Donnie Darko

Donnie Darko ★★★★½

It's been well over a decade for me and you know what? Donnie Darko still totally fucks.

I don't care how cliche'd it became as a dorm room poster or go-to pick for a "deep" guys movie - especially being almost twenty years old now - the thing is, it just somehow works. There's a cultural thing where anything that's been exalted long enough gets a commensurate backlash, a parade of "actually it's NOT good" takes that generate a reliable number of comments and angry tweets but usually offer zero insight or say anything new. Sometimes a deserving movie gets taken down a peg, but more often than not it's just pigpiling on a sacred cow of one sub-group or another of film dorks because hey, it's fun to do that. The abundance of "Donnie Darko Is Actually Bad" takes in the time since I last watched almost had me convinced that I'd be rolling my eyes if I ever revisited, but I'm glad to realize that's not the case. I still enjoy every minute of this flawed, unlikely gem.

I'm not going to get into an in-depth review here because I'm sure many others on this site have laid out the case for this movie plenty well. But I do want to point out two things:

1) This is one of those cases where the music is inextricable from the experience, from why it works as well as it does. Between the handful of expertly picked 1980s post punk and pop songs (and one elegiac modern piano cover that I actually don't mind) and the undulating ambient synth score by Michael Andrews, the music does some serious heavy lifting. But crucially, it's lifting in tandem with the visuals, the script, the performances, and the fantastic editing, rather than picking up slack. Sure, it inspired loads of lazy new wave needle drops in otherwise mediocre movies, but I can't fault it for that. Anyone would want to recreate the magic of that opening scene on the bicycle with Echo and the Bunnymen's "The Killing Moon" roaring through the speakers.

2) This is another great example of the original theatrical cut being far superior to the director's cut - and in this case, it was a true director's cut rather than a studio-mandated version made to boost dvd sales. I recently revisited Michael Mann's Miami Vice and came to the same conclusion, and last year realized that the theatrical cut of Alien, as opposed to the Ridley Scott cut I'd been watching ever since it came out on DVD, is the vastly superior edit. In those cases at least, the "directors cut" was a second revision after the already-successful director had final cut in the first place. Here, we see that Richard Kelly would have made a much more overt science fiction narrative, removing much of the ambiguous feel of the movie while overexplaining a lot of the elements that went unspoken the first time. Sure, I remember the minimal cgi looking a bit better, but overall that version of the movie, the one I saw a few times before losing my DVD in the 2000s, took away from what made Donnie Darko great. So maybe the original cut is a case where compromise and budget limitations and other outside forces shaped the movie almost despite its creator's intentions. If there's one single change that symbolizes this perfectly, it's the switch to INXS' "Never Tear Us Apart" in the opening scene - apparently he didn't have the budget for it at first and ended up with the iconic Echo and the Bunnymen track - if that's not serendipity winning, I don't know what is.

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