(NOTE: Arrow Films' dazzling new 4K restoration of DONNIE DARKO--both the 132-minute Director's Cut and the 113-minute Theatrical Cut--will begin theatrical showings on March 31st. You can read all about this right after the review.)
DONNIE DARKO (2001) is kind of like an ultra "Twilight Zone" episode by way of "The X-Files" as filtered through the mind of David Lynch and decorated by Tim Burton. With some Robert A. Heinlein, Clive Barker, and John Irving thrown into the mix as well. (The director has called it “The Catcher in the Rye as told by Philip K. Dick.")
And yet it's also its own unique, one-of-a-kind sort of funhouse mirror with all the giddy fear and dark exhilaration of a malfunctioning spook house ride.
Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal, BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, ZODIAC) gains our sympathy right away because he's a nice teenaged kid with a nice family, and he'd like to be a normal guy, but he isn't--I mean, really, really isn't--and he can't help it.
His befuddled psychiatrist (Katherine Ross) tells his parents he's schizophrenic. Sometimes he skips his meds. He knows he's "crazy", and that his attempts not to be are probably doomed.
So, occasionally, he just goes with the flow and sets the fires and vandalizes the things that the tall guy in the scary-looking bunny costume and mask tells him to do.
Why? Because the scary bunny, who goes by the name of Frank, is a time traveler, helping Donnie to fulfill his destiny and maintain the space-time continuum by influencing the lives of everyone around him in very fundamental ways before the world ends, which will occur at the end of the month on Halloween night.
The incredible event that sets all of this into motion occurs early in the film, after we've met Donnie and the other Darkos and things have settled down for the night, and suddenly, there's a tremendous crash that shakes the house like an earthquake.
That's the detached jet airplane engine demolishing Donnie's bedroom from above, mere minutes after he's been awakened and summoned safely out of the house by Frank.
For me, this weird and wonderful event is the sort of thing that just makes me fall in love with a movie right off the bat and stay with it every step of the way if it continues to be that wonderful, which DONNIE DARKO does the way a mindbending page-turner of a novel or comic book does.
Mary McDonnell (DANCES WITH WOLVES, INDEPENDENCE DAY, SCREAM 4, "Battlestar Galactica") and Holmes Osborne (THAT THING THAT YOU DO!, BRING IT ON, AFFLICTION) are ideal as Donnie's long-suffering but loving parents Rose and Eddie, and Gyllenhaal's real-life sister Maggie (THE DARK KNIGHT) is his sister Elizabeth. Their younger sister Samantha is played cutely by Daveigh Chase (AMERICAN ROMANCE, SPIRITED AWAY).
Executive producer Drew Barrymore makes a strong impression as Donnie's progressive, perceptive English teacher, Miss Pomeroy, whose methods will be called into question by stiff-assed fellow teacher Miss Farmer (Beth Grant, OPERATION: ENDGAME, SPEED), an emotionally backward harpy whose classes seem to consist solely of videotapes by New Age self-help guru Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze, ROADHOUSE, DIRTY DANCING, GHOST).
Other supporting players in this very interesting cast include Noah Wyle, Seth Rogan, James Duval (AMERICAN ROMANCE, THE BLACK WATERS OF ECHO'S POND, INDEPENDENCE DAY), and Patience Cleveland (PSYCHO III) as Roberta Sparrow, aka "Grandma Death", a crazy old recluse who, it turns out, may know a thing or two about time travel herself.
High school life is a daily parade of the usual nerdy friends and scary bullies, as well as a pretty but troubled new student (Jena Malone as "Gretchen") who catches the eye of lonely but attractively enigmatic Donnie.
I tried the lonely but attractively enigmatic thing in high school but it never worked for me. It does, however, work for Donnie as he and Gretchen form a sympatico relationship that will become crucial in the scheme of things as time counts irrevocably down to Frank's mysterious end-of-world deadline.
As Donnie, Jake Gyllenhaal maintains just the right attitude throughout--bemused, puzzled, sad, resentful, fearful, and yet deeply intrigued by what's happening to him, because who knows? It just might be real.
Visually, DONNIE DARKO is an eye-pleasing, idealized evocation of everyday life, sort of an updated Kodachrome version of Capra's small town in IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE or the deceptive veneer of normalcy in Lynch's BLUE VELVET, all shot through with a warm nostalgia for the 80s. (Donnie takes Gretchen to see THE EVIL DEAD at the neighborhood bijou, while familiar 80s songs enhance the soundtrack.)
He also imbues the film with a sense of dark, magical fun that makes the serious aspects and underlying humanity of the story resonate even more.
This is exemplified by the loving but impishly humorous interactions between Donnie's parents, who sometimes act like a couple of kids, and between Donnie and his sisters. It's nice to see a functioning family unit in a movie these days, even though this family does have one huge dysfunction, which is Donnie.
It's been a while since I was this totally caught up in a film and entranced by it until the very last frame. DONNIE DARKO is like a big, juicy Tootsie Pop made of mystery and imagination, and you savor the act of seeing how many licks it takes to get to the chewy cult movie center.
Donnie Darko: English / USA / 113 min (theatrical) /
134 min (Director's Cut)
Here's our original coverage of the upcoming re-release:
Richard Kelly's Donnie Darko Returns to Theaters
Arrow Films Debuts 4K Restoration of Theatrical & Director's Cuts
Weeklong Runs in Los Angeles, New York and More
"Excitingly original indie vision" - Entertainment Weekly
"A mini-masterpiece" - Empire
Los Angeles, CA - Arrow Films has announced the March 31st domestic theatrical debut of the 4K restoration of Richard Kelly's cult hit Donnie Darko. Following a wildly successful re-release in the UK for its fifteenth anniversary, the film will return to theaters in cities across the United States. Fifteen years before "Stranger Things" combined science-fiction, Spielberg-ian touches and 80s nostalgia to much acclaim, Kelly set the template and the benchmark with his debut feature, Donnie Darko. Initially beset with distribution problems, it would slowly find its audience and emerge as arguably the first cult classic of the new millennium. The 4K restoration of Donnie Darko will premiere at the Vista in Los Angeles on March 30th, and officially open in Los Angeles at the Cinefamily and in New York at Metrograph on March 31st.
Described by director Richard Kelly as "The Catcher in the Rye as told by Philip K. Dick", Donnie Darko combines an eye-catching, eclectic cast: pre-stardom Jake (Nightcrawler, Brokeback Mountain, Nocturnal Animals) and Maggie Gyllenhaal ("The Honourable Woman", The Dark Knight), Jena Malone (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, The Neon Demon), the late heartthrob Patrick Swayze (Dirty Dancing, Ghost), Drew Barrymore (E.T., "Grey Gardens", "Santa Clarita Diet") Oscar nominees Mary McDonnell (Dances With Wolves, Passion Fish, "Battlestar Galactica") and Katharine Ross (The Graduate, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Stepford Wives), and television favorite Noah Wyle ("ER", "Falling Skies") and an evocative soundtrack of 80s classics by Echo and the Bunnymen, Tears for Fears and Duran Duran.
The brand-new 4K restoration was produced by Arrow Films from the original camera negatives and supervised and approved by Kelly and cinematographer Steven Poster. The 4K restoration premiered to a packed audience at the National Film Theatre in London on December 17th, 2016, with an introduction by Richard Kelly. A screening of the Director's Cut followed the next day. The re-release opened nationwide in the UK on December 23rd, eventually grossing £70,000.
Both the theatrical cut and the director's cut are being made available to venues via a partnership with Cartilage Films, and locations will vary.
Donnie Darko will also return for weeklong runs in Denver, Columbus, Cleveland, Dallas, Pittsburgh, Phoenix, Tempe, Tulsa and San Francisco on March 31st, and in El Paso, Portland and Detroit on April 7.
Special screenings include Jacksonville, Austin, Dallas, Honolulu, Lubbock, Baton Rouge, Sioux Falls, Oklahoma City, Tucson, Durham and Stamford throughout March and April. A full list of screenings is available at Cartilage Films.
March 31st Theatrical Release:
611 N Fairfax Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90036
7 Ludlow St
New York, NY 10002
Donnie is a troubled high school student: in therapy, prone to sleepwalking and in possession of an imaginary friend, a six-foot rabbit named Frank, who tells him the world is going to end in 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes and 12 seconds. During that time he will navigate teenage life, narrowly avoid death in the form of a falling jet engine, follow Frank's maladjusted instructions and try to maintain the space-time continuum.