It’s hard not to wince when a film is given the ‘cult movie’ label as soon as it’s released, but Richard Kelly’s debut feature earned it. And like many films that were important to you as a teenager, there’s that fear of revisiting it.
With this restoration box set, Arrow has given us the chance to go back to both the acclaimed theatrical version and the generally reviled director’s cut, and our opinions are the same as they ever were.
For the uninitiated, Donnie Darko is set in October 1988, as the titular troubled high-school kid (Jake Gyllenhaal) begins to have visions of a man-sized rabbit named Frank (James Duval) telling him the world is coming to an end. Is Donnie losing his mind, or is life hurtling towards a terrifying and inevitable conclusion?
This polished re-release shows that Kelly’s first effort remains an accomplished genre-bender that crams big SF ideas, heartbreaking drama and giddy Eighties nostalgia (predating that current trend by a good decade) into its 113-minute running time with a confidence and wit that still impresses.
Anchored by a star-making turn from Gyllenhaal, it floats past every possible pitfall (and there are many) to deliver something that still stuns. All its many frantically fizzing ideas work so beautifully in tandem to create a unique and powerful atmosphere, as Donnie’s doom-laden conversation with Frank while watching Evil Dead sits perfectly alongside Sparkle Motion’s big show.
The director’s cut shows how fragile the film is by pretty much destroying it. Every moment of added exposition, every song change, every god damn book page, takes a wrecking ball to this perfectly formed marvel. The theatrical cut is a modern masterpiece, and we can’t let this review end without singling out Mary McDonnell’s superb performance as Donnie’s bitchin’ mother Mary. “It feels wonderful.”