Movie: Donnie Darko: The Director's Cut
I was hoping this rerelease would clarify this muddled and confusing film, but no such luck. Supposedly twenty minutes of new footage has been added, but I couldn't tell where. Some scenes seemed longer but there was much I didn't remember anyway, so I found it hard to tell waht was new. Nothing new helped explain anything; my comments on the original Donnie Darko are still valid.
I did, however, discover the key flaw in this film. The problem is that too much action happens off screen. This mostly seems to be intentional by the director, though the low budget could have been partly to blame. Either way, it was a poor decision. For example, when the airplane engine first crashes into the house, the scene is confusing: you see the house shake, the family rattled, then cut to the crew lifting a huge jet engine with a crane. You don't actually see the engine embedded into the house: you're forced to assume that's what happened. This makes the next scene -- when the family sees Donnie show up unhurt -- problematic, since A) we don't yet know the engine landed on his room and his sleepwalk saved his life, B) there's no evidence that Donnie was killed or not killed, since no shots of his crushed room are shown, and C) the family shows no surprise or relief at seeing him, which I found bewildering. Surely they either thought him dead or were shocked to see his bed was empty.
Of course this "off-screen action" problem isn't limited to this one key scene. It happens throughout the film, to different degrees of harm. The most obvious are the sabotage events, which we don't really see Donnie do, but suspect. Now those actually benefit from some abiguity as they make us wonder if Donnie's really done them or just assumes he did them; unfortunately, they aren't ambiguous enough. There's far too much evidence that he did them, such as the shot of him with the ax, his own words that he did them, etc. So the question then becomes, if he admits he did them and it's so obvious he did, why obscure that from the audience? Why not just show us plainly? What benefit is gained by obscuring those events? If the events were intended to be ambiguous there'd be a gain in mystery and complication, but since there is no mystery -- he did the sabotage -- the abiguity just confuses.
You can add to that his conversations with "Frank," the giant rabbit. Apparently we're only privy to parts of the conversation. For instance, we discover during Donnie's therapy that the rabbit's name is Frank -- we never actually hear the rabbit tell him that even though we're supposedly there during their first encounter. Withholding a little information from us, the viewer, is okay, but it's obvious that Donnie knows way more than we do and we have no idea how he got that information. Apparently Frank talked with him but we don't hear those conversations. Why not? Who knows. But since those conversations aren't even hinted at, the info comes to us second-hand, via Donnie, and it's a surprise. We're like, "Oh? Donnie knows what's going on?" One could argue this gives Donnie power: he's like a superhero, with knowledge of the future. Unfortunately, this just serves to further alienate Donnie from us; it doesn't endear him to us as he did earlier, when he was lonely and confused. By hiding information from us, the director has separated us from Donnie. We're now alone in watching the film and our main link, Donnie, is a stranger. I think this one thing is probably the main flaw that turns people off from this movie. Initially they like Donnie and can relate to him, but when he starts mysteriously knowing stuff (and not sharing details) he becomes someone we don't trust and can't understand.
Of course the greatest "off-screen action" flaw is undoubtedly the conclusion, where Donnie goes back in time to save the universe. Since we don't get to see how Donnie time travels (we don't see him building a machine, riding a machine, or even using mind power or magic beans) that key aspect of the film is completely lost to the average viewer. The film is just suddenly repeating the beginning, the night of the engine crash, only this time Donnie sacrifices himself and does not leave his bed, thus saving the universe. On first viewing it is practically impossible to figure that out since it's done so vaguely. Even the concept that Donnie is somehow special and his life was saved for a reason is never clear on first viewing.
The bottom line is that this film is not designed to be clearly understood. Some people would argue that directors like David Lynch do the same thing, but that's not at all the case. Lynch definitely has weird scenes in his films, but everything serves a purpose and is designed. This film is a cheap hack. It's got some great performances, some hilarious humor, and a potentially neat plot, but it's ineptly put together. The creator of this film thinks abiguity is good for abiguity's sake; he mistakes vagueness for philosophical depth. Lynch uses abiguity to guide the viewer down two equally plausible paths: the abiguity makes the story more complex and powerful, adding another layer of interpretation. Lynch's films benefit from repeated viewing not because information was lacking in the original presentation like with Donnie Darko, but because so much information was given that it's overwhelming and difficult for the brain to process. With Donnie Darko we're forced to read between the lines and try to figure out what happened off-screen; Lynch never does that. We actually see what happened, we just don't understand the significance on first viewing.
I really wanted to like this movie. I'm a huge fan of cult classics and this movie has a large following. I gave it a question mark after my first viewing, unsure of my feelings. Seeing it a second time, however, confirmed my conclusion that this is dreck. It's a mess that severely needs a rewrite, editing, and a better director. Keep in mind that I normally like confusing, puzzling movies. For instance, I wasn't sure about 12 Monkeys the first time I saw, but it's become one of my favorite movies of all time. The story is complex and confusing, but fits together beautifully in retrospect. It's confusing simply because the story's so complicated and because it's difficult to understand "current" events without understanding what happens later. Donnie Darko could have been that kind of film, but it's weakly done. Nothing is clear, even in retrospect, and much of what happens, even when cool, is never given a reason. For instance, it's widely assumed by fans that the rabbit is an alien being, yet I saw not a shred of evidence to support that. Not even a hint. Why? If that's a possibility, why wouldn't the writer include a hint or two?
I could write for a week and not list all the confusing flaws in this film, but the movie's just not worth it to me. If you're a fan and enjoy it, great; there are parts I like and I'll enjoy those, but for me the film's just too flawed to work.