“Donnie Darko” has finally returned. The twisted drama about a disturbed teenage boy who learns that the world will end from a human-sized, metal-faced rabbit named Frank, (James Duval who may be recognized as John the Mod from another cult film, “SLC Punk”), was mismarketed as an emotionally tumultuous teen flick to U.S. audiences who were still in emotional turmoil in October 2001, but gained a rabid cult following when it was released in Britain. Last year, Richard Kelly’s director’s cut was released in theaters, and now the definitive version of the production has found form in DVD.
This sprawling film, set weeks before the 1988 presidential election, tells the story of Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal), whose mental medication causes him to see Frank and obey the giant bunny’s instructions. Because Donnie heeds Frank’s instructions to go outside, he’s not asleep in bed when a jet engine from an airplane falls through the roof of his room. Frank talks to Donnie about time travel and tells him that the world will end in 28 days, six hours, 42 minutes and 12 seconds. Donnie’s visions also cause him to wreck havoc at his high school and around the community. Gyllenhaal’s real-life sister Maggie (“Mona Lisa Smile”) plays Donnie’s sister Elizabeth. Drew Barrymore and Noah Wyle (“ER”) play teacher’s at Donnie’s school, and Patrick Swayze appears as a motivational speaker-cum-televangelist whose ideas are taught there.
Because of the film’s longtime cult status, the director’s cut DVD release is packaged with die-hard fans in mind. The extra scenes in the new cut produce a more linear plot and explain the time travel in greater detail. Disc one includes a widescreen version of the movie with optional commentary by writer/director Kelly and his friend Kevin Smith (“Clerks”). The second disc contains a production diary, the theatrical trailer and a storyboard-to-screen featurette. But the two featurettes that create the most compelling — or disturbing — impression of the film’s power to attract a cult following are two mini-documentaries made by fans. The first, called “They Made Me Do It, Too: The Cult of Donnie Darko,” consists of analysis of the movie’s meaning, personal stories about experiences with the film and unabashed fanatical gushing by British moviegoers, critics and artists who rallied around the film after its unsuccessful, poorly marketed reception in the United States. “They Made Me Do It, Too” is “hosted” by someone in a Frank suit; he appears in almost every scene, apparently listening to or interviewing fans (although he never speaks) or sitting in the back of the theater where some of the testimonials are given.
While it’s great to see a fantastic, genre-defying film like this championed so strongly by viewers, some of the British fans cast aspersions on American audiences for not “getting” such a complex work of genius. It’s unfortunate that success in the film industry is measured by performance in the United States, but these fans — some of whom are identified only by their “Donnie Darko Fan” number — blame the initial obscurity of “Donnie Darko” on American audiences and misguided marketing. One posits that “Americans don’t understand these in-depth sorts of films” the way U.K. audiences do; another states that the film’s current status as an international cult success and the release of this very director’s cut is due to British support. “Donnie Darko” was released in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks and was marketed, in the words of one fan, “like a bad episode of ‘Dawson’s Creek,” but the laudable enthusiasm of British fans is tainted, at least for American viewers, with a distasteful arrogance.
This featurette is meant for pretty serious fans, but casual viewers or those curious about the movie after seeing it for the first time wouldn’t be shut out. However, “#1 Fan: A Darkomentary” is a different story. It’s the result of a documentary contest sponsored by DonnieDarko.com to find the film’s No. 1 fan and features someone who calls himself Darryl Donaldson, whose obsession with the film borders on the disturbed. Darryl shows us his collection of screenshots (“I used to have pictures of my family in these (frames), but I thought these were cooler”), Jake Gyllenhaal pictures, and an aluminum foil model of the jet engine that falls on Donnie’s house. This homemade contest winner could be enjoyed by die-hard fans — although it’s hard to believe that anyone could relate to this guy — or be viewed as a specimen of disturbing fanaticism. Darryl’s creepy testimonial about his love for the movie is so over-the-top that it almost seems like a joke.
The generous features on “Donnie Darko: The Director’s Cut” DVD serve as a fitting treatment for an unjustly overlooked film. Its cult status combined with the availability of a lavish DVD release should bring the film to a greater audience beyond longtime fans.
Film: 4 stars out of 5
Sound/Picture: 4 stars out of 5
Features: 3.5 stars out of 5