Don’t ask me how, but I’ve somehow never seen Donnie Darko. Now, thanks to the 4K re-release from Arrow, I’ve really fixed that. I mean, we all know how I feel about Southland Tales, so it’s high time that I get this one crossed off the list.
Richard Kelly had graduated from film school and started writing his first scripts when he got the idea of a jet engine falling onto a house. Even though he was an unproven director, Kelly insisted that he make the film himself, struggling to get funding until Drew Barrymore’s Flower Films produced it.
The film came and went without much notice outside of critics, as a movie with part of a plane crashing into a house being released a month after 9/11 — not to mention Donnie shooting a gun so close after Colombine — didn’t seem like something audiences would want to see. Yet Kelly’s vision — he wanted an “ambitious, personal, and nostalgic” look back at the 80’s before everyone was doing that — finally found an audience as it was reissued.
It’s not an easy movie to wade through and that’s pretty much why it’s so beloved by the people who discovered it.
On October 2, 1988, the Middlesex, Virginia bedroom of Donald J. “Donnie” Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal) is destroyed by a jet engine. As for Donnie, he has been sleepwalking and speaking to a monstrous rabbit named Frank who informs him that the world will end in 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes and 12 seconds. He begins to follow Frank’s instructions, which often involve destruction and mayhem.
How else do you escape a small town where infomercial pitchmen’s words are taken as religion and teachers are either fired for being individuals or become wrapped up in their own power? There’s also a former nun turned author, once named Roberta Sparrow but now called Grandma Death, who whispers to Donnie that “Every living creature on Earth dies alone.”
Frank’s instructions grow darker, including setting the home of the inspirational speaker — Patrick Swayze! — ablaze, which reveals that the man is a child molester. And Donnie begins to fall for Gretchen Ross (Jena Malone), who is in town to escape from her brutal stepfather. But as a cycle of violence begins to continually spiral out of control, Donnie realizes that the only way to stop the end of the world is to change the flow of time.
But man, that’s just one of the many ways you can take this movie. In the foreword to The Donnie Darko Book, Jake Gyllenhaal wrote, “What is Donnie Darko about? I have no idea.” Even Kelly admits that the film needs Cliffs Notes.
According to Dan Kois’ Everything you were afraid to ask about Donnie Darko, the movie takes place in a parallel universe, which exists only during the 28 days — it also took 28 days to film the movie — of the film. The main idea is that Donnie must erase the Tangent Universe — and die as a result — in order to save reality.
Roberta Sparrow’s book The Philosophy of Time Travel exists, if not only in the world of the film, then also on the website that went with the movie and the director’s cut. In it, she writes, “If a Tangent Universe occurs, it will be highly unstable, sustaining itself for no longer than several weeks. Eventually it will collapse upon itself, forming a black hole within the Primary Universe capable of destroying all existence.”
Or is it about Donnie being a paranoid schizophrenic? That solution is up to you.
Or you could see it as the fact that Gretchen and Frank — the human being dressed as the rabbit that Donnie shoots and not yet the rabbit — are dead as the result of knowing Donnie and they lead him into this situation to gain super powers and send the engine back in time, saving themselves at the cost of his life.
Also — the web site had information about the characters that perhaps belonged in the movie. After the events of the universe being righted, Jim Cunningham would kill himself, realizing what a horrible person he was. Roberta Sparrow would die in December of 1988. And although Dr. Monnitoff would eventually marry Ms. Pomeroy, he would die under mysterious circumstances in 1999. She would send his copy of The Philosophy of Time Travel to the Library of Congress.
So why does Donnie smile before lying down to seemingly die? In my opinion, he’s no longer dying alone. He has connected better with his parents, found a first love and finally become not a disaffected youth but the secret hero who saves everything at the cost of his own life. That’s not just the kind of story that gets remembered. It’s the kind that becomes a cult movie.
I’m glad I finally watched this.
The 4K UHD Arrow Video release of Donnie Darko is pretty much exactly as amazing as you’d expect a release from this label to be. The set includes new 4K restorations of both the Theatrical Cut and the Director’s Cut from the original camera negatives by Arrow Films, supervised and approved by director Richard Kelly and cinematographer Steven Poster, plus a 100-page hardcover book featuring writing by Nathan Rabin, Anton Bitel and Jamie Graham, an in-depth interview with Richard Kelly, an introduction by Jake Gyllenhaal and contemporary coverage, illustrated with original stills and promotional materials. As if that’s not enough, there’s also a double-sided poster with art by Luke Preece, six double-sided collector’s postcards and multiple audio commentary tracks and documentaries on the film. Still not enough? You also get The Goodbye Place, a Kelly short film, twenty deleted and alternate scenes, trailers, a music video and, well, beyond much more. You can get it directly from Arrow.
Despite the fact that we live in a world with less physical releases, the ones that do come out are made for film lovers like, well, you and me. If you love this film, you owe it to yourself to own this.