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Return to 'Darko' Side: New Scenes Enlightening

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 20, 2004; Page C01

"Donnie Darko" was first released just weeks after Sept. 11, 2001, timing that could not have been worse for first-time writer-director Richard Kelly. With its use of airplanes falling from the sky and various other portents of doom, the movie was an eerie cultural artifact -- at once mournfully prescient and utterly of its particular time. The film was too disturbing to find much success at the box office, but over the past three years it has become a major cult hit on video and DVD, and as a midnight movie.

Now Kelly has released his director's cut of "Donnie Darko," one that is sure to keep bongs filled in college dorm rooms for years to come. With 20 added minutes of material that flesh out the story's more cryptic elements, the film manages to answer some lingering questions while raising a few more. Kelly has once again pulled a neat trick, not just in giving a once-moribund project new life, but in doing so without detracting from the first version's mesmerizing pull. "Donnie Darko" holds up either way.

Jake Gyllenhaal's Donnie Darko embodies the ambiguity of disaffected adolescence. (Dale Robinette -- New Market Films)

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In a suburban town somewhere in Virginia, Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal) wakes up bleary-eyed next to his bicycle on a mountain road. We're not sure how he got there, and it's soon revealed that he's not sure he's sure, either. A bright but disturbed high school student, Donnie has started to sleepwalk lately, and he's being visited by a giant, grotesque rabbit named Frank. On Oct. 2, 1988, Frank informs Donnie that the world will end in 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes and 12 seconds. The rest of the film -- which reportedly also took 28 days to make -- traces Donnie's life in that time period, when he will plunge into a mind-bending exploration of time travel, destiny, the meaning of life, first love and whether Smurfs are capable of having sex.

That last issue may seem wildly out of place in a film so preoccupied with cosmic speculations, but what has made "Donnie Darko" so popular, especially with young audiences, is how it manages to inject goofy humor into a story of such emotional and spiritual heft. As a character, Donnie joins Holden Caulfield as one of the great standard-bearers of adolescent disaffection; he's kind of a scary kid, and when he's in the middle of one of his hallucinations it's difficult to tell whether he's sanctified or demonically possessed (Gyllenhaal has a terrific face for projecting such ambiguity, turning his charm on and off just with the faint downward tilt of his head). Kelly encourages the confusion right up to the film's whopper of an ending -- the kind that prompts viewers to go back to the box office, buy another ticket and watch the movie all over again.

Without giving too much of the game away, that ending also suggests that "Donnie Darko" might be "The Passion of the Christ" for the secular humanism set. (It's interesting that both films were released by the same distributor.) But it's also just as meaningful for believers.

Like so many of his counterparts in Hollywood, Kelly shoots fish in a barrel when he makes fun of moral hypocrisy and Christian fundamentalism (embodied by a self-righteous busybody wearing a "God is Awesome" sweat shirt and a creepy self-help guru played by Patrick Swayze). Yet, in perhaps his boldest move as a filmmaker, he isn't afraid to give Donnie's scientific inquiries spiritual meaning. (Compare and contrast with the intellectual brain-teasers concocted by screenwriter Charlie Kaufman in "Being John Malkovich" and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.")

Some of "Donnie Darko's" most deeply affecting sequences are when Donnie's therapist -- played by Katharine Ross -- puts his existential anguish into the context of a search for God. "Is the search for God absurd?" she asks when Donnie announces he's stopped asking if God exists. "It is if you die alone," he replies miserably. (Her response to that stipulation is passionately well argued.) There are more of these interchanges in the director's cut of the film, as well as many more references to a book on time travel written by one of Donnie's guides on his journey through the Escher-like dimensions of his own consciousness.

These additions -- including some extra scenes with Donnie and his parents, as well as a hilarious sequence involving the study of "Watership Down" in his English class -- deepen the already densely layered texture of "Donnie Darko," and they give fans something more to chew on even if they find themselves returning to the first one as the definitive, classic version. It was that film, after all, which so pungently captured the ambition, materialism and complacency of the 1980s, from brief references to Dukakis to Donnie's little sister's precociously sexual dance team. (Coincidentally, Donnie's high school is called Middlesex, evoking the novelist Jeffrey Eugenides' equally moody depictions of contemporary suburbia.)

The first "Donnie Darko" was the one that paid such smart homage to its pop cultural antecedents, from "The Catcher in the Rye" to "The Last Temptation of Christ" and even "E.T." (whose Drew Barrymore executive-produced and co-stars in "Donnie Darko"). And it was also the one that featured one of the best and most moving montage sequences in recent years, set to Gary Jules's haunting rendition of the Tears for Fears song "Mad World." These and countless other carefully observed details made the first "Donnie Darko" succeed on its own terms. If Kelly felt it necessary to add the new material, that's all to the good. It just means there's more to love.

Donnie Darko: The Director's Cut (133 minutes, at Visions Bar Noir) is rated R for language, some underage drug and alcohol use and violence.

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