Was it all just a dream?
Three years ago a first-time director named Richard Kelly came out with a film called "Donnie Darko," something about a borderline schizophrenic teen and his troubled relationship with a giant rabbit. For no apparent reason, it was set in the late '80s. The movie showed at Sundance, got mixed reviews, and was rewarded with a microscopic run -- in Boston, all of three days. Then it was gone.
But like "Memento," released the year before, "Donnie Darko" was a knotty, idea-filled movie that wasn't easily dismissed. It rewarded repeat viewings and invited analysis, even obsession. Websites that bloomed even before its release throbbed with life. Video and then DVD versions came out, and deleted scenes hinted at a different, richer movie. Fans debated their meaning with the passion that Donnie and pals reserved for analyzing the secret sex life of Smurfs.
In a world where even the original "Alien," which director Ridley Scott proclaimed to be "the director's cut," gets a director's cut, it was only a matter of time. So here we are again with "Donnie Darko," which never arrived and yet seems to have always been with us.
Director's cut can mean a lot of things. Orson Welles's original vision for "The Magnificent Ambersons" survives only in a shooting script. We have every frame of Dennis Hopper's "The Last Movie," and just regret that someone didn't have a pair of scissors handy at the time. The idea got its biggest boost when Scott reworked "Blade Runner" 10 years after it was mangled by the studio. It wasn't just a better movie, it was a radically different one: A deleted voiceover, a different ending, new questions.
In Kelly's case, his nemesis wasn't a malevolent studio, but money and time. He couldn't afford all the music he wanted and chose to tighten the film himself after the Sundance screening. "I'm happy with what became the end result," he said in a 2001 interview. So what we get in the new version is a moment-by-moment expansion: brief new scenes, extended or rejuggled existing ones, added effects, and sometimes, significant changes in the music.
We wake, and it's dawn in the hills above a leafy suburb. A figure lies in the road next to a bike. He rises, laughs sleepily to himself, and begins to ride home. And with a burst of sound and light, we hear not Echo and the Bunnymen's "The Killing Moon," as in the original, but INXS's "Never Tear Us Apart." They're both '80s chestnuts, equally striking and morbid, but one is the compromise, the other is the vision. You decide.
From here on the changes are generally more subtle. The relationships between characters are filled out, but the flow remains. Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal) has been sleepwalking again, or so it seems, and his parents can only worry. His sister Elizabeth (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is waiting to see where she'll go to college, and there's a presidential election in less than a month. It's some earnest but leaden Massachusetts politician running against a wheedling Texas power broker named Bush. Now we're the ones time traveling. Is this the past or the future? Who won? Is it too late to change how things turned out?
Donnie is way beyond even being able to tell. He's alienated from his family and everyone at school, and the fistfuls of anti-psychotic drugs he's been ordered to take since that arson charge don't help. So when an oversize rabbit named Frank with insect eyes and a hidden agenda invades his dreams, he may not want to follow, but the choice isn't his.
Kelly constantly shifts light, film speed, and mood. Night-lit suburban lawns, the walking-through-amber feel of a school hallway, songs we now read as retro pop but whose lyrics teem with darkness. "I'm head over heels," Tears for Fears sings, but they slip in "It's hard to be a man when there's a gun in your hand." While some saw echoes of 9/11 in the film's tumbling jet engine, the shadow of Columbine also falls over this land. Gus Van Sant went there in "Elephant"; Kelly chose the Tangent Universe instead.
The director's cut has been getting a much warmer critical reception than the original release, but not necessarily because it's significantly better -- the reviews read more like reconstructed memories of a blind date with someone the writers didn't really understand in the first place. Compared shot by shot, the director's cut doesn't always come out the winner: Donnie's English class gets additional reading material that comes off as heavy-handed, and some scenes feel stretched out of shape; while new effects dazzle, they're ultimately meaning-free. Even immersion in the film's bible, "The Philosophy of Time Travel," adds little we didn't already know. Where the new version does gain power is in the scenes between Donnie and his family. It feels more true, more tragic.
What remains unchanged is the realization of just what a superb actor Jake Gyllenhaal is. Every flicker on Donnie's face hits home, from his goofy riffs in class to his cruelty toward those he loves. He falls under Frank's spell, but struggles too, desperately. He knows everything's going wrong but can't stop events or himself. As for Donnie's symbolic role within the miracle play that is "Donnie Darko," the director's cut has little to add: It was the core of the original version and remains so here.
"I hope that when the world comes to an end, I can breathe a sigh of relief," Donnie says. So do we.
Leighton Klein can be reached at email@example.com.