Donnie Darko‘s passage from Sundance ruin to midnight-movie religion is an underdog feat worthy of its hero. Trust distributors Newmarket, newly flush with Passion profits, to grant this rather more agnostic allegory of sacrifice and salvation another chance at box office redemption. With an extra 20 minutes spliced in, Richard Kelly’s knockout debut—an aptly schizoid time capsule of apocalyptic teen anxieties, scored to a loving mix tape of period pop—remains the most potent Reagan-child rebel yell to date. The differences are mostly subtle, and for the considerable subset of the fan base that came of age in the ’80s, which Darko you prefer may come down to questions as seemingly trivial (yet deeply philosophical) as . . . Echo and the Bunnymen or INXS? (I don’t care that it’s more 1988—replacing “The Killing Moon” with “Never Tear Us Apart” for the opening dawn bike ride feels like a betrayal.)
Obsessives will be familiar with the “new” material (almost all available on the original DVD), which elaborates on the time-travel metaphysics and tightens the emotional screws. Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal) shares one additional tender exchange with each family member—best of all a poignant moment of father-son congruity. Also restored: a subplot in which Drew Barrymore’s English teacher, forced to remove Graham Greene’s The Destructors from her curriculum, reassigns the kids Watership Down, and a late bombshell from Katharine Ross’s therapist, who further emphasizes the theological nature of Donnie’s space-time manipulations. Kelly’s more overt attempts at explication prove counterproductive. Donnie’s reference manual, The Philosophy of Time Travel, was only glancingly invoked in the first version. (Its contents have long been available on the film’s website.) Now entire pages, with repeated references to Hawking-via-Zemeckis concepts like the Tangent Universe and the Manipulated Living, are superimposed on the screen. Needlessly annotating and foreshadowing, the geeky bursts of text (along with periodic, tricked-out close-ups of Donnie’s eye) diminish the narrative’s mystery and disrupt its somnambulist tempo.
A remarkably precise evocation of its decade, Donnie Darko has also proved to be a cultural barometer of uncanny timing and sensitivity. Set in the final month of the 1988 presidential campaign (the film’s first line: “I’m voting for Dukakis”), it premiered at Sundance on the eve of the Bush II inauguration, opened in the catastrophic fall of 2001, and is being revived for another brutal election season that we can only hope goes some way to rectifying the Tangent Universe of the last four years.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 13, 2004