“Donnie Darko,” screening at Nickelodeon Cinemas on Thursday, is a quintessential cult movie.
Noted authority on such things, film critic Danny Peary, defines cult movies as “special films, which for one reason or another, have been taken to heart by segments of the movie audience, cherished, protected, and most of all, enthusiastically championed.”
A cult movie inspires devotion, beyond the rosy nostalgia or pure popcorn fun of the average Hollywood film, something Space Gallery, which is presenting the film, is banking on by booking this 15th-anniversary restored re-release of “Donnie Darko.” Space is counting on those few who discovered the film on its initial release, and the many more who became obsessed with it on DVD, to come out to see this gorgeously presented revival.
I imagine a lot will. “Donnie Darko” is an enigmatic, visually arresting tale of a troubled high-schooler (pre-stardom Jake Gyllenhaal) who starts receiving cryptic messages about the end of the world, complete with suggestions of time travel, parallel realities and a terrifying, human-sized rabbit named Frank, who delivers the news that Donnie’s seemingly placid suburban existence will come to an end in 28 days. Donnie stops taking his meds, reaches out to the pretty new girl in school (Jena Malone), acts out against the New Age takeover of his school by a smooth-talking guru (Patrick Swayze, effectively creepy), and tries to determine just how much of Frank’s warnings are a product of his own, long-diagnosed mental illness. It’s a teen drama, a sci-fi thriller, a phantasmagorical dissection of American society. In short, “Donnie Darko” is a mind-screw and a well executed and maddeningly mysterious one, which is the perfect recipe for cult status. (It also helps that the film tanked on initial release; a plot point about a crashing jet doomed its publicity prospects in the days right after Sept 11.)
Rewatching the film 15 years later, “Donnie Darko” is still deeply entertaining — as long as you don’t delve too deeply. Director Kelly has done the film some serious damage himself in the intervening years, mainly by releasing his 2004 “director’s cut.” “Now wait a minute,” you may be saying, “isn’t a director’s cut a purer example of the filmmaker’s vision?” And you’d be right — except that that’s not always a good thing.
Here’s the re-release trailer for “Donnie Darko”
Sure, in 95 percent of cases, a director’s cut is an improvement. Freed from studio mandates, commercial considerations, and compromise, indeed, most of the time, the director’s cut is a revelation. But Kelly has shown himself to have a lot of great ideas and seriously suspect storytelling instincts in his subsequent films “Southland Tales” and “The Box.” And his director’s cut shows that much of what powers the theatrical cut of “Donnie Darko” (which is, thankfully, what Space is showing) is what we bring to it.
In its icy strangeness, the film invites us to fill in the blanks, to attribute a lot of fantastic and ambiguous resonances to events that, in Kelly’s mind, would have been much more effective if he held our hand. The director’s cut is the work of a filmmaker afraid we’ll miss every point he wants to laboriously make. Don’t watch the director’s cut, is what I’m saying. (A rare warning I’d apply also to George Lucas’ re-jiggered original “Star Wars” trilogy, Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now Redux” and James Cameron’s bafflingly ham-handed updated version of “Aliens.”)
Does the knowledge that Richard Kelly has proven himself to be a less interesting filmmaker than the original cut of “Donnie Darko” made him appear detract from the not-inconsiderable pleasures of submerging yourself into the film again? I don’t think so. The young Gyllenhaal is great, mining Donnie’s possible madness for queasy empathy while trotting out the patented Stanley Kubrick menace face (head down, eyes up, creepy smile). His real-life sister, Maggie (playing Donnie’s sister), is wonderful, too, her sensible sibling’s clear love for her brother never losing sight of how unstable he can be.
There are fine turns from Mary McDonnell, Swayze, Drew Barrymore and Noah Wylie as the variously perturbed adults casting wary eyes on Donnie’s increasingly odd behavior. The soundtrack of late-’80s music (including Gary Jules’ haunting cover of Tears for Fears’ “Mad World”) is perfectly chosen. And then there’s Frank, the possibly imaginary bunny-man’s improbable appearance (and appearances) and raspy pronouncements as creepy as anything David Lynch (an obvious influence) could have dreamed up.
So head to Nickelodeon, sit back and turn off all outside distractions. “Donnie Darko” has some weird things to tell you.
“Donnie Darko” screens on Thursday at 7:30 p.m. Nickelodeon Cinemas, 1 Temple St., Portland. Tickets are $10 and the film is rated R. Check out space538.org for details.