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Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Sean Kelly

Revisiting Donnie Darko - Ten Years Later

It's a very special revisiting post for you today.  Ten years ago today, I finally saw Richard Kelly's Donnie Darko for the first time after months of trying.  The film was a victim somewhat of 9/11, in which it was essentially buried during its original theatrical release in October 2001.  It wasn't until it was released on home video that it began to find an audience and it can arguably be considered the first real cult film of the 21st century.  I still consider Donnie Darko to be my all-time favourite film and I look forward to revisiting the original theatrical cut of the film for this post.  As always, there may be SPOILERS during this discussion.

Let's begin...

I first found out about Donnie Darko when it was highlighted as a recommendation on the Internet Movie Database.  The film was only released on 58 screens theatrically, since an element of the film, involving a plane engine crashing into a house, resulted in film getting essentially buried in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks.  I was very interested in seeing the film, however it sadly never got a theatrical release in Canada.  It was quietly released on home video in March 2002, however it would be another four months before I would see the film, since Blockbuster Video's only copy of the film would always be checked out.  I finally managed to rent the film (on VHS) on July 31, 2002 and I was looking forward to finally seeing the film.

I'll readily admit that I did not love Donnie Darko on the first viewing.  In fact, I was almost prepared to just shrug it off.  The film doesn't finish off with much closure and I was somewhat confused by the final shot of the film, which left me dumbstruck.  Despite the underwhelming feeling I had, I felt the need to delve into the plot of the film and try to decipher it.  A huge help in this regard was the film's official website.  Unlike most movie websites, which are a glorified ad for the film, this website actually expands the plot of the film and reveals information about what happened to the characters after the events of the film.  Most importantly, it featured excerpts from the "History of Time Travel" book featured in the film, which is a huge key to understanding the film.  Let it be said, that I liked the film a lot more on repeat viewings.

It would probably take me hours for me to fully explain Donnie Darko's plot.  However, in very basic terms, a plane engine was sucked into a wormhole and sent back in time.  Donnie Darko's goal is to ensure that the events are put into place, so that the engine goes through the wormhole when the time comes, otherwise it would cause a paradox and the world would end.

It's definitely very much a science fiction plot and the director's cut of the film makes this fact very obvious.  However, the theatrical cut, which is the version I rewatched, is much more ambiguous in this regard.  I was actually expecting Donnie Darko to be more of a horror film, based on the way it was marketed.  However, while there are still many horror elements within the film (Frank the Rabbit is still quite frightening), I don't think the film can fit into any one genre.  In addition to the horror and sci-fi elements, Donnie Darko can also be seen as a family drama and a 1980s teen comedy.  In fact, the dark humour of the film is probably one of my favourite elements (the debate about the sex lives of Smurfs still gets me laughing).

The film has two great musical montage sequences.  The first is a high school montage, set to the Tears for Fears song "Head Over Heals," which serves to introduce us to the majority of the main characters in, what appears to be, a single continuous shot.  The second montage involves Gary Jules' cover of Mad World (also a Tears for Fears song), which shows us all the characters after the plane engine was successfully sent back in time.

The Mad World montage is actually one of the most poignant scenes in the film, since it demonstrates that everyone still has lingering memories of the events of the film, even though they have technically not yet happened.  This is why the character of Gretchen would wave at Donnie Darko's mother in the final shot of the film, which initially left me dumbstruck.

I should probably talk a bit about the cast of the film.  This film could arguably be seen as the breakout film for Jake Gyllenhaal, who went on to be a big star in the years following.  It's almost ironic that the role originally went to Jason Schwartzman.  The film was also a pre-breakout role for Gyllenhaal's older sister Maggie, who became well-known for the film Secretary, released just a year later.  This was also one of the final major film roles of Patrick Swayze, who died of cancer in 2009.  Also, keep an eye out for a pre-fame Seth Rogen, who plays one of the two high school bullies.

Donnie Darko was one of the first cult films of the 21st century and I am proud to be among the first to praise the film, before it became more well-known in the mainstream.  I bought Donnie Darko as my very first DVD about a month after I first saw it.  It was very hard to find at that time and the DVD cost me about $50.  It would be on sale a year later for $12.

I would probably have to say that Donnie Darko first started to really take off when it was released in the UK in the fall of 2002.  In fact, a documentary about "the cult of Donnie Darko" featured on the director's cut DVD has British fans, somewhat arrogantly, stating that they probably understood the film more than people in North America (that statement somewhat annoyed me).

The Director's Cut of the film was released in 2004 and restored some deleted scenes and music selections that were too expensive before.  Like I said earlier, this cut heavily emphasizes the sci-fi elements of the story and removes much of the ambiguity, especially since excerpts from "The History of Time Travel" are now shown on screen.  I like both cuts of the film, but I do have to agree that I would recommend the theatrical cut for people watching the film for the first time.

Well, that ends my retrospective on Donnie Darko.  I am happy to say that I still very much love the film all these years later (though I'm past the point where I have to watch the film on a monthly basis).  I am still holding out hope that I will one day have the chance to finally see Donnie Darko theatrically (perhaps in a future Bell Lightbox series).

I will end with a photo taken at my very first Fan Expo in 2009, where I got to meet James Duval, who played Frank the Rabbit in the film:

28 days... 6 hours... 42 minutes... 12 seconds. That... is when the world... will end.

Sean Kelly

About Sean Kelly -

Sean Patrick Kelly is a self-described ├╝ber-geek, who has been an avid film lover for all his life. He graduated from York University in 2010 with an honours B.A. in Cinema and Media Studies and he likes to believe he knows what he’s talking about when he writes about film (despite occasionally going on pointless rants).