DONNIE DARKO 4K restoration (2016)
Directed by Richard Kelly
This feature contains heavy spoilers for Donnie Darko
It doesn’t feel like 15 years since Donnie Darko came out. I mean, that’s gotta make you feel old right? If so then not to worry – this Christmas the good people at Arrow Films are rereleasing it, with a 4k restoration, to let you feel 16 again. So strap a little blue light on your bike and cycle down to your local cinema. And if haven’t seen it before, stop reading this spoiler-heavy review and book your seat now to see what the fuss is about.
This may sound a tad hyperbolic. But when I was young, this film was the epitome of outsider cool: a torment-ridden tale of the apocalypse, with time travel and a giant rabbit. Yet despite its heavy surrealism, elaborate metaphysics and musings on destiny it spoke to us all. Described by its creator as The Catcher in the Rye, by way of Philip K Dick, it’s an emotional drama about growing pains wrapped in a mind-fuck. Whether it was because the nihilism, the way it took teenage feelings of alienation seriously or post 9/11 feelings of uncertainty I’m not sure. Though for whatever reason it was just the right sort of film to come out for us at the cusp of adulthood. Particularly in the UK, where despite its limited release it was a word of mouth hit that went on to sell some 300,000 tickets in six weeks. In the playground everyone’d seen it, wanted to see it or had watched it half a dozen times already. While those with no interest faked it.
So as a refresher, if you want to blag it too or simply can’t remember back that far, the titular Donnie is a seemingly normal suburban kid in the 80s, with a life that’d sound pretty damn sweet on paper. He’s got loaded parents, a big house and good grades. But across 2 hours he faces the usual teenage triad of mental health, getting laid and a man in a bunny costume, named Frank, telling him when the world’s ending. One night he’s sleep walking, under the influence of this new imaginary friend, when a jet engine swoops down and crushes his bedroom. Now he owes Frank his life – not that there’s much left of it since humanity only has 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes, and 12 seconds left. So not long to stop Armageddon, out a paedophile at his school and teach himself the basic principles behind time travel via a book by the crazy woman up the road. If this all sounds too much, it probably would be to most writers/ directors. However, Richard Kelly (who sadly never lived up to this debut) does an exemplary job of mashing these strands together into a dreamscape that plays with family and loneliness as much as space and time.
Seeing it these years later I was surprised at how fascinating I found these third and fourth parts. Though they originally seemed a convoluted means to an end, older and wiser I see how expertly integrated the science fiction elements (that reportedly become more pronounced in the Director’s Cut) are. Indeed, unlike in the ill fated sequel, they do much to deepen the themes of idealisation, coming of age and the magic of storytelling. That Donnie, by the end, has gone from having no stake in the world to saving it is a brilliant arc. Then, as the supporting cast wake to a feeling of Déjà vu and Gary Jules’ Mad World, its maybe among the most powerful payoffs from the generation of movies. Many of these characters won’t learn who Donnie was, though his sacrifice that allowed the universe to realign carries ripples. Perhaps some of them will see the errors of their ways, while other’s lives will be improved without him. Then there’s others like Cherita Chen, the film’s unsung hero, for whom things probably won’t get better.
Speaking of heroes, another thing that surprised me on rewatch is how little of one Donnie is. When younger he watched like a cynical voice of a generation, though now he seems more nuanced – encapsulating many of the best and worst traits of teens the world over. On one hand he’s deeply analytical, smart and good natured. Though on the other he’s flippant, angsty and worked up about nothing in particular. The pain he causes to others, especially his family, is also very visible. Gyllenhaal handles the tension in his role with skill, finding the humanity in Donnie without getting sentimental (just try and imagine the more babyfaced Tobey Macguire doing it, if you dare). His is a protagonist that’s neither a romanticised tortured soul, nor a lifeless list of schizophrenic symptoms. This sense of balance is present in other parts of the film: the combo of gritty life and polished fantasy, of philosophy and Smurfs and nostalgia laced with a feeling of ‘thank fuck that time in my life is over’.
Until this weekend I hadn’t seen Donnie Darko for a long time: it’s probably not been more than twice since the day I first left the screen, with the all too rare feeling of knowing I’d watched an all-time classic. Truth be told, I figured it’d now be irrelevant or seem too emo. Well, sometimes being wrong is great. I loved becoming immersed in its universes again (both parallel and tangential) and would strongly recommend fellow former fans get involved again too. Firstly, because even if remember it, there’s an intriguing mystery at its core with a lot of depth. Secondly, because unlike listening to the music of your teens, you’ll likely come to appreciate even more than before. Not because it grew up and got smarter, but because you have.
Donnie Darko 4K restoration is showing at the BFI on December 16th and released at selected cinemas on December 23rd 2016.