Sunday, October 24, 2004

Do you believe in time travel?

If you think it’s all a crock of shit, chances are that you’ll hate this review. Just thought I’d say that before we get started.

I’ve been thinking of writing a combined review of the original Donnie Darko and the Director’s Cut ever since I watched the latter. And I was aware that, in writing a review, I’d need to be able to explain the film’s more… surreal aspects.

So I did a lot of thinking. And got a few passing headaches. Now, for all you confused people, I’ve written a description of the film’s own narrative from start to finish, to remind you of the important bits, and an explanation of the time–travel elements of the film. It opens in a new window because it’s large, but it’s on this site, don’t worry. It will ruin the film for you on so many levels if you haven’t yet seen it so spoiler warning! Click here for it.

The first thing to say about Donnie Darko is that its construction is of secondary importance to its sheer quality as a satisfying piece of film art. By art I don’t mean craft; by craft I don’t mean ingenuity. I mean characters, the resourcefulness of Jake Gyllenhaal, the steely sensitivity of Katharine Ross, the sardonic benevolence of Drew Barrymore.

The story is a paragon of ingenuity — although not in terms of the sinuous and infuriating plot. In a phase of cinema history where both Titanic and Schindler’s List, even though on very different ends of the artistic scale, are both pitched so that 100% understanding of the screened visuals and emotional content are expected by 100% of the audience, Donnie Darko deliberately pitches itself higher.

In the cinema on a first viewing, an average viewer will get the point of only 80–90% of the visuals and about 50% or less of the content; an attentive viewer may get the point of 100% of the visuals but there will be a good 30% of film time that he or she just doesn’t understand. And yet — and this is down to the acting and direction — everyone leaves the cinema fascinated, asking questions, wanting more.

It’s no accident that such an emotionally honest and violently compelling film was made by a young man. Richard Kelly was 26 when he directed this film, and must have been 24 when the first ideas took hold. The sheer amount of fight inside Donnie’s character can be seen as a reflection, in a way, of how much Kelly must have had to fight to get Donnie Darko made. In the original version and Director’s Cut, it shows — although less in the Cut. The effects had to be scaled down during filming. Patrick Swayze and Drew Barrymore would have been the only recognisable names in the cast list, and it was undoubtedly Barrymore’s involvement as a producer which gave the film its first legs.

But it’s the predominant youthfulness of the film as a piece of art which both glorifies and damns it. Glorifies to almost every receptive person under about 35, and damns it to more or less everyone over 40. Its lead character is a scary six–footer of a bunny; its chief protagonist a charismatic, depressed teenager. What takes place in the plot includes swearing, frenzied learning about the world which only happens during your teenage years, telling teachers to do some unspeakable things with their anuses (heh! heheh!), all overlaid by a gentle… adulthood, barely expressed, but omnipresent.

What the Director’s Cut adds, apart from a remastered soundtrack and some upgraded effects, are several diegetic insertions (essentially, unseen chunks of film slipped in for the first time) which change things emotionally — and a swap–around of some of the songs. Mad World is still the coda, but the original music has been restored to the second sequence and it tones down the mystery. Perhaps a good thing.

Certainly, though, the introduction of Roberta Sparrow’s book The Philosophy of Time Travel as a superimposed image at the start of the acts change things immensely. Instead of making them grasp at straws, Kelly lets his audience see where things are going. And this isn’t a bad thing, just different. Donnie’s journey instantly seems more tragic in the classical sense, because he is being pulled by a fate we now clearly see, and can still do damn all about. There are subtle changes in the effect of the special effects, too, but I won’t spoil things for those who want to watch the Cut ‘fresh’.

Essentially, the difference between the original and the Cut is that the Cut takes away some mystery — but replaces it with intensity. The two are subtly different films, and both are superlative achievements. Go watch.

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