Richard Kelly made his feature and script-writing debut in 2001 when he was 26 with Donnie Darko, a coming-of-age story of teenage alienation set within a treatise on time travel, tangent universes and fate. The film was launched at the Sundance Film Festival, nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes and has been critically acclaimed at other film festivals world-wide. Its huge underground popularity has meant Kelly, who has not released a film since, gets the chance to recut his original and release a director’s cut version with 20 minutes of additional footage and a different soundtrack.
Donnie Darko is one of those rare feature debuts that is beguiling, complex and extraordinary. Kelly’s attention to late 1980s detail is thorough, right down to the rampant Reaganism, conformity and family values that characterised the time. The film is partly Kelly’s reflection on a post-Columbine massacre, terror world that inhabits the American psyche and he successfully combines sci-fi, horror and black comedy.
Kelly’s work shows influences of other American indie directors, notably P.T. Anderson, Wes Anderson and David Lynch. These directors have long explored what lies beneath the veneer of suburban, middle America. Donnie Darko ends with Gary Jules’s bone-chilling version of the Tears For Fears song Mad World, which went on to top the British Singles Charts in 2003. This song alone ensured the popularity of the film.
Donnie Darko is visually stunning and is characterised by subtle special effects that don’t dominate or detract from the overall mood of the film. All the performances are standout. Jake Gyllenhaal is outstanding as Donnie Darko, troubled teenager and anti-hero. Mary McDonnell, a stage actress for 20 years before Dances With Wolves launched her film career, is excellent as the brittle, stoic, all-American mother trying to save her son. Jena Malone, critically acclaimed in many films since playing a 12-year-old in Bastard Out Of Carolina, is Donnie’s fawn-like girlfriend. Patrick Swayze plays a slimy, self-help guru to a T.
Donnie Darko: The Director’s Cut is more cohesive as a piece of filmmaking than the original. It will allow fans and a new audience to ponder whether it is a wild journey into multiple realities and multiple outcomes, a dark vision of modern suburbia teetering on the edge, or is it a tale told in the spirit of Phillip K. Dick about schizophrenia and drug abuse breaking the barriers of space and time? This is a very, dare one say, dark film that will not appeal to everyone but has had incredible resonance around the world for Generation X-ers and others who relate to the alienation Donnie Darko brings to the screen.