First-time writer-director Richard Kelly's breathtakingly ambitious "Donnie Darko" was one of the best pictures released in 2001. Now that it has returned in a 20-minute longer — and richer — director's cut, it seems sure to be ranked as one of the key American films of the decade. Opening a month after Sept. 11, "Donnie Darko," if anything, was a little too timely for its own good at the box office yet proved a cult sleeper and a top-selling DVD.
That "Donnie Darko: The Director's Cut" is now complete does not mean it is all that clearer, for it is nothing if not confounding — but that seems to be the idea. In the title role, Jake Gyllenhaal is a disaffected teenager in a classic upscale suburbia, the kind in which leafy streets are lined with large, traditional-style homes. Donnie, who is given to sleepwalking, hallucinations and communicating with an imaginary friend, a giant monstrous-looking rabbit named Frank (James Duval), is first seen asleep in the middle of a rural road. By the time he awakens — the date is Oct. 2, 1988 — a voice tells him that in 28 days the world will come to an end. And when he returns home he learns that an engine from a jet plane has crashed into his bedroom. Talk about portents.
These surreal introductory notes serve to point up the less dramatic absurdities of everyday life that confront a youth of soaring intelligence like Donnie while they pass unnoticed by the more mundane minds of those who live largely on life's surface. Donnie's parents (Holmes Osborne, Mary McDonnell) are in an attractive early middle age, are loving, reasonably laid-back — and conventional. Their eldest daughter, Beth (Maggie Gyllenhaal, real-life sister to Jake), awaits college while their youngest, Samantha (Daveigh Chase), looks to be about 8 or 9.
Donnie perceives that he's living in an insular, privileged world in which it is all too easy for people to be susceptible to simplistic thinking. Haunted by real-life bullies as well as his own fervid imagination, Donnie fearlessly challenges teachers and almost everyone else even though he seems by nature diffident.
The most onerous presence in school is a hysterical gym teacher (Beth Grant) who has fallen under the spell of a local bestselling self-help guru (a deliciously oily Patrick Swayze) who preaches that in order to escape the clutches of fear we must "go toward love." Donnie is all for conquering fear but realizes that the task is lots more complex than the simplistic approach of Swayze's relentlessly upbeat guru.
He finds respite in an English literature class, whose teacher (Drew Barrymore) is stimulating and open-minded, and in cosmic discussions with his science teacher (Noah Wyle).
In the meantime, Donnie has frequent sessions with his psychiatrist (Katharine Ross). She suspects he might be a paranoid schizophrenic, but Kelly moves beyond this to suggest that, though this diagnosis may or may not be accurate, Donnie has the kind of brilliance that allows him to make connections beyond the grasp of others.
The film is propelled by Donnie's fear (which he himself thinks may be irrational) that time really is running out for the world, and he becomes consumed with the desire to save it. Coming across a book written by a former nun and teacher at his school — and now an aged recluse (Patience Cleveland) — called "The Philosophy of Time Travel," he begins to think he may have found the answer. (The film's additional footage consists mainly of tantalizing quotes from this text plus an illuminating scene between Donnie and his father.)
It remains true that "Donnie Darko" poses more questions than it answers. Indeed, Kelly demands that the viewer think for him- or herself.
Droll, subversively hilarious, "Donnie Darko" is as amusing as it is provocative. At heart its message is clear enough — an exhortation to keep an open mind, to embrace each other and the universe with its seemingly infinite possibilities, come what may. The great thing is that "Donnie Darko," with its cosmically comic perspective, makes these endeavors so exhilarating.
'Donnie Darko: The Director's Cut'
MPAA rating: R for language, some drug use and violence
Times guidelines: Suitable for early teens and mature older children
Jake Gyllenhaal...Donnie Darko
Jena Malone...Gretchen Ross
Drew Barrymore...Karen Pomeroy
Mary McDonnell...Rose Darko
Holmes Osborne...Eddie Darko
A Newmarket Films presentation in association with Pandora of a Flower Films production. Writer-director Richard Kelly. Producers Sean McKittrick, Nancy Juvonen. Executive producer Drew Barrymore. Executive producers Hunt Lowry, Casey La Scala, William Tyrer, Chris J. Ball, Aaron Ryder. Cinematographer Steven Poster. Editors Sam Bauer, Eric Strand. Music Michael Andrews. Costumes April Ferry. Production designer Alexander Hammond. Set designer Julia Levine. Set decorator Jennie Harris. Running time: 2 hours, 13 minutes. Exclusively at ArcLight Cinemas, 6360 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood, (323) 464-4226; Laemmle's One Colorado Cinemas, 42 Miller Alley, Pasadena, (626) 744-1224; and the Pacific Galleria Stadium 16, 15301 Ventura Blvd. (at Sepulveda), Sherman Oaks, (818) 501-5121.