[17 February 2005]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
Panama is a friendly country. I went down there and talked to the president of Panama about cleaning up their money laundering. And Mr. Noriega was there, but there was no evidence at that time. And when the evidence was there, we indicted him.
—George H.W. Bush, TV news in Donnie Darko
I think part of the idea behind the Director’s Cut was to enhance the science fiction/comic book narrative.
—Richard Kelly, commentary, Donnie Darko: Director’s Cut
—Cherita Chen (Jolene Purdy), Donnie Darko
The Donnie Darko saga continues. Since its initial theatrical release just after September 11 (when no one knew quite how to spin the airplane disaster that initiates one plot strand), Richard Kelly’s magical movie has drawn increasing numbers of converts. This from a couple of platformy re-releases, the DVD’s impressive sales, and the film’s continued use for art house midnight shows. In other words, it was making money, and that made distributors eager to get a piece of it. The latest exploitation and extrapolation is the Director’s Cut, some 21 minutes longer and first released to theaters in 2004 and now available on a two-disc DVD set. For some movies, all this re-releasing and remixing be simply too much. For Donnie Darko, however, the too-muchness seems about right.
As Kevin Smith notes, the return and return again invites expectations and even limitations. “Just wait,” he says, “until you make Southlands [Kelly’s long-in-the-works next movie] and the cult of Donnie Darko comes after you for not making Donnie Darko again.” This coming from a filmmaker who would know. At the same time, though, Donnie Darko is that rare movie that anticipates and outstrips potential cultish love. It’s that good, that strange, and that flexible as an ever-opening, pleasurably complex text (which incorporates secondary material from the website as well as deleted scenes from the first DVD). If you’re inclined to feel worried for Kelly, don’t. As Smith also notes, “This is one of the only indie movies I’ve seen that really swung for the fucking fences… in a way that it’s kind of intimidating… There’s a lot more going on in your movie than in any of the shit I’ve ever done.”
The crazy part is that Smith’s gushy admiration fits. Not many movies might stand up under the scrutiny applied to this one (including the sheer number of repeat and, okay, overly invested viewers), as well as provide two versions that work fine apart and together. Aside from the smart, often provocative conversation between Kelly and Smith, the Director’s Cut DVD provides enough appropriately quirky and mildly informative extras to make it dissimilar again from the DC theatrical release, including (on the second disc) a production diary with intelligent commentary by Director of Photography Steven Poster; “They Made Me Do It Too: The Cult Of Donnie Darko” (in the U.K.); and a “Darkomentary” (concerning a “Number One Fan”).
The problem embodied by Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal) is at once mundane and painfully special, the dilemma of fate vs. free will, laced though with questions of identity and responsibility. A dense consideration of what you can’t know, about conceptual layers and philosophical loop-de-loops, time travel modules bursting from chests in Abyss-like fx tubes, the movie is framed and reframed by the Director’s Cut commentary, becoming another sort of movie than the first-ish version. And this was, in turn, different from the festival version, in terms of structure, explication, and soundtrack options, as INXS’ “Never Tear Us Apart”—accompanying Donnie’s first (or last) early morning bike-flight from the hilltop—proved too expensive following a Sundance premiere to be included in the first release, and is now reinstated to its rightful, incredible opening slot: “I was standing. / You were there. / Two worlds collided. / And they could never tear us apart.” The weird thing is that both this track and the one that famously replaced it, Echo and the Bunnymen’s “The Killing Moon,” is equally perfect, and different enough in tone and energy to change subtly the film that follows it. (For specific listings on what things might “mean” in Donnie Darko, see Dan Kois’ helpful “Cliffs Notes” in Salon.
Donnie’s other, non bike-ride, journey—his route out of high school, and really, high school movies—takes a ridiculous, fascinating shape, based in what Kelly terms a perpetual movement in time and between a primary universe and a tangent universe (“If a Tangent Universe occurs,” reads Grandma Death’s book, The Philosophy of Time Travel (some pages printed on screen for the DC), “it will be highly unstable, sustaining life for no longer than several weeks”; “Look at you just putting up words on a screen,” observes Smith, “Very cinematic, dude! That’s what people like to do, go to the movies and read”). Submerged in the burbs of Middlesex, Virginia in 1988, or more precisely, in the month before the Bush-Dukakis election, Donnie’s increasing frustration follows on the inevitable failure of Reagan’s “morning in America,” hopes dashed or further deluded, twisted back into the ever-self-perpetuating status quo. Anticipating its own precise moment of entry into the public consciousness (part of it anyway), Donnie Darko depicts fears of every kind of invasion, from without and within.
Depressed, sleepwalking, likely schizophrenic, Donnie is seeing things, from the 1988 presidential campaign (Bush and Dukakis) all over tv to a fellow named Frank (James Duval), who wears grimly gray rabbit suit and instructs him in flooding the school basement and burning down houses. Frank also alerts Donnie to the imminent end of the world, complete with a date and down-to-the-minute time. The remaining days are marked by intertitles, intimating Donnie’s sense of urgency as well as his distance from the rest of the world around him, including his parents Rose (Mary McDonnell, whom Smith, a man after my own heart, repeatedly calls Stands With a Fist) and Eddie (Holmes Osborne), sisters Samantha (Daveigh Chase) and Elizabeth (Maggie Gyllenhaal), and his potential but maybe-never girlfriend, new neighbor Gretchen (Jena Malone).
The political parable is wrapped up as well in teen movie conventions, science fiction, and tangents that are not quite (Smith and Kelly discuss for one instance the character Cherita Chen [Jolene Purdy], whom Kelly describes as his take on Fargo‘s Mike Yanagita [Steve Park], a character who seems superfluous but provides crucial commentary and framing on the film’s themes—hope, desire, time travel, sacrifice—and indeed, Donnie’s own impossibly idealistic undertaking). As Kelly and Smith detail it for the DC’s commentary, the film also takes up a comic book mythology (apart from tv’s Smurfs): a jet engine plummets from the sky—a future sky, a tangent sky, an alternative universe of sky (what Smith identifies as an “Earth 2” plot dimension), setting up the occasion of Donnie’s choice—he will sacrifice himself in order to save those he loves, an extraordinary act of desire and will in spite and because of his overwhelming teen trauma—all too regular and all too much at the same time.
Donnie lives with an unremitting sense of menace, and this is the film’s greatest insight and intricacy, its understanding of fear as a matter of daily life—one you live with, rather than triumph over. Among the film’s more banal (and so, awful) dangers is the self-absorbed, child-abusing life coach Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze), local celeb and odious impresario behind a lucrative series of self-help videos that reduce all human experience to the poles of fear and love, each new product pimped by gym teacher and coach for the girls’ expressive dance team, Miss Kittie Farmer (Beth Grant).
Donnie sees through Jim—and Kittie, for that matter—and makes it his mission to expose and thwart the man’s toxic underlife. Jim and Kittie’s dire meanness (in the sense of smallness as well as selfishness and malevolence) takes broad, subtle, and tacky forms—the porn, the self-help lectures, the dance team, Sparkle Motion, which features Samantha, that is bound eventually for Star Search, with sequined leotards and an elaborate routine to the tune of Duran Duran’s “Notorious.” While Jim takes nasty, petty aim at Donnie, the boys is caught up on another, seemingly benevolent end by his sessions with his out-of-her-depth shrink, Lillian Thurman (Katharine Ross). When she decides to try hypnotherapy with him, as if getting inside his head is possible or desirable: during one session, the apparently entranced Donnie begins to masturbate in front of her and she’s so horrified and embarrassed that she can’t continue.
At once an unhinged kid and moral center amid the chaos of everyday life, the youthfully courageous Donnie—ablush with his newfound affection for Gretchen—can’t know that the foiling of evil is always only temporary, that the Franks and the Jim Cunninghams endure. This much is understood by the cynical, slightly edgy adults at Donnie’s school, namely science teacher Dr. Monnitoff (Noah Wyle), who turns him on to the 101-year-old Rebecca Sparrow/Grandma Death (Patience Cleveland), the very one who wrote the time travel book; and English teacher Ms. Pomeroy (Drew Barrymore), who’s busted for teaching Graham Greene’s “The Destructors” in class (and perhaps inspiring the arson of Jim’s home, revealing his “kiddie porn dungeon”). Both mentors offer up “clues,” as Kelly terms them, means for Donnie to figure out his place, or more aptly, his movement through. In Grandma
Though other folks fear death and fear change, Donnie comes to see in death—and in Grandma Death, as much as she represents his portal—not an end or source of fear, but life, rhythm, and hope. Specifically, he sees the frightening force of memory and the promise of the future, the circles of time that envelope anyone able to understand and appreciate. If the old cut of the film never explains Donnie’s darkness (and the DC does so partially), it does offer him up for reading, as the screen on which so many viewers might see themselves. He’s a kid, lost forever in his kidness, never pulled inside adult rationality (or even knowing the outcome of the 1988 election, much less 9/11). Instead, he’s always searching for that connection between himself and the life throbbing all around him. He thinks he’s an alien, a lost soul, but you know better.