Sunday Squabble: Arrow’s Release of DONNIE DARKO is a Great Edition of a Great Film… or is It?

Friday Fight

Friday Fights getting posted on Sundays seem to be a thing lately. Fridays get crazy, then Saturdays follow suit. In this week’s case, I had this almost set Friday night, then finished it yesterday, then my computer died. When I turned it back on, it reverted to an unedited version… so, I’m finally almost done editing it again (while saving every 25 seconds so this shit doesn’t happen again).

However, this movie is worth the labor. One of few movies I own on multiple formats (original DVD, two different Blu-ray releases, as well as both the superior theatrical cut and inferior director’s cut on Ultraviolet), Donnie Darko is a really great time. It doesn’t make sense for the most part, but I think it’s better that way. This is truly a less is more movie, when you compare the cuts.

This time around what struck me most was the humor. Donnie’s dry and dark wit, his amazingly hilarious parents, the “suck a fuck” scene (of course), Smurf sex, and the list goes on. I love so much about this film, but I don’t know that the humor was ever so front and center to me as it was this time I watched. Even Drew Barrymore’s overacting somehow works.

The team breaks the film down well; rather than say much more, I’ll just tell you a bit about the stellar Arrow release. It includes multiple commentary tracks and several documentaries of various lengths. There is a lot of interesting insight for fans… as well as one insane fan’s well documented wackiness. This release comes highly recommended for fans of the film and… well… everyone.

Garrett SmithGARRETT SMITH: This held up much better than I expected it to. I really like the performances in this film, the late 80s setting and its utilization of politics and pop-psychology, and its Amblin-feel. Richard Kelly was on the Amblin nostalgia train a decade before anyone else.

I watched the original theatrical cut, and I’m about to make a bold statement – the director’s cut may not be better, but this movie is better with the information that cut provides. Knowing things like how everyone has a “role” in this pocket universe, and they’re all sort of unconsciously moving Donnie in the right direction to reach the proper conclusion really helps this I think. It certainly feels much better as the looser, more dream-like narrative of the theatrical cut – but I think only because I have all those details in my brain already. I’m not sure how clear some of those narrative devices would be without the context of the director’s cut.

And I really do think those devices are important to this movie – otherwise it’s sort of a strange “forgive the troubled boy” story. But I don’t think that’s what this movie is going for. It’s certainly about a troubled boy, but his trouble seems to be that he feels powerless to the universe. He desperately wants to be able to make his own choices in a world where he feels like everything is planned out and determined for him, whether he likes it or not. This is why the ending works as well as it does and feels so resonant – he realizes he did choose, against the universe’s will, and it resulted in this pocket universe which he has to course correct. And in doing so he becomes the Christ-like martyr of the film who then must make another choice, a selfless one, to not fight fate. That’s what this is all about – fate and choice and the push and pull between them.

All that said – this time around I think I got the most enjoyment out of watching it as a comedy. There are a lot of good laughs throughout this, and especially with Donnie’s parents. I think as an adult I can finally relate to them, and it adds a whole new perspective to this that was really enjoyable.

I’m a sci-fi geek, a time travel nerd, and a nostalgic Amblin fan, so perhaps I can’t help but enjoy this – but I truly do think it’s one of the great American indies of its time and earns its cult status.

Luke TiptonLUKE TIPTON: I’m writing from the expo floor of the Marijuana Business Conference in Washington D.C., and watched Donnie Darko in bits and pieces on flights between Chicago, Philadelphia, New York and DC over the past week and a half. Needless to say, I am no closer to understanding the paradoxical head fuckery of this movie than I was when i saw it for the first time in 2002.

However, in my first time revisiting Donnie Darko in about 15 years, and I was very happy to discover just how well the film has held up. The tone of apocalyptic dread feels just as sharp 16 years on as it did when it opened amid the national fear and trauma in the wake of 9/11. Adolescence feels apocalyptic enough as it is, without the assistance of unplanned, extra-textural national disaster.

Also holding up remarkably well is the film’s swell curated retro post-punk soundtrack. Good style, as they say, never grows old.

Ana ByrdANA BYRD: Since I imagine everybody has covered a lot of plot stuff of Donnie Darko, I want to talk about the soundtrack. I thinks its one of the big reasons i fell in love with the film. The opening sequence where Donnie is on his bike and Echo and the Bunnymen’s “The Killing Moon” plays behind it is one of my favorites. Prior to Darko, I never knew Echo and the Bunnymen existed, and “The Killing Moon” is such a fantastic intro track to their discography.

Another great sequence is the first school sequence, you see nearly all the major characters and some really cool camera angles all set to Tears for Fears’ “Head over Heels”. (I actually grew up with Tears for Fears. My mom is a big fan so I have a nostalgic love for them.)

Lastly, I’d like to talk about Gary Jules’ “Mad World” cover of the Tears for Fears classic. Over the years, people have referred to it as overly maudlin or unnecessary, but its probably my favorite track in the whole film. It was hard to find a recording of it specifically. At the time when I was obsessed with the music from the film, there was no soundtrack available for purchase. So through the power of Limewire (and in a few instances straight recordings from the DVD), I made my own. Of course now, there is a soundtrack available for purchase, but I’m glad I had to really work for it. I think my soundtrack obsession enhanced my love for the overall film.

Kevin IrelandKEVIN IRELAND: I was a Donnie Darko fanatic. After seeing the film on summer break following my first year in college, I was hooked. My childhood friend with film-school aspirations had brought home with him all the quality stuff. He was the one that had turned me on to the works of Sam Raimi and Kevin Smith. He was my authority and now he was bringing home film-school level gems like Intacto and Donnie Darko.

I fell in love with Darko and became the films evangelist. I had a shirt with the numbers ironed on the back that said “Why are you wearing that stupid man suit?” on the front. I had a Frank action figure on my desk. I would call a viewing in my dorm room anytime someone told me they had not yet seen it. I carried that film back onto campus with me and I shared it like it was the Gospel of Donnie.

Years later I was at an MC Lars show and in the middle of “Hipster Girl” he confidently called out to the crowd “Donnie Darko makes no sense!”. My friend Chris began screaming “Thank you! Thank you! Finally!” before turning to me and letting me know he thought Donnie Darko was unmitigated nonsense. This was the first word I had ever heard against it and I entered a state of denial.

I was afraid to watch Darko again for fear that it wasn’t actually good. I had attached myself so much to the film that to find out it wasn’t good would mean that I myself may not be good.

To watch it, would I have to come to terms with the possibility that this movie is actually terrible?

I successfully lived in peaceful denial, but because of Friday Fight I must now reckon with it.

Southland Tales and the Darko Director’s Cut shows anything good or likable about Donnie Darko may have just been a fluke: given more time and more trust, as he was in those cases, Kelly only escalates into nonsense.

If you’ve never seen Southland Tales do yourself the favor and try it out: it’s the worst kind of bad movie. It’s not bad because of a limited budget ($17 million) or limited cast (even the extras are Names) or some earnest but misplaced creativity, it’s bad because nobody told Richard Kelly “No” following the sleeper success of Donnie Darko. It’s bad because the directors vision there is unfocused and unrelenting. It’s not so bad it’s good, it’s so bad it’s worse. I didn’t tell you to watch it for fun, I told you to watch it because I somehow feel like others should have to suffer as I did.

I know this fight isn’t about Southland Tales but for me it’s the cypher for breaking the spell this movie held over me to give it an honest look at the conclusion of my denial.

I believe that this movie only works when it does because of it’s simplicity and it’s limits. The way this cosmic and tangled story has to stay small, personal and focused. It’s an argument against everything we may suggest about how un-restrained creators could make better films then those with studio oversight.

This movie, as an independent production makes a fine argument for a firm middle ground of a mutual power balance. Kevin Smith once said about Southland Tales that when he first read the script, he had to remind Richard Kelly that someone outside his own head would have to watch the film. Kelly was able to ignore that advice and power on to make a movie I still can’t believe exists outside my own fever dreams. I believe that the same conversation happened before Donnie Darko and that note by a wiser friend implanted a sense of caution in the mind of the first time director and helped shape this film for the better. I have no evidence for this interaction, so it’s just speculation, but I don’t see how it could have happened any other way.

I think this is what made Donnie Darko effective when it is, it was easy to tell a first timer “No” and insist on limits because of the risk, that it was common sense to demand Kelly better translate for an audience outside his own head. Thus Darko came to us filtered. How filtered? I’m not sure, but I do know there were imposed limits: Kelly had to keep the film under two hours (his rough cut was two hours and forty minutes, can you imagine any point in this film you’d like forty more minutes of?) and needed to make it cheap.

I’ve found conflicting quotes from Kelly about whether the director’s cut was just a cash-in and the theatrical was closer to his vision or not. He was also quoted as saying, in an interview with Sean Axmaker, that he had a different vision for the film he wasn’t able to realize at first. He said he wanted it to be more of a hard science fiction film with a consistent inner-logic to it. If that means the time-travel concept we get glimpses of would have been more spelled out, I don’t think the film would be better for it.

This is what I believe made Donnie Darko work inspite of itself as well as it does. However, if I’m overestimating how far the original cut is from Kelly’s vision, my argument begins to fall apart. We may very well be viewing a largely undiluted, unfiltered Kelly in the theatrical Darko. If that is true someone needs to go rescue the real Richard Kelly from wherever he is being held captive and prosecute the impostor who wears his face and directed Southland Tales.

I still like Donnie Darko. I still enjoy it more than I expected to on revisiting it, but I’m thoroughly convinced many of the aspects of it I like are unintentional and just fortuitous by being a small film from a fresh first-timer not let loose. I think it’s a bad movie that wound up good against the odds.

The time travel aspect is fun, mysterious and offbeat because of how little it’s fleshed out. The opening Echo and the Bunnymen scene of Donnie riding home introducing the family and setting still work as well as I remember, so does that tracking shot Tears for Fears intro to the school.

Seth Rogen is still great, if woefully underused, Jena Malone is great as well even thought I think she is reduced too much to basic girlfriend tropes rather than utilizing her interesting backstory well.

The stand out is still Beth Grant’s Ms. Farmer. She is still stellar and I never have, nor ever will doubt her commitment to Sparkle Motion.

I’ll love everything about the Frank suit too, he’s bold looking and communicates everything he needs to all at once. Even the contradictory stuff: he looks otherworldly but homemade, it lands the Harvey invocation (less so the Watership Down call out) but also falls comfortably into horror monster iconography.

The dialog drags and clunks way more than I remember, it’s as if Kelly only actually wrote Donnie as a whole person with the rest just there to bounce off of him.

All the imagery, oddities and philosophical musings I thought were “deep” and “cool” in my younger days I see now as sort of hokey and for it’s own sake.

Just because a film is challenging to watch doesn’t automatically make it well done, it just makes it a novelty or a rarity when so many films insist on holding your hand.

I realize that I watched this film first in college from Donnie’s point of view as the weird kid. I became it’s evangelist because it was all cool and challenging beyond what I was consuming elsewhere at the time.

This time I felt invited to a different experience.

Now as an adult with some more experience under my belt and as a parent, I found the story much more compelling as one about a family dealing with understanding their son/brother’s degenerating mental health and his increasingly erratic behavior as he rejects or is unhelped by treatment. It’s carries much more weight that way, as a story someone suffering from paranoid schizophrenic and the community around him reacting to it. I never realized how great this movie is as a story of how Jena Malone’s character’s father suffers from mental illness and she falls for Donnie right away, trying to fix him like she couldn’t fix her dad. I’ve never watched how Donnie’s little sister lacks the insight to understand what is happening to their brother and just has to observe him. Donnie’s school is ill-equipped to help him and as such begin to antagonize him instead, with the snake-oil pervert Swayze plays rolling in to offer easy black and white answers.

When I was in college my favorite back and forth was the faux-deep energy of Donnie’s “Why are you wearing that stupid bunny suit?” set-up to Frank’s “Why are you wearing that stupid man suit?”

Now as an adult it’s Donnie’s “How does it feel to have a whacko for a son?” set-up to his mother’s “It feels wonderful”.

It makes the impact of the ending even stronger when you realize it’s ultimately about Donnie sacrificing himself because the world would be better off without him: he saves everyone’s life by removing himself from the last 28 days. This is heartbreaking as I’ve often heard the same idea come from folks who suffer from mental illness, it’s a sort of dark fantasy that fuels tragedy. I’m certainly not okay with that if it’s taken as a happy ending, which I don’t think it has to be.

It became a much more moving and meaningful film to me now that I was able to watch it this way.

After this experience I discovered that Kelly says I’m not allowed to watch it that way though. In the Axmaker interview, Kelly says we should not take the film as a story of mental illness as Donnie isn’t mentally ill he’s just misunderstood (or something about mental illness actually being a gift or a super-power or some other such nonsense that can just go ahead and take a hike).

You see what I’m saying? You can find a powerful, moving and inviting story when you watch it that way, but the only reason we can watch it that way is Kelly didn’t get the hard sci-fi movie he wanted out of Donnie Darko.

I am loving the film again in a way that is against Kelly’s wishes, in spite of his vision, in the room left between his vision and the finished film. I genuinely think this was the only way any of us ever could appreciate this film in the first place: in it’s imperfection and ambiguity.

All this stuff is sort of lying around behind the films problems, there you find these building blocks you can take to make Donnie Darko mean what you need it to mean in order to enjoy it. I think that’s a unique experience to have.

However, if you want to toss it out as overwrought and pretentious, to shout “Donnie Darko made no sense” passionately at an MC Lars show, well there’s certainly enough evidence for you to build that case too, especially if you watch it in the ways Kelly seems to insist we watch it.

Good or bad, I’m glad I was able to revisit it and provide closure to my Donnie Darko journey, thanks to Friday Fight: I’M NOT AFRAID ANYMORE!

Justin has been running websites since his first Geocities site in 1994, but only did he ever start covering anything of substance years later. After he stopped regularly running local concerts in Northern NJ and the greater Philly area, he knew he needed to step up his writing game if he expected to continue to get free music to listen to. He writes regularly here and at Cinapse, as well as contributing to a few other sites on occasion. He likes music, film, the Philadelphia Eagles, the 76ers, talking about Criminal Justice, reading Intelligence Report, and his family... not in that order. His beautiful wife is far more talented than he is and his kids far more adorable... and crazy.
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