Sunday, September 05, 2004

Donnie Darko: the Director's Cut: a review

A daily blogger who I read recently admitted that the time he puts into blogging every day comes at the expense of a social life. It didn't strike me as a sad statement--this was his choice, and he derives happiness from his success as a blogger--so much as a reassuring one. Blogging takes more time than people realize. I constantly have opinions and reviews I want to share but don't have the time to get to them all. Sometimes it's flukey that I'll get the chance to blog afresh about a minor or disappointing movie when there are so many great ones I have so much (too much) to say about yet won't have the time.

But I definitely wanted to make sure I talked about Donnie Darko: the Director's Cut, because the original film is one of my favorite films of the last 10 years. (I recently realized that I say "one of my favorites" a lot, and that it must sound like I say that about everything. So I'm planning to cough up some all-time favorites lists soon.) The film came out in the fall of 2001, and its dark weirdness (including a jet engine crash) may have hit at the wrong time for a country distracted by the fallout from 9/11. Still, it's so strange a movie that it might have only found a cult audience in the best of times. I'd read a story or two (after I fell in love with the film) about the editing process of the film, and I remember concluding that the film's genius may have been something of a happy accident, that the director didn't truly understand the film's strengths and that the edits that were made to some degree against his wishes helped transform it into a great film. I decided not to get my hopes up that Richard Kelly would ever produce anything as great again.

Having seen the director's cut, I'm now even more convinced this is the case. While the movie is still wonderful, strange, mysterious, powerful, the film has clearly been undercut by the changes. The new material is interesting in a DVD extra kind of way, but the original version still towers above it. First of all, the original is leaner and meaner, with a non-stop, trance-inducing flow that grabs you right from the beginning. The director's cut, with its extra and elongated scenes, is choppier and more uneven. Scenes that played out in full originally are edited in the director's cut so that the action is interrupted, the anecdotal logic of the narrative undermined (I'm thinking of the lifeline school lesson, especially). The extremely effective soundtrack is slightly rearranged, leading off with weaker material (INXS instead of Echo and the Bunnymen). (And, as a side note, the new print is darker and less vibrant in color, compared to the rich tones of the first version.) Worse, the time travel book is used to organize chapters in the new version, leading off with illustrations and quotes. The text is silly and is distracting in its head-scratching relationship to the plot. It was better to keep the book mysterious through underexposure in the original release where, as I recall, we only saw an illustration once, when Donnie's therapist is looking at it with him. There's a new set of special effects--an eye and too-bright computer readouts--that give the film a cheaper, low budget look. They are also cliche images, having been used in so many films, whereas the first version kept the visual motifs limited to the film's more original ideas, like the evil bunny costume. Overall, the original version has a much better and snappier rhythm--the countdown towards doomsday has more power, building a feeling of dread and excitement in the audience.

When it comes to the new scenes, some of them would have been interesting as supplementary DVD scenes, but because they slow down the narrative drive, they shouldn't be in the film. I'm thinking in particular of the conversation Donnie has with his father later in the film which further demonstrates his love for and encouragement of his son's rebelliousness, a sweet and rare father-son relationship in the movies. There's also a conversation between the parents at an outdoor restaurant, extra footage of the stay in the hotel, and lots more with Drew Barrynore as the freethinking and eccentric high school English teacher. In addition to the Graham Greene story raised in the original (more on that later), the director's cut has the class discussing Watership Down as an alternative to the censored text. Aside from the too obvious "bunny" connection (Kelly's overdoing it), I thought Donnie's comments in class were disappointing in that they showed an anti-imaginative streak in his character that contradicts so many of his actions. A major plot revelation in the new version has Donnie's therapist telling him the drugs he's been taking are a placebo. I think adding this moment is a major mistake, removing some of the key ambiguity in the film's story. It undercuts the surreal, druggy reading of the film and eliminates the drugs as a possible influence on Donnie's motives.

Having trashed all these changes, I should at least reaffirm the power of the original material that is still all there in its glory. Mary McDonnell is amazingly good, and looking at the film again now that I've seen Maggie Gyllenhaal in Secretary, I can see how good she is even in her small role. What a strong effect it creates having a real life brother and sister play brother and sister here. (Katharine Ross and Beth Grant are also notably good.) The film is clearly a major work of the last several years, hugely influentual on younger directors (Garden State, for example, borrows the image of the turbulent flight and some of the ideas about drugs and young men; Napoleon Dynamite borrowed the image of the overly serious girl dance troupe). Aside from the fresh strangeness of the film--which often plays better scene for scene than as a whole-- and its unique take on 80s culture which never plays like dumb nostalgia, my favorite single aspect of the film is Donnie's rebelliousness, especially in the scenes where he stands up to his teacher and her cherished new age guru. It's troubling that the film rewards his urge to destroy property with positive results, but the revelations that follow feel earned, and the sense that he is mysteriously guided on some kind of heroic quest gives the film part of its unique power.

Speaking of which, I hunted down the Graham Greene short story mentioned (and briefly debated) in the film, "The Destructors." It can be found online and in the collection 21 Stories by Graham Greene. It's a powerful, profoundly dark short story that turns masterfully on subtle points of psychological insight. (Its view of group dynamics, especially in the relationship between Blackie and Trevor, is convincing and powerfully cynical.) I found it chilling and complex, right down to its ending. When Donnie observes in class that the children consider destruction a creative act, he is echoing a passage from the narration of the story itself and a major theme of the story. The story takes pains to emphasize the resources the children draw on in order to fulfill Trevor's vision, and the story turns at least three times. Not knowing much about the context, I would guess that the story speaks powerfully about the postwar experience. It also reminded me a little bit of Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle.



Blogger Kara said...

Enjoying your blog, as usual. So, I've been using your reviews to make a list of movies to see for when I have more time (read: get outta grad school). I haven't seen Donnie Darko (yet), but read something that definitely made me want to: Everything you were afraid to ask about "Donnie Darko" (from Salon). Don't feel too much pressure to share more opinions/reviews — my list is long enough already! :)

8:49 AM  
Blogger Steve said...

Begging for mercy, eh? Sorry, lots more reviews coming soon. Mwah ah ah ah!! Clearly, way too much time on my hands. Thanks for the link to the article.

9:18 AM  

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