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Donnie Darko

by Glenn Erickson Apr 25, 2017

Many weird-world genre bending millennial epics have already dated badly, but not Richard Kelly’s sci-fi / horror / satirical mind-trip about a guy given a glimpse of time travel in another dimension. The wit hasn’t faded and the menace hasn’t cooled, and the cast seems hipper than ever: Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Mary McDonnell, Patrick Swayze, Noah Wyle, Drew Barrymore, Katharine Ross. Two versions, two formats, no waiting.

Donnie Darko
Blu-ray + DVD
Arrow Video USA
2001 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 113, 133 min. / Street Date April 18, 2017 / ( 4-Disc Limited Edition) / Available from Arrow Video 49.95
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Holmes Osborne, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Mary McDonnell, Patrick Swayze, Jena Malone, Noah Wyle, Drew Barrymore, Katharine Ross.
Cinematography: Steven Poster
Production Design: Alexander Hammond
Film Editors: Sam Bauer, Eric Strand
Original Music: Michael Andrews
Produced by Adam Fields, Nancy Juvonen, Sean McKittrick
Written and Directed by
Richard Kelly


When high school kids get into creative writing at least half the result will be ultra-morbid ‘dark visions’ of doom and horror. Ever since Batman decided to go ‘Dark,’ creepy, bad-vibe fantasy thrillers have been the norm, so much so that we expect the fate of the world to be at stake, even in stories pitched at pre-schoolers. Style-wise, Richard Kelly’s 2001 Donnie Darko has similarities with work by David Lynch and Paul Thomas Anderson — the slow pans over anguished faces with a soulful rock ballad playing. But in terms of creative accomplishment writer-director Kelly’s show still shines. You tell me it wasn’t a success? It came out one month after 9/11, when few Americans felt like spending a fun day at a movie about death falling from the sky.


Donnie Darko may at first seem the teen weird-fest of 2001, but it’s different from the ground up. Richard Kelly interprets teen mood swings & psychic disturbances as symptoms of growing up amid a jungle of oppressive values. Donnie Darko is too heartfelt and sincere to be an anything-for-effect satire. As science fiction, it can be described as a Luis Borges / Ambrose Bierce ‘alternate universe’ tale. But it could also be a page from the diary of an alienated, despairing American teen. In real life these cases are a lot scarier – when Donnie tries to explain what’s happening to him, it all sounds like the morbid manifesto of a killer kid, not a multi-dimensional savior of the world. Donnie’s eventual satisfied victory plays also as the suicide of a madman. When our hero’s new girlfriend says that Donnie’s name belongs to a superhero, he answers, “What makes you think I’m not?”

1988. Suffering from disturbing mood swings, good student Donald Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal) is in therapy with the caring Dr. Lillian Thurman (Katharine Ross). His parents Eddie and Rose (Holmes Osborne & Mary McDonnell) hope for the best, but don’t know what to think when Donnie sleepwalks at night, sometimes awakening miles from home. But Donnie’s sleepwalking saves him from a freak accident, when a jet engine falls from the sky and demolishes his bedroom. At that point Donnie’s mental disturbances become stronger. His new girlfriend Gretchen (Jena Malone) is a positive influence, but Donnie experiences visitations by Frank, a hideously grinning six-foot rabbit whose voice wills him to commit destructive acts, like flood his school. Donnie watches as his teachers allow the sleazy self-help guru Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze) to proselytize, while encouraging shallow dance competitions. Challenging teacher Karen Pomeroy (Drew Barrymore) is let go for being too controversial. Donnie’s visions include the ability to see visual projections of personal will or desire that appear to determine people’s paths. Most frighteningly, Frank tells Donnie that the world will end in just a few days, and that to save it Donnie must follow Frank’s instructions precisely.

On one level Donnie Darko is a new-age re-think of Larry Cohen’s 1976 God Told Me To. Richard Kelly’s vision of cosmic disturbances in suburbia ushers forth a great deal of dangerous content. Donnie indulges the notion that he’s on a mission to save the world, obeying a voice that wants him to wield an axe and set fires. His alienation from adult values seems justified in the presence of deluded or exploitative adult authority figures. The hideous values expressed make America seem populated by 20% raving psychos: “Rose, sometimes I doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion!”


Donnie does not have the requisite dysfunctional family, quite the opposite. His father dispenses sane advice and his mother loves him dearly. Donnie adores his sisters Samantha and Elizabeth (Daviegh Chase & Maggie Gyllenhaal). But insanity rages around him. The world is sufficiently hostile to drive anyone nuts. Gretchen comes from a family torn apart by divorce and violence. The insolence of school bullies threatens to verge on murder and rape. Even the class victim Cherita Chen (Jolene Purdy) is so badly warped, she cannot recognize goodwill when she sees it. A thoughtful science teacher (Noah Wylie) must reject Donnie’s questions about metaphysics, knowing that he could lose his job for encouraging disturbing thoughts. The proud Miss Pomeroy is considered a dangerous influence for addressing her students’ anxieties in the classroom, teaching creative writing through Graham Greene and Watership Down.

Director Kelly places Donnie squarely at the center of a paranoid paradox. The bunny-man Frank is more than a demonic alter ego; he’s fashioned vaguely after the old James Stewart film Harvey, a comedy with the whimsical theme that we should all be blissfully crazy. Donnie sometimes seems demonically possessed, dropping his chin and staring at the camera as if channeling the spirit of Norman Bates. He’s overwhelmed by the crazy coincidences and symbolic events, including his connection to a Cassandra-like senile old woman named Roberta Sparrow. She may have been waiting all her life for the apocalypse now facing Donnie.

Richard Kelly’s cast can’t be improved upon. Jake Gyllenhaal is super as Donnie, which led to him playing confused teens well into his late ‘twenties. The engaging Maggie Gyllenhaal deserved great roles and wasn’t getting them, while Jena Malone (Into the Wild, Saved!) is both intelligent and captivating. All are relaxed and in synch with Kelly’s fantasy. Patrick Swayze nails his motivational leech character, eclipsing Tom Cruise’s appalling freak in Magnolia. Holmes Osborne and Mary McDonnell are complex parental figures; dad helps Donnie cope while Mom sometimes looks on the verge of an emotional implosion — she has to interact with Kitty Farmer, the insane woman that runs Sparkle Motion. Beth Grant’s portrait of the tormented Kitty deserves a review of its own.

Donnie Darko is entertaining and mentally challenging, if unrelentingly morbid. Donnie sees himself as a doomed wacko undertaking a noble quest, but he’s also an ordinary mixed-up kid. When alone with friends he debates the sexuality of Smurfs; under hypnosis, he defines bliss as getting Hungry Hungry Hippos for Christmas. To its credit, its humanistic values are far superior to all of those Matrix– like violent empowerment fantasies. It faces the darkness head on, and transcends the usual exploitation of teen power fantasies. Naturally, something so original cannot become a blockbuster success. Donnie Darko enjoys a status much higher than the cult film ghetto but still doesn’t get the respect it deserves. I’m told that Kelly’s Southland Tales is worthwhile as well.


Arrow Video USA’s Blu-ray + DVD of Donnie Darko is an ultimate-ultimate edition of this cult favorite with a capital ‘C.’ I’ve reviewed it twice before, as a DVD in 2003 and as a Fox Blu-ray in 2009. Arrow appears to have included all of Fox’s extras, adding some of its own. A new 4K restoration has been applied equally to the extended director’s cut and the shorter theatrical version, which some still prefer. The extra twenty minutes of footage helps flesh out the mystery for this viewer. All the songs seem retained for the director’s cut, although at least one has been moved to a different place: Duran Duran, Echo and the Bunnymen and Tears for Fears.

The new extras are a feature-length making-of documentary with the participation of director Kelly and some of his crew, it has enough stories to satisfy interested parties. A Richard Kelly student film is present as well.

As is common with deluxe Arrow releases, all the extras are present on both formats. The whopping list of goodies is below; I listened to one of Kelly’s commentary tracks and found him highly likeable, wheras Jake Gyllenhaal sounds a bit worked up with tangential jokes. The other extras range from a full production diary with commentary by the cinematographer Steven Poster, to various fan videos and the film’s official music video.


The deluxe packaging comes with an attractive ninety-page hardbound book (!) of essays, by Nathan Rabin, Mark Olsen, Kevin Conroy Scott, Jamie Graham and Anton Bitei. The disc holder for the theatrical cut contains a two-sided poster, and the same pocket in the director’s cut has a replica of Donnie’s letter to Roberta Sparrow, with more artwork cards.

What’s the final word on Donnie Darko after sixteen years? I’d say the most depressing element is its politics. Donnie’s school is an absurd mess, dulled by safe-playing bureaucrats yet warped by whatever crazy ideologies are afoot. The reasonable faculty has to hide to keep from being liquidated, while a maniac zealot encourages meaningless ‘talent’ competitions and gives free school access to a predatory profiteering motivational guru. Today, none of this content seems radical or overdone in the slightest — we’re all like Mary McDonnell’s mother, sipping wine to avoid screaming out loud.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Donnie Darko
+ PAL DVD rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements (from Arrow specs): Audio commentary by writer-director Richard Kelly and actor Jake Gyllenhaal on the Theatrical Cut; Audio commentary by 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 Kelly and filmmaker Kevin Smith on the Director’s Cut; Deus ex Machina: The Philosophy of Donnie Darko, a brand-new making-of documentary by Ballyhoo Motion Pictures with interviews with writer-director Richard Kelly, producer Sean McKittrick, director of photography Steven Poster, editor Sam Bauer, composer Michael Edwards, costume designer April Ferry, actor James Duval and critic Rob Galluzzo; The Goodbye Place, Kelly’s 1996 short film, which anticipates some of the themes and ideas of his feature films; The Donnie Darko Production Diary, an archival documentary charting the film’s production with optional commentary by cinematographer Steven Poster; 20 deleted and alternate scenes with optional commentary by Kelly; archive interviews with 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; Three archive featurettes: They Made Me Do It, They Made Me Do It Too and #1 Fan: A Darkomentary; storyboard comparisons; B-roll footage; Cunning Visions infomercials; music video: Mad World by Gary Jules, galleries, trailers, TV spots; 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.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Two Blu-rays and two DVDs in card and plastic disc holders with book in card box.
Reviewed: April 24, 2017

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.