October, 1988. The Reagan era is drawing to a close while life continues as normal for the residents of Middlesex, Virginia – well, as normal as the life of Donald Darko can get. Having narrowly avoided being crushed by a disembodied jet engine falling from the sky, Donnie's begun to experience disturbing visions of a sinister-looking 6-foot bunny rabbit named Frank, who tells him that the world will end in 28 days. Already suffering from psychiatric problems, high-schooler Donnie appears to become ever more detached from reality, carrying out Frank’s increasingly destructive wishes much to the concern of his therapist and further alienating his family. But with the arrival of an intriguing new girl at school Donnie feels the first flush of young love, and after coming across an old book detailing the intricacies of time travel he realises that there may be method in his madness...
Sometimes a film comes along with such a distinct, well-rounded vision that it’s hard to believe it didn’t always exist, that it was just sitting there on the celluloid waiting to be exposed all along, and Richard Kelly's Donnie Darko is one such movie. Sporting a superb ensemble cast, a cracking roster of ‘80s pop hits, authentic widescreen visuals and a head-scratching plot, Kelly’s feature debut still dazzles some 15 years later. Seen as a hot property in Hollywood before the theatrical release ultimately fizzled out, it took a critical re-evaluation in the UK to bring it back to the attention of film-goers and to give it the recognition it so richly deserved. Kelly wrote and directed the picture aged just 26, imbuing it with the kind of bold confidence in its storytelling and complete faith in its concept that’s often seen in the best indie debuts, and while Kelly has only worked sporadically since (2006’s Southland Tales and 2009’s The Box, both critical and commercial disasters) it will be no shame to have only one great film on his C.V., for how many of us mere mortals can lay claim to the same?
One of Donnie Darko’s greatest assets is that it feels so lived-in, that we’re just peeking into these characters’ lives which will go on long after we’ve left them, which is testament to both the attentive writing and the wondrous casting. Jake Gyllenhaal was yet to become a star but his ease in front of the camera is obvious as the troubled Donnie, and recruiting his real-life sister Maggie as his on-screen sibling was a stroke of genius as there’s a connection between them that clearly transcends the words on the page. Their parents are played by the reliable Holmes Osborne as Donnie’s affable dad and Mary McDonnell as his frustrated mother, with executive producer Drew Barrymore snaffling a role as Donnie’s teacher whose methods are too progressive for the more puritanical bent of this small-town faculty. While Beth Grant plays to type as one of these over-zealous teachers she’s absolutely perfect for the role, which is contrasted by the enlisting of Patrick Swayze playing very much against type as a slimy motivational speaker who's hiding a dark secret. E.R. favourite Noah Wyle also pops up as one of Donnie’s teachers, with Jena Malone as a new classmate of Donnie’s with her own problems. Katherine Ross (of The Graduate and Butch Cassidy... fame) adds some vintage Hollywood class as Donnie's therapist.
Another of the film’s core strengths is that it doesn’t set out to explain everything to the viewer, instead dropping clues like a trail of temporal breadcrumbs as the story gradually takes shape, taking care to maintain the notion that Donnie may simply be crazy whilst weaving the various threads together to reach a finale that’s as strangely satisfying as it is bittersweet. Kelly released a longer Director’s Cut in 2004 which sought to clarify these threads yet further, introducing on-screen excerpts of the ‘Philosophy of Time Travel’ book which so fascinates Donnie in the film, along with other beats that make it quite clear that Donnie really is experiencing these events. Some cheesy electronic-looking interstitials of an all-seeing-eye were also added which makes the later DC seem more dated somehow, as odd as that sounds for a film that’s a period piece anyway. It may well be argued that the DC is very much a ‘hand-holding’ edition of the film but it adds some lovely extra character material as well, particularly between Donnie’s parents and him, and Kelly is clearly fond of those scenes which he had to remove when tightening up the film for the original theatrical release. He also changed around some of the music, moving Echo and the Bunnymen’s The Killing Moon from the very start of the film to the party scene, with INXS’ Never Tear Us Apart becoming our new introduction.
The music – both song and score – is virtually another character in the film, Kelly not using the pop hits from the likes of Tears for Fears and Joy Division simply because they’re cool (and bear in mind this was way before the ‘80s became as retro-chic as it is now) but as part of the storytelling, the tunes and their lyrics being metered out to accompany certain parts of the film. The aforementioned opening scene with its two different pieces of music depending on the version of the film are both smartly observed in their placement, with the car of a certain someone passing Donnie on his bicycle at just the right point in each song. And then there’s Michael Andrews’ score itself, populated alternately with simple piano arrangements and brooding, atonal pieces that blur the line between score and effects, which when contrasted with each other convey something of the transition of youthful innocence to the darker realities of adult life. It culminates with Gary Jules’ haunting rendition of Mad World, which may have been vastly overplayed to UK viewers' ears but still works brilliantly over the awakening montage at the end of the film.
As with so many films centred around a teenage protagonist it’s easy to read Donnie Darko as being a coming of age story, of a young man grappling with his demons and ultimately taking responsibility of his life, with the focus on the elemental forces of fire and water (the latter a constant motif throughout the film) as a metaphor for the powerful adolescent urges we all shared at some point. It’s also a love letter to the ‘80s, with the usage of the music, the anamorphic photography and the backdrop of the 1988 Presidential election evoking a feeling of nostalgia that’s sweet but which doesn’t overwhelm the film with spurious pop culture references, the discussion of The Smurfs’ sexual orientation aside. And the moment when four of the kids take off down the street on their bikes with a Halloween party in the background is an affectionate doff of the cap towards Steven Spielberg’s E.T., though the film seeks to deconstruct what it means to be a hero rather than blindly gravitate towards the usual binary depictions of good and evil. Ultimately Donnie Darko is one of those films upon which your reading will vary according to the baggage you bring to it, being able to refract the viewing experience in a number of different ways (which the DC both adds and detracts from, enriching certain character interactions whilst removing some of the mystery of the story) and for that it is a movie to be treasured.
Arrow Films acquired the licence to Donnie Darko after the previous rights holder Metrodome were placed into administration in the summer of 2016, and they’ve been busy beavering away on a brand new edition of this cult classic. Remastered in 4K from the original camera negative, this exclusive restoration will initially be released by Arrow Video in a limited edition 4-disc dual format Blu-ray/DVD edition with exclusive 100-page booklet on December 12th, and a standalone Blu-ray sans fancy packaging will follow on the 9th of January 2017. FYI just the two Blu-ray discs were provided for review, and they are most definitely locked to region B.
Both versions of the movie – the original theatrical version and the Director’s Cut – have been given the 4K treatment with the supervision and approval of Richard Kelly and the cinematographer Steven Poster. Kelly pushed to shoot in anamorphic widescreen, an unusual choice for an independent production owing to the extra time it takes to light (anamorphic being slower than spherical glass) though it was certainly not unheard of as John Carpenter made a career out of anamorphic, and Wes Anderson’s own indie love affair with it began in 1998 with Rushmore. Poster saw his chance to use Kodak’s highest-speed film stock as a means of circumventing the lighting issue, which was crucial on such a low-budget production (circa $4.5 million) with a typically packed shooting schedule (28 days). While it was an extremely grainy emulsion, the 800 ASA stock was much more sensitive to light as a result, which significantly reduced the amount of illumination that would typically be needed to expose 35mm anamorphic, and Poster also employed filters to soften the image ever so slightly and create a subtle amount of halation on the highlights.
Arrow’s restoration is presented here in 1080p HD in the original 2.35 widescreen aspect, and the movie’s unique photography has in all likelihood never looked this good, not even during its original run. Grain is ever-present but never intrusive, with the usage of anamorphic also being a canny way to offset the intense graininess of the stock because it uses the full height of the 4-perf 35mm frame and is then squeezed down into 2.35 for exhibition, thereby compressing the grain itself into a less coarser form. Fine detail shines on this new transfer, revealing a layer of minutiae hitherto unseen on prior Blu-ray editions like Jake Gyllenhaal’s contact lenses during the close-ups of his eyes. The new scan is rock steady and has been diligently scrubbed of dirt and scratches, with the image retaining a thoroughly film-like countenance and the delicate blooming around brighter highlights comes across beautifully (if you occasionally see a ghostly reflection in the image it’s simply the light being reflected off of the filter). The colour is also represented with accuracy as this hasn’t been re-graded with today’s heavy blue/gold bias and it looks very much like the Darko you’ll remember. Skin tones are intentionally quite subdued (this supposedly being the East Coast rather than the sunnier climes of L.A. where it was actually shot!) and there's generally a cooler emphasis to the colour palette though primaries still look good and healthy, like the green of the golf course or Frank’s red Corvette. Densities are also handled impeccably, with solid blacks that still retain plenty of depth to shadows.
Each cut of the movie has been given its own disc to maximise bitrate (averaging 35 Mb/s), but they both share much of the same source so the bulk of the picture quality is indistinguishable between them. The additional scenes for the Director’s Cut have been assembled from negative wherever possible and mostly look identical to the main feature, with only the shot of Donnie and Gretchen in the field coming across as a bit fuzzier and noisier. The AVC encodes themselves are quite superb, managing the grainy source with what appears to be consummate ease and offering up no signs of banding or blocking or aliasing or other artefacts. The picture quality will not win any fans from a purely objective standpoint as this is not ultra-crisp eye-candy with which to wow your friends and neighbours (something that people expect whenever the magic ‘4K’ designation is banded about) but it IS a supremely faithful restoration that lays waste to every prior Blu-ray edition of the film and is still deserving of the highest marks as a result. Arrow are putting in world-class work of late, and I don't say that lightly. What's so satisfying is that the quality is being maintained throughout the chain, i.e. they're not putting in the hard yards with an extensive restoration only to balls it up at the encoding stage.
For the audio we’re given a lossless DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio 5.1 track for both cuts of the film and these are the original mixes for their respective editions, Kelly having taken the opportunity in 2004 to tweak the mix for the Director’s Cut and to change around some music cues. Both mixes share the same traits of strong dialogue reproduction and a punchy representation of the songs used in the soundtrack, along with Frank’s disembodied voice booming from the rear speakers, but in certain scenes they diverge. Take the very beginning of the film: both versions start with an ominous rumbling of thunder but the sound of the birds twittering as we approach Donnie are very different, with a few isolated chirps in the theatrical but there's a positive murmuration of trills and warbles in the DC, which also sound more ethereal and other-worldly. The scene of the jet engine crashing into the house is also mixed differently, sounding more impactful in the theatrical with a jolting thud of bass and plenty of creaking and groaning of wood in the rear speakers, but in the DC the impact is slightly less impressive and the creaking rears cut in a few beats later, which distracts from the sound of Maggie Gyllenhaal’s breathing as the chandelier sways and the scene fades out. The foley effects are also dialled way down in the DC during Donnie's cycle down the hillside at the start of the film so it’s practically just the INXS song playing, whereas the theatrical has more of a balance of music and effects. Little differences like this persist throughout the films, but overall they both have very effective and involving audio presentations.
In terms of extras we’ve got an embarrassment of riches, as Donnie Darko wasn’t light on special features to begin with. The extant material includes three audio commentaries (two on the theatrical cut, one for the Director’s Cut), a 52-minute Production Diary with optional commentary from Steven Poster, twenty Deleted & Alternate Scenes with optional commentary from Richard Kelly, archival EPK Interviews with cast and crew, three archival featurettes (They Made Me Do It, They Made Me Do It Too and #1 Fan: A Darkomentary), Storyboard Comparisons, on-set B-Roll Footage, the Cunning Visions Informercials (with hilarious spoof commentary from the “CEO” of Cunning Visions, and watch when Jim hugs the boy, his hand lingers downstairs just a bit too long), the music video for Gary Jules’ Mad World, a Stills Gallery, two Trailers (one for the theatrical, one for the Director’s Cut) and some TV Spots.
Full marks to Arrow for collating all of that, but they’ve still got a couple of aces up their sleeve. Included on the theatrical cut disc is a brand new 85-minute documentary titled Deus ex Machina: The Philosophy of Donnie Darko plus a 1996 short by Richard Kelly called The Goodbye Place. The new documentary makes a welcome change from the separate arrangement of talking heads that’s currently in vogue for new special features, as being able to cut from one person to another provides a welcome amount of context for whatever it is they’re talking about. And this piece also fills in a gap left by other the special features, for as extensive as they are they lack historical perspective, and 15 years later the participants are able to shed new light on the film and their experiences therein. It’s a pity that more of the cast couldn’t be involved (only James Duval who played Frank is included) but considering we’ve got the producer, the writer/director, the editor, the composer and the cinematographer sharing their thoughts then the filmmaker perspective is exceedingly well represented. The short film is a decent little curio, its abstract nature recalling certain ideas and motifs which Kelly would expand upon in his feature film work.
Arrow Video have come up trumps with an absolutely stunning Blu-ray package for Donnie Darko. The film is as maddeningly mind-bending as ever and is presented by way of a wonderfully respectful 4K restoration with very good audio, and the mountainous array of special features (old and new) will surely sate even the most rabid Darko fanatics. It comes with my highest recommendation.