Donnie Darko

Donnie Darko ★★★★

A couple years ago when I first watched Richard Kelly’s debut film Donnie Darko, I was quick to praise the film’s theatrical edition while all but dismissing the director’s cut. Now what I’m about to say might be sacrilegious in the eyes of this film’s most devoted followers but hear me out. I was wrong to write-off the director’s cut and it’s actually far better than it gets credit for.

The major complaint that I see which leads to the vitriol of the director's cut is that the film over-explains all the underlying mysteries and philosophies that made the theatrical cut of Donnie Darko so magical. However, I don't believe that to entirely be the case.

Sure, the director's cut becomes didactic at times with the reliance of the Philosophy of Time Travel to fill in the gaps that the narrative itself seems gung-ho to omit. But given that I actually appreciate their inclusion, I think I'll begin with that. The insert shots of the Philosophy of Time Travel book help to flesh out the themes of the film because the original theatrical cut lacks a sense of purpose. The theatrical cut of the film shows audiences these supernatural events but then ends without leaving anything substantial for us to think about. I mean sure, you could try to piece together some explanation but the theatrical cut doesn't really give you much to work with. Instead, you're left with a feeling of "So what? What was the point?"

This is where the insert shots come in. Through their use of providing useful terminology such as the Tangent Universe, the Manipulated Dead, the Living Receiver, and the role of metal, fire and water, the audiences have something vague to consider and apply to the unfolding narrative while watching Donnie Darko. It makes the viewing experience as a whole more immersive and engaging overall. However, critiques aren't wrong to say that these insert shots are didactic especially when they expressly tell you what a passage of text means as you're reading it. Take the case of "The Artifact and the Living" chapter which leaves no room for interpretation as it tells you that the Artifact is the jet engine. Or take the "Dreams" chapter which tells you exactly what is appearing on screen. All in all I do think that the harms of these insert shots are outweighed by the good that they do for Donnie Darko as a whole.

The recurring motif of the eye is something that I have mixed opinions on too. I really enjoyed it the first couple times it appeared and it ties in with the drawing of the eyeball with a skull on it that Donnie has hanging on his wall, however it devolves into a jumbled, nonsensical barrage of sci-fi images that have no bearing on the actual film (and even work to once again, over explain the film's context…but it also overconvolutes them because of how absurdly indecipherable it becomes).

Really, the best part of the director's cut, and the aspect that gives it the edge over the theatrical cut, are the added scenes of Donnie having small interactions with his family and friends. For a film that has a message heavily tied to fatalism, extreme solipsism, existential dread, and the fear of dying alone, you would think that there would be more scenes to further develop these themes or provide an alternative viewpoint to these concepts.

The theatrical cut proves Donnie and Roberta Sparrow's point that everyone in the universe dies alone which is a rather bleak and unforgiving stance for a film of this caliber to end on. However, the director's cut proves them wrong. Despite the fate that Donnie has been bestowed by the universe, by amending his relationships with those closest to him in life, he is able to die knowing that his life has meant something to them and that it wasn't worth nothing. And I think that's a more meaningful message to end the film on.

Final Thoughts:
Theatrical Cut: 3/5
Director's Cut: 4/5

I’m gonna lose a lot of credibility as a film reviewer after this aren’t I?

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