Donnie Darko is one of those movies I watched and rewatched endlessly during college. The small, but bold, tale of a troubled young man saving his family and friends spoke to me in ways I don’t quite recall 15 years later. I just know I loved it. However, rewatching the director’s cut of the film (released on DVD in 2004), I found that connection much less potent.
Donnie Darko is a 2001 cult film written and directed by Richard Kelly. It stars Jake Gyllenhaal has the title character, a disturbed suburban high school student who, one day, mysteriously avoids a fatal accident of a jet engine falling through his room. Donnie soon begins to have visions of a giant bunny rabbit who tells him the world will end in about 26 days. So, in that time, he tries to piece together his mental state, the state of his community, his family and more.
Watching Donnie Darko again, the first things that jumped out were all the small roles played by now more famous people. Seth Rogen is in there, as one of the bullies. Ashley Tisdale makes a small appearance in a scene. Even Maggie Gyllenhaal has a role. That’s how removed from my mind Donnie Darko had become. My memories of this movie predated Maggie Gyllenhaal’s fame.
Then there were the lines of dialogue that brought back pings of nostalgia. (The Smurfs discussion, Sparkle Motion, “Chut up”). Kelly’s musical choices (Tears for Fears in particular, but also Mad World). Plus the wonderful design of Frank the Bunny. And yet, despite these things, this version of the movie didn’t come together the same way that I remember it doing when I was 21.
Maybe I’m just more jaded. Maybe I’ve matured as a cinema watcher. Or maybe The director’s cut simply isn’t as good. But Kelly’s narrative, where Donnie performs the heroic act of self-sacrifice to save his town and everyone in it, somehow didn’t feel as clear this time, even when this specific edit makes things much more explicit.
The director’s cut of Donnie Darko has about 20 minutes of extra footage in it, most of which are minor character moments. There’s also the major addition of huge chunks of text that lay the groundwork for Donnie’s research into time travel. These very direct and obvious scenes remove some of the wonder that a viewer had in 2001 watching the theatrical cut. In fact, they prevent the film from being a text that the viewer could read into whatever they wanted. In the past, I remember thinking, “Maybe Donnie’s actually a superhero. Maybe he’s a time traveller. Maybe he’s in a parallel dimension.” Almost all of it could fit into Kelly’s original framework. But in this version of the film, you are almost forced to put very specific pieces into a singular puzzle. And it feels less magical as a result.
The ideas in the film remain fascinating. A teenager struggling not just with being a teenage, but mental issues and the idea he has some special role in the universe. Then that role that includes time travel, wormholes, and all the awesome theories that go along with them. Kelly’s script is set in 1988, but it has a late nineties, self-aware, cynical tone to it. Donnie and his friends have their Quentin Tarantino/Kevin Smith inspired pop culture conversations, the cast features several Eighties stars (Patrick Swayze and producer Drew Barrymore) and the way that slow motion turns into sped-up motion, all result in some super cool scenes.
But, during this rewatch, those parts didn’t quite live up to the whole. Donnie Darko has lots to say about lots of things (among them religion, Americana and mental health) and the story is certainly well-paced. But when it ends, I was disappointed that I didn’t watch the theatrical cut. That cut, the one I grew up with, truly made me want to dive deep into all the mystery and minutiae of the film. This time, I felt like I had all the answers I needed. Either that, or the film just hasn’t aged well.
Either way, it’s still impossible not to be amazed by Kelly’s ambition and audacity here. Not to be stunned by Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance. Or delighted by the sick, twisted sense of humor that permeates the movie. But there’s also no doubt, in 2016, that Donnie Darko looks like the work of a very young, evolving filmmaker whose best work (we’d hoped) was ahead of him. It’s a film that will forever be linked to a specific time and place—smack in the middle of the independent-filmmaking boom—but one that hasn’t quite grown to transcend it. At least, not the director’s cut.