Thursday, March 27, 2008


One of the consequences of moving house, particularly when you’re trying to keep the rooms as free of clutter as possible for purposes of decorating, is that you end up with half your possessions in cardboard boxes or black heavy-duty plastic bags in the garage. Thanks to the incompetence of the previous occupant’s attempts at DIY, the wiring in the garage is completely buggered and a torch is currently required if I want to find anything.

So it was that I went looking for my DVD of ‘Donnie Darko’ only to give up after twenty fruitless minutes and glumly trudge back into the house, musing morosely on how long it’s going to take to do all the decorating, and how much longer after that to sort out all the gubbins in the garage and get them shelved or in cabinets in some sort of order.

A couple of days later, nosing around in Fopp (always a risk; I’ve seldom come out of there without surrendering to temptation), I came across the director’s cut of ‘Donnie Darko’ for £7. Sold!

And so it is, having seen the film umpteen times in its original cut, that I’m writing about (or, at four paragraphs in, avoiding writing about) a personal favourite which I just had to re-evaluate. Maybe after a few more viewings, the director’s cut will grow on me, its little foibles worming their way into my affections.

My knee-jerk reaction, however, was that a lot of the quarter of an hour or so of restored material is superfluous, such as an out-of-place scene between Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal in what is still his signature role) and his father, where the latter (is he supposed to be drunk? is actor Holmes Osborne simply overdoing it?) lambasts the people who don’t understand his son. Likewise, additional scenes involving psychiatrist Dr Thurman (Katherine Ross) and motivational guru Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze) simply emphasise characterisations that have already been established.

The most annoying thing is the overlays that now accompany the time-travel/opening of the portal sequences. In the original cut, there’s a nice ambiguity, right up until the very end, as to whether these moments are hallucinations, the product of Donnie’s mind thanks to his decision, at the start of the film, to abandon his medication. Now, each of these sequences is overlaid by a computer grid, scrolling text and a hyper-kinetic barrage of images, creating a hard sci-fi feel that’s completely at odds with the rest of the film.

The thing I loved the first time I saw ‘Donnie Darko’ – well, one of the many things I loved – was writer/director Richard Kelly’s brilliant sleight of hand as to how the time-travel element of the plot actually works: he gives his audience enough snippets to seize upon (Donnie’s theoretical discussion with his science teacher, Roberta Sparrow’s book ‘The Philosophy of Time Travel’, and the implication that the opening of the portal is actually an act of God) and leaves them to draw their own conclusions.

The overlays distract from this, and are thematically at odds with the more mystic/cerebral concepts quoted from Sparrow’s book. The inclusion of more material from this tome is also an annoyance, since it neither explains nor obfuscates. It’s simply there and it holds things up.

Still, the additional material doesn’t change the structure, tone or atmosphere, and I still came away marvelling at how neatly constructed the film is given the sheer density of material …

Which brings me to the reason I spent the first couple of hundred words of this piece trying to avoid writing about ‘Donnie Darko’: how, exactly, do you write about ‘Donnie Darko’? How do you synopsise it without doing into exhausting detail? How can you even hope to pin it down in few pithily phrased paragraphs?

The answer is: you don’t. ‘Donnie Darko’ is personal experience – what you take away from the film depends on what you bring to it. On how much you open your mind to the smorgasbord of ideas and observations that Kelly’s script casually produces and tosses into the air like a conjuror bringing forth white doves from beneath a silk handkerchief.

Probably the best review I’ve read of ‘Donnie Darko’ isn’t a review at all. Posted on My New Plaid Pants as part of Final Girl’s recent Hey, Internet, Stop Being Such Cynical Effing Douchebags blog-a-thon, it’s a celebration of twenty great things about the film. It says more in a handful of words and images than I’ve managed in twelve paragraphs.

So, by way of explaining why this film is firmly installed in my personal faves list (although I’m hoping that I find my original DVD copy – the non-director’s cut is a lot tighter and, paradoxically, gives you more to engage with by dint of containing less) …

*It’s got a great cast. Seriously. Jake Gyllenhaal, Mary McDonnell, Drew Barrymore, Katherine Ross, Patrick Swayze (never better), Maggie Gyllenhaal and Jena Malone, all in the same movie, and all perfectly cast.

*It’s atmospheric, conjuring the mood of or incorporating subtle homages to other work (David Lynch; the small town settings of Stephen King’s fiction and John Carpenter’s ‘Halloween’) without ever tipping into plagiarism.

*The script zings with brilliant lines, including such off-the-wall but utterly memorable gems as “That airline better not fuck us on the shingle match”, “Did you just call me a fuck ass? You can just go suck a fuck”/”Please tell me, Elizabeth, how exactly does one suck a fuck?” and – altogether now – “Sometimes I doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion.”

What I love most of all about ‘Donnie Darko’ is that it demonstrates, more slyly and effectively than any other film I can think of, how every act has a consequence. The chain of events in ‘Donnie Darko’ leads to its hero’s final act decision – utilising his very own deus ex machina – to restore the balance. And in doing so, Donnie becomes a hero for our times.

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