, The Donnie Darko Production Diary archival documentary charting the films production with optional commentary by cinematographer Steven Poster, deleted and alternate scenes with optional commentary by Richard Kelly, archive interviews with Richard Kelly, actors Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Drew Barrymore, James Duval, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Holmes Osborne, Noah Wyle and Katharine Ross, producers Sean McKittrick, Nancy Juvonen, Hunt Lowry and Casey La Scala, and cinematographer Steven Poster, archive featurettes, storyboard comparisons, B-roll footage, infomercials, music video, galleries, trailers, TV spots, exclusive collector’s book containing new writing by Nathan Rabin, Anton Bitel and Jamie Graham, an in-depth interview with Richard Kelly, introduction by Jake Gyllenhaal and contemporary coverage, illustrated with original stills and promotional materials, limited edition packaging featuring new artwork by Candice Tripp.

UK Release Date: 12th December 2016

Arrow Films – Website

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