“Donnie Darko” was released in October of last year without an ounce of publicity promoting the film. It debuted in a truly limited release on only 58 screens around the country. While the film was well received by critics, it was not enough to bring people into theaters and the film earned a meager $500,000 at the box office. Maybe it was the lack of a major star that prevented “Donnie Darko” from succeeding. Maybe it was the deficiency of the advertising. Or perhaps it was that people are simply not interested in the story of a teenage boy troubled by visions of a giant bunny rabbit named Frank.
The year is 1988. The town is Middlesex, Va. Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal, “October Sky”) is a high school kid with emotional problems, uncertain of his purpose in life. One night, Donnie is led to a golf course for an unexpected meeting with Frank, a giant bunny rabbit who instructs him the world will end in 28 days. While Donnie is on the links chatting away with the six-foot-tall hare, a jet engine crashes into his bedroom, destroying a large portion of his family’s upscale suburban home. Richard Kelly’s “Donnie Darko” is not your typical matinee fare.
Writer/Director Kelly is one of the most promising young directors in years. For a feature film debut, “Donnie Darko” exhibits the polish of a seasoned veteran. The film has a distinct visual appearance due to the use of a special kind of film used for low lighting situations. The visual composition of the film captures the essence of the late eighties, as does the soundtrack of Tears for Fears and Duran Duran retro classics. The cast is strong throughout, including Mary McDonnell (“Dances with Wolves”) as Mrs. Darko, Drew Barrymore (“E.T.”) and Noah Wyle (“E.R.”) as Donnie’s teachers, Patrick Swayze (“Dirty Dancing”) as a self-help guru and Oscar nominee Katharine Ross (“The Graduate”) as Donnie’s psychiatrist.
For those who missed the low budget film in theaters, “Donnie Darko” is now available on DVD in an impressive release from 20th Century Fox. The presentation of the film is excellent, with sharp visuals and a prominent 5.1 surround sound audio track. Menus are well designed, keeping with the visual theme of the film. While the standard features of the DVD are near perfection, the bread and butter of the disc are the abundant extra features.
“Donnie Darko” includes two commentary tracks, one with director Kelly and star Jake Gyllenhaal, the other with supporting cast members including McDonnell, Barrymore and Ross. The commentaries provide a wealth of information on narrative questions and the making of the film. There are over 20 deleted scenes with director’s commentary, most of which are extraneous additions to previous scenes. Other features include a music video, production stills, filmographies, TV spots and a theatrical trailer. Far and away the most entertaining feature is the full version of Jim Cunningham’s (Patrick Swayze) “Cunning Visions” videos. The intentionally cheesy infomercials include a spoof audio commentary, mocking the traditional DVD commentary.
“Donnie Darko” suffered from ill timing. The scene where the engine of a 747 comes plummenting onto Donnie’s queen bed was too reminiscent of the accident in Queens that took place shortly after Sept. 11.
If originality meant anything in film, “Donnie Darko” would be stamped with an array of awards and lucrative box office receipts. Sadly, originality is looked over in favor of formulaic plots and sequels in Hollywood today while films like “Donnie Darko” go in and out of theaters relatively unnoticed. The film is hard to classify and ascribe a genre to, part of the reason why “Donnie Darko” failed financially. Thanks in part to a comprehensive DVD, Richard Kelly’s time-traveling-sci-fi-bunny-rabbit-opus might end up becoming a cult classic.