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Celebrating the 15th Anniversary of ‘Donnie Darko’ With a Look Back at the Acclaimed Cult Classic

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.

Donnie Darko will be available to own on Blu-ray + DVD April 18th through Arrow Video.


12 Comments
  • The best movie about time travel… ever

  • HaroldAMaio

    —There is such an unfortunate stigma that surrounds mental illness,
    There is? That is pretty finite. Who taught you that?
    May I suggest instead, “There are” people who say that. No one has to repeat them.

    • Carlton Fisher

      The only thing more annoying than online grammar Nazis are online grammar Nazis that correct grammar that was fine in the first place. “Is: is the correct conjugation of the verb in this situation because it is tied to the singular noun “stigma.” In most cases, if you’re working from a composition standpoint, it’s poor form to resort to the “There are people who say” or “some people say” approach, because it essentially establishes a phantom group with no definitive members that doesn’t require support to counter refutation. There was nothing wrong with the original statement. If you’re planning to be pedantic, at least be correct.

      • HaroldAMaio

        Interesting response. “There are” people who declare all sorts if prejudices. Not one of us has to join them.

        • Shannon McGrew

          I’m always interested in people who feel the need to try and tear apart something that a writer has done. As if they have nothing else to do with their free time.

      • Rick D

        Ummm,,that seems to be about grammar? I think. Wtf omg STFU

  • Brett

    I agree that this film is about mental illness, more specifically schizophrenia.

  • turk

    Quite possibly my favorite movie of all time. Just mind blowing. And worth watching over and over to catch all the subtle clues.

    I would question your comment on there being some debate about whether the theatrical or director’s cut is better. The director’s cut is almost universally despised in my experience. But I am one of those rare fans who doesn’t mind it, even though I prefer the original version.

    • Shannon McGrew

      When I talked to people online about watching the film, specifically the Director’s Cut, there was a lot of people who just hated it. I hadn’t seen the original in forever so I went into the Director’s Cut with an open mind and really enjoyed it. I think both films are brilliant and I’m just happy it’s getting talked about again!

  • umaneo

    Great film. Jake, Mary McDonnel and Drew Barrymore stand out in this.

  • aFriendlyAgenda

    Awesome art mask
    Didn’t make a heck of a lot of sense other then that, but in a good way
    As opposed to in a grating way lindelof style

    Although Kelly flucked that up when he tried to make more sense out of the directors cut, and he hasn’t done anything good since then
    The box wasn’t bad, but southland tales was unwatchable IMO

    Some people just have the one great song in them
    But thats still better then some people who have none
    Like damon lindelof

  • Evan3

    I absolutely adore this film. I definitely didn’t get it on first watch, but I still had tears welling up when Gary Jules’ Mad World played. Also, Sparkle Motion is just superb.

    I coulda sworn in some commentary that Richard Kelly said this is a superhero film. Essentially, Donnie controls time… alters it to save his own life… discovers the pain and tragedy that is wrought as a result of his actions… and takes up the mantle of superhero by sacrificing himself for the good of all the others. Not my take, but pretty interesting nonetheless.

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