The Human Suit Gets a 4K Upgrade: Donnie Darko Revisited
The 2001 cult hit Donnie Darko is making its way back into theaters this month with a new 4K scan overseen by Arrow Films. With the theatrical run and news of the Arrow Blu-ray set coming to the U.S., it felt right for Rockie Juarez and Marcelo J. Pico to revisit Richard Kelly's film. They attended a screening of the Theatrical Cut in Austin, TX last week; here are their thoughts.
Rockie Juarez: Not surprising really due to its cult status but weird old Donnie Darko is back with a 4K restoration and a small theatrical run. Having not seen it in almost a decade, I am happy to report that Darko still holds, and my nitpicks are so petty that they never kill this glorious period piece-horror ride. The 4K restoration looks nice, but it is nowhere near as wonderful as the recent Phantasm 4K release, for example. There are a ton of night scenes in Phantasm showcasing that amazing restoration, but still, Darko looks solid with a crisp picture throughout. Only distortion weirdness that I noticed is the kid in the Ronald Reagan mask jumping on a trampoline at the Halloween Party.
Marcelo J. Pico: I haven't seen this movie in, like, 13 years. I remember jumping onboard the Darko cult train shortly after it hit DVD. Then, like many, I was eager to see Kelly's Director's Cut, and like many...yeah, we'll get more into that later. But, I was very happy to see the original cut on the big screen with a packed house who were all as engrossed as I was. This was for sure the best the movie has ever looked. Sure, it shows its indie production wears and tears, but for a film made in 2001 that's set in 1988, the grain and "dated" visual hold up. The heroes at Arrow first presented the new 4K Donnie Darko last year in the U.K., with a limited theatrical run and Blu-ray release. I was hoping we'd get the same treatment here and, lo and behold, the movie gods blessed us with the chance to re-appreciate this movie. We're lucky to have a new chance to dive into this bizarre little movie.
RJ: There are complaints. The dodgy CG that did not age well. That said, director Richard Kelly himself stated (in the DVD commentary) that he was in a rush to complete the film and asked FX houses to work damn near for free to complete the project. So, again, my nitpicks are petty. The end result still works because, while they are dated, they still tell the story and are not there for flash.
MJP: I'll go to bat for the CG effects. I actually think, limited as they may be, the wormholes and effects-heavy dream sequences fit with the aesthetic. To me, Donnie Darko has never been "polished". That's the major problem with the Director's Cut, which felt like Kelly trying to fix the supposed problems with the original cut, inserting text throughout to try and explain the time travel elements. The film's overarching themes outweigh the shortcomings it has with its production and script. Sure, there are some characters that come in and out of the film that might've benefited from an extra scene. My gripe, if I have one, lies with the man in the horrifying rabbit suit. In the Theatrical Cut the impact of the rabbit man's reveal might've been even stronger if we know more about him. But, really, that's me just grasping at straws because overall I think the Theatrical Cut of Donnie Darko is quite spectacular.
RJ: Now for the compliments. Where to begin? This is a Steven King/Twilight Zone nod that manages to do its own thing in the process. The entire cast is absolutely perfect (my favorite being Mommy and Daddy Darko played by Holmes Osborne and Mary McDonnell) with every single one of them pulling their own weight. Religion, sci-fi, and horror blend with slightly confusing but never frustrating results. The film is also really damn funny with lines that will never leave your mind anytime soon, with Beth Grant stealing the show.
MJP: The third act of Donnie Darko has a direct reference to E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial—with the cast of kids racing on their bikes to reach the denouement on Halloween—which I'm totally here for. Its references to 80s' pop culture underline its themes of religion and sci-fi, smartly turning those Amblin-esque touches into something so dark and beautiful. Oh, and how did we go this far and not mention Jake Gyllenhaal as Donnie? It's a spectacular early performance from the actor, mixing angst, anxiety, introversion, and, finally, hope. His sister Maggie plays his sister here, and the natural sibling chemistry works wonders. Jena Malone, Patrick Swayze, Drew Barrymore, and even baby face Seth Rogen make Darko one of those Totally, Perfectly Cast movies.
RJ: The Director's Cut is how Kelly wanted the songs to be arranged in the film, but, like most of us, the Theatrical Cut is how the songs were heard first. Donnie riding his bike back home to the Echo & the Bunnymen track "The Killing Moon" is the only way to open the film for my money.
MJP: Yeah, I barely remember the Director's Cut. That release is really the big reason why I didn't bother to revisit the movie in over a decade. The original Darko was released in 2001 and only three years later in 2004, Kelly released the Director's Cut. Looking back, the three-year-jump from box office failure to cult movie to Director's Cut DVD release may have been too quick. I wonder if the bubble burst too early for Darko, seeing that, by my observation, the film sort of disappeared from the film fans' public consciousness. A Kevin Smith commentary track on the Director's Cut on the DVD release didn't help things much. I understand Kelly's desire to release his proper vision, but people feel in love with the weird and rough original cut.
RJ: Donnie Darko is a miracle movie with all the elements coming together to form something that truly earns that cult classic title people gave it upon release. Here is that instance where that moniker works and wasn't just hype. Still strong many years after release, Darko earns its laughs, scares, mystery, and, in some cases, tears with seemingly effortless ease. My opinions only apply to the Theatrical Cut as the Director's Cut hurts the momentum and explains way too much. Leave it vague and leave the songs in the "wrong" order please.
MJP: Please watch the Theatrical Cut of Donnie Darko if you haven't. Arrow Films' theatrical run (check the theater listings) and Blu-ray release (buy it) are making it really easy for you to watch and fully appreciate this movie. It has only gotten better with age—I can tell you that the movie worked a lot better for me now than when I first saw it as a teenager. Donnie Darko is a mystery of a movie, one that allows its audience to unwrap its mystery with the emotional weight you bring to it.