Just a few years before Jake Gyllenhaal broke our hearts as Jack Twist in Brokeback Mountain, he was seriously messing with our minds in 2001’s “Donnie Darko” (Arrow), newly reissued in a 4K Blu-ray special edition theatrical cut. Gyllenhaal, no stranger to taking on bizarre content (see 2013’s Enemy), not only set the bar higher for himself with this Richard Kelly movie, but also for all other films of this ilk.
Made in 28 days on a low budget, with an incredible all-star cast of established and young actors, the time-travel-themed “Donnie Darko” has gone on to achieve revered cult status. What makes the timing of this Blu-ray reissue so significant is that it arrives around the time that Ava DuVernay’s dreadful and unforgiveable movie version of “A Wrinkle in Time” is clogging up movie theater screens like un-flushable waste.
In some ways, “Donnie Darko” asks more questions than it answers. Could it be a statement about the effects of overly medicating teenagers? Is it a sequence of waking nightmares? Is it a comment on the ills of religious fanaticism and conservatism? Is it a meditation on “the pain of puberty”? Or perhaps how outside influences can negatively impact society?
Set in October 1988, pre-Halloween and pre-presidential election (both, as it turns out, equally scary), the movie opens with Donnie (Gyllenhaal) waking up in middle of a road in his pajamas with his bike parked nearby. Back at home, his politically conservative father Eddie (Holmes Osborne) is using a leaf blower in the front yard and goofing around with Donnie’s older sister Elizabeth (Maggie Gyllenhaal in a bit of creative casting). More ominous is the fridge write on/wipe off board that reads, “Where is Donnie?”, a reference to the teen’s habit of sleepwalking.
During an amusing dinner table sequence, in which Elizabeth says she’s planning to vote for Dukakis (to Eddie’s chagrin), it is revealed that Donnie, who is in therapy, has stopped taking his medication. His mother Rose (Mary McDonnell) is visibly shocked at the news. A post-dinner mother/son talk does not go well.
Donnie does resume taking his pills. But then we are left to wonder if the recurring vision of the tall man in the metallic-masked bunny suit, who wakes Donnie up and tells him that there are 28 days until the world ends is imagined or real. A result of messing with his medication.
Then, as if you didn’t think it was possible, “Donnie Darko” gets even weirder. Donnie wakes up in the middle of a golf course. An airplane’s jet engine crashes through the roof the Darko house. Donnie emerges as a hero to underdogs, while being bullied himself. He falls in love with new-girl-in-town Gretchen (Jena Malone). He becomes fascinated with time travel and Stephen Hawking (how’s that for timely?). He goes on a destructive tear involving a flood and a fire. He has hallucinations in which clear, gigantic worm growths (Donnie calls them “spears”) emerge from people’s solar plexuses. A slimy motivational speaker is shown to be charlatan and pervert. Tragedies strike, but versions of the events vary.
In addition to the impressive cast of lead actors, “Donnie Darko” features Beth Grant, Patrick Swayze, Noah Wyle, Drew Barrymore, Seth Rogan, Katherine Ross, James Duval and Alex Greenwald, in important supporting roles. Equal parts surreal and entertaining, 17 years after it was released, “Donnie Darko” turns out to be more relevant than ever. Blu-ray bonus features include 18 deleted and extended scenes, Kelly’s 1996 short film The Goodbye Place and the new documentary Deus ex Machina: The Philosophy of Donnie Darko.