Fifteen years ago, director Robert Kelly’s sci-fi fantasy/thriller, Donnie Darko, premiered. At the time, I was at the young age of 18 and had just graduated from High School. Having watched the film when it came out, I remembered that I didn’t quite understand exactly what was going on. I mean sure, I loved Jake Gyllenhaal (who doesn’t??) and I loved the unsettling visions of Frank the Bunny, but overall, I couldn’t have begun to tell anyone what the film was about. Fast-forward 15 years and the movie is getting the special 4K release from Arrow Films on Blu-ray + DVD that includes both the Theatrical and Director’s Cut. For the release, I decided that maybe, at the ripe age of 33, it would be a good idea to revisit this highly acclaimed cult classic and try to piece together the mystery surrounding it.
There’s a lot of conflict between which is better: the Theatrical or the Director’s Cut. Since I remember next to nothing about the Theatrical version, I can only assume it’s just as good as the Director’s Cut. The movie, on the surface, centers around the main character Donnie Darko, a troubled young man who has visions of a man in a bunny suit that informs him of the world ending in 28 days. Moving past the outward synopsis, the film really deals with time travel, mental illness, and teenager angst. The film has an exceptional cast that includes Jake Gyllenhaal, Maggie Gylleenhaal, Jena Malone, Mary McDonnell, Daveigh Chase, James Duval, Drew Barrymore, and Patrick Swayze.
What the Director’s Cut offers that the Theatrical version does not, is some much-needed answers. Sure, there is a mystique that surrounds the original film, especially in terms of leaving the movie up for interpretations, but I enjoyed seeing some of the loose ends tied up. Kelly has stated in the director’s commentary that the film is a study on time travel and alternative universes, I can’t help but think that it’s also an examination on mental illness. There is such an unfortunate stigma that surrounds mental illness, especially those diagnoses that people don’t understand, and I think Donnie Darko does a fantastic job of highlighting how those people that suffer from depression/schizophrenia/etc are treated. As someone who suffers from depression, I could see parallels between my life and Donnie’s, especially in regards to having to constantly take medication and the concern that arises when you convince yourself that people will think you are crazy if you talk openly about your illness.
At the heart of the film, though, is this theory of time travel. I think the reason I had such a difficult time comprehending the movie when I first watched it was because I knew nothing about time travel (they don’t talk about that at a Christian High School) or alternative universes. Watching it fifteen years later, I can’t say I know that much more, but I have a better grasp on what the film was trying to convey. I could go on an on about the details of this film being primarily about a Primary Universe vs. a Tangent Universe, God and Free Will, and how the universe will fold in on itself unless Donnie does what Frank says, but I would probably bore you all to death. Ultimately, this film is just as much about time travel as it is about mental illness, only that the Director’s Cut finally gives us insight into the time traveling aspects.
Overall, Donnie Darko is a film that is much larger than what I think Richard Kelly even intended. The acting is superb, the storyline is thought-provoking and unique, the visuals are incredibly striking, the musical choices are exceptional and still to this day, the image of Frank the Bunny sends chills down my spine. Regardless of Kelly’s views on the film, in terms of what he thinks the movie is about, the amount of subtext and theories run so rampant that I don’t think there is one answer to what the film is truly trying to convey. To me, that’s what makes Donnie Darko so beautiful. I took away from the movie the stigma associated with mental illness and how there are devastating consequences that occur when untreated. I also found the theory of time travel, and how every person Donnie comes in contact with push him to his inevitable end, to be utterly fascinating.
All in all, if you haven’t seen Donnie Darko, I encourage you to give it a watch and to let us know what your thoughts are on the film. If you are a huge fan of the Theatrical Version and have some trepidations in watching the Director’s Cut, I would suggest giving it a chance and to watch it with Richard Kelly’s commentary, as it will give some insight into the overall plot of this masterpiece of a film.