Reviewed March 25th, 2002 by Dan Jones
“Donnie Darko, what the hell kind of name is that, it’s like some sort of super hero or something”
“What makes you think I’m not?”
It is not often that I sit down to write up a movie review about what I have just watched (in this case multiple times) without the ability to cohesively put it to text. I know what I have just seen is a brilliant, original piece of writing and movie making, I have a solid grasp of the films storyline and ending (again after some pondering and re-viewing), yet I don’t know how to write this review in such a way that gets every single one of you readers to purchase this film. Ironically, I guess I feel that in writing this paragraph thus far, that I now have a greater grasp of what the studio must have thought when they received this film: how in the hell do you market Donnie Darko? It is clear that no one really had an answer for this, especially after the tragedy of 9-11, resulting in the film barely making over half a million dollars, nowhere near making up for its 4.5 million dollar budget.
Yet, this seems to be how true gems of filmmaking work; getting little recognition at outset, hoping to find its true audience in the future. I hope you will chose to join that audience.
What can I tell you about Donnie Darko without ruining the surprises of just going into the film with little or no ideas of the actual plot or the actual storyline? I desperately do not want to spoil the film, so let me just glaze over some aspects.
At the very least, Donnie Darko is a dark film. Donnie Darko himself, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, is, at the surface, a seemingly disturbed teenager. He has considerable trouble with sleep walking, waking up often times great distances from his home. There is Frank, a 6-foot tall evil looking bunny rabbit. There is a large jet engine. There is time travel. Did I mention the 6-foot tall evil looking bunny rabbit named Frank?
To achieve clarity of what any of this means, keeping in mind that the previous paragraph started out much longer giving more hints into the movie (until I removed them fearing that it might induce some potential viewers into thinking of the movie in the wrong context), you really must see the film. Anything I write about the plot is not going to make much sense, and will not allow you to go into the movie with a fairly blank slate, which is truly how the initial viewing of this film should be. I stress initial because this a film that you are probably going to need to watch more then once to fully understand; each time you’ll notice more and more, and the twisted web Richard Kelly envisioned will slowly unfold before you. Keep in mind, Donnie Darko is the first film Richard Kelly has written, or for that matter directed. Add his name to your list of up and coming writers and directors to watch out for in Hollywood.
Donnie Darko is also blessed with tremendous acting all around, and has quite a standout cast that probably made just about no money, doing it for the film itself, rather then themselves (this is brought up numerous times in the cast and crew commentary). This cast most notably includes Drew Barrymore as Karen Pomeroy, Donnie’s English teacher, Mary McDonnell and Holmes Osborne as Donnie’s parents, James Duval as Frank, Patrick Swayze, Noah Wyle, and Jenna Malone. Truly all the acting here is standout, especially Jake Gyllenhaal in the lead role.
I really want to describe the plot of Donnie Darko; I want to tell my perception of the ending of the film; I want to go on and on about it. However, as I loathe reviewers who seem to think that it is their job to spoil movies in the process of telling whether or not they enjoyed the film, I will pass. So, we will just move forward to the DVD.
Released by Fox Home Video, Donnie Darko has been given quite a nice DVD considering the films insanely low lack of success in the box office.
Presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, Donnie Darko’s transfer is hard to fault, yet it must be mentioned that this is nowhere near reference quality. It seems this is not a problem with the transfer though. Donnie Darko was shot using a new Kodak film stock that specializes more in low-light situations, giving greater shadow detail and depth. The downside of this is that color contrast is much duller then normal, and a thin layer of grain seems to envelope the composition. It also results in a softer image. With all this taken into account the video transfer really cannot be criticized, as the presentation on the DVD seems to coincide with the difficulties of this new film stock. Nevertheless, the video presentation here is more then ample, and after a few minutes should not detract from the viewer’s pleasure.
Audio wise, Donnie Darko has been given a 5.1 Dolby Digital track and a 2.0 Dolby Surround matrixed track (in English or French). While Donnie Darko is a relatively quiet movie, it does have its power scenes (you will know when they hit). This track is very good with great ambience through the surround elements (including Frank’s unforgettable voice emanating from all around). The film is quite eerie at times and the score provided does an exceptional job of complimenting the film. The track has good movement and great use of surround elements, along with a very powerful LFE channel when needed. Overall, this track is just about exceptional for the film. Also included are English subtitles for the hearing impaired, as well as Spanish subtitles.
As for extras, I must say I am surprised Fox allowed for as many as are here. First off is great full-length audio commentary from writer/director Richard Kelly and Donnie Darko himself, Jake Gyllenhaal. If you enjoyed the film, you should really give this a listen. Kelly provides us with a bit of his insight into the film, clearing up some things you might have missed or might not have grasped right away. It’s not the most serious of tracks, with a good deal of comedy thrown in there (most notably Gyllenhaal doing an impression of Christopher Walken as Frank). Yet, its clear Kelly and Gyllenhaal love the film and enjoy watching it and talking about it. This is not the most technical of commentaries, more story and “remember when” orientated, but I definitely enjoyed listening to it. Kelly does not go out of his way to answer all of the films many questions, as he explains that he does not have all the answers; he, like the viewer, is at times forced to come to his own conclusions. The next full-length audio commentary is from the cast and crew, and also features Kelly. This is a less detailed, more cast reminiscing one, but still worth a listen. You can tell these people really loved the film, even if they made next to no money to do it.
Next, we have twenty deleted/extended scenes, which are all solid clips, but had to be cut for time to bring the movie less than two hours. All the scenes are presented in non-anamorphic widescreen but the quality on most is very poor with a lot of digital compression artifacting. These all include optional director commentary. My one caveat here with the deleted scenes was a lack of a play all ability as watching all the scenes in their entirety takes a bit, selecting them all adds to that. Besides that little flaw, the deleted scenes provided here are more then the usual extra fluff seen in other DVD releases, and could easily be edited back into the film to make for a longer presentation; its nice to see they made the cut for the DVD (the taping of the audio commentary must have happened early on as Kelly did not know whether or not the deleted scenes were going to be inserted, but was hoping that they would be allowed).
Next, we have the “Cunning Visions” section, which gives us the Cunningham infomercials in their entirety, plus optional commentary. These infomercials are absurdly amusing for their ridiculous nature... but aren’t most self-help programs that way? “His Name is Frank” gives us the entire slide show, which was partly used in the movie.
Continuing along, we have the Mad World video for the films end song, which gives perhaps a few too many scenes from the movie (so watch after). Great song though, very fitting.
Next, we have the Website Galley feature that allows us to essentially see the website from the DVD (also contains The Philosophy of Time Travel book referred to in the film). One thing you will probably notice quickly is that unless you have 20/20 vision, you might want to just visit the website instead of seeing it on your television as the text is quite hard to read.
Finally, we have the production notes, a photo gallery, soundtrack liner notes by Richard Kelly, the films theatrical trailer, and five TV spots. The trailer for the film is really quite exceptional...too bad I never saw it back when the film got its minimal theatrical release.
Overall, Donnie Darko has been given a great rebirth on DVD. This is an exceptional piece of writing and filmmaking and I believe will definitely find its audience in the near future due to this DVD release. The DVD is pretty packed considering its lack of any success in its short theatrical release. The audio is very good, and the video is good when considering the flaws of the film stock used. I really cannot stress enough that people should pick up this DVD. This is the most original film I have seen in years. If you are a fan of great movies, pick this up (and if you are not a fan of great movies, pick it up anyway). HIGHLY recommended.
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