Darko vs Darko vs Darko: I have too much time on my hands

Warning: If you're looking for a light read then you're looking at the wrong post and I recommend skipping to the next one.

The other day I was wondering to myself what I was going to come up with next for this blog.  I'm still wading through fashion shows for this Fall, and was getting tired of sorting the photos.  I haven't seen any recent films, so that option was out, and I'm told that I need to slow down my playlist posting so that the world can keep up with me.  It occurred to me that while I was studying film in school I had always wanted an excuse to research an all-time favourite of mine, 2001's Donnie Darko.  So, I logged on to the library's website and got to studying.  Unfortunately, film is a tragically under-studied medium.  Despite there being thousands of brilliant films teeming with intellectual stimulus and brilliant symbolism there is a pathetic lack of research on this particular kind of art.  What I did come across, however, was a discussion of the theatrical version of Donnie Darko and the Director's Cut, which came out about five or six years ago.  Instantly curious as to which version I'd seen (I first saw it on DVD), I discovered that the version I know and love is the theatrical release, but the added material from the Director's Cut could be found in the Special Features of the DVD.  A consummate Darko lover, I then went on to hunt these down and watch them, both with and without the commentary.  The little trip down Donnie Darko memory lane also reminded me that a sequel was released just a couple of years back, S.Darko, which followed the exploits of Donnie's younger sister Samantha.  So, I watched that too.  Now, armed with several pages of notes from my viewings, I am going to hash out the merits and failures of each film.  I am also going to put out there that there are going to be all kinds of spoilers, so if you haven't already seen the films I recommend watching them now.

Donnie Darko [Theatrical Version]:  This edit of the film presents an enchantingly ambiguous story about a mentally unstable teen, Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal), who is told by a giant time traveling rabbit named Frank that the world will soon be ending.  As the plot moves forward it alternates between suggesting that everything is part of Donnie's hallucinations and suggesting that Donnie is a divinely-appointed agent who has been given the opportunity to "save the world".  By the end of the film "reality" has still not been established, and a variety of interpretations are available to the audience.

The story carries heavy religious undertones, yet it also explores a scientific and philosophical avenue which renders it all the more intriguing.  The most obvious religious reading involves Frank as the guiding Angel/prophet who helps Donnie to his ultimate destiny as a Christlike martyr: Donnie dies to absolve the sins of those around him and to help them to their salvation.  In this interpretation Donnie goes back in time - knowing it will mean his death - to provide a second chance for those who need it: Gretchen (Jena Malone), who is killed by a car; Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze), a child-pornographer exposed by Donnie earlier in the film; human-Frank (James Duval), who hits Gretchen with his car and is consequently shot by Donnie; Ms. Pomeroy (Drew Barrymore), who loses her job after her assigned reading provokes Donnie to vandalize the school; Rose (Mary McDonnell) and Samantha (Daveigh Chase) - Donnie's mother and younger sister - who die in an airline crash.

A more scientific reading might ignore the religious themes and instead focus on the story as detailing Donnie's groundbreaking interaction with a being from another dimension.  The film provides material that covers multiple realities, the philosophy of time travel, the idea of fate and choice, and the doors opened by the notion of wormholes.

The final interpretation which occurred to me was a Vanilla Sky type of twist: the entire film is simply the hallucination of a schizophrenic young man and it ends exactly where it starts.

For me, a huge part of what makes this film so fantastic is its ability to keep you thinking about it long after it's over.  Furthermore it's a huge achievement to create a film that can be successfully interpreted in so many ways.  When you add to this that Donnie Darko has great acting, intelligent writing, great music, and sophisticated humour you are left with a masterpiece of a film that everyone should see.

Donnie Darko [Director's Cut]:  I found that the Director's Cut took all the mystery from the theatrical Donnie Darko.  It takes away the question "what's going on here?", and replaces it with "this is unquestionably a story about Jesus", which I find infinitely less interesting.

For starters, bunny-Frank has several more lines that specifically identify him as an emissary from God.  For example "God loves his children", or something to that effect.  This quickly eliminates any question as to the nature of Frank.  Most of the other scenes that were added in the Director's Cut deal specifically with exploring Donnie's relationships with his family members, teachers, and friends.  The more important scenes (besides Frank's God-related lines) are mostly with Dr. Thurman, Donnie's therapist.  In these scenes there is an extended discussion of God and what it means to be an atheist or an agnostic.  Perhaps the most pivotal cut moment, however, is when Dr. Thurman tells Donnie he has been taking placebos, and that his pills are in fact water tablets.  This extra material warps the meaning of the film in a fairly significant way.  It is implied that Dr. Thurman believes that Donnie is sane, and that he is the recipient of Divine attention.  Donnie is no longer a troubled teen having delusions, and instead is a bona-fide hero who will save the world.

The director, Richard Kelly, explains that this was always supposed to be the real substance of the story.  His intention was to create a comic-book style unlikely hero, and in his version there was supposed to be little doubt as to the reality of the events.  While I can understand and appreciate this, I really prefer the Theatrical version.  In the Director's Cut the God theme, which was already apparent, becomes heavy-handed and too obvious: it feels as though you are being hit over the head with the religious message.  Furthermore, the added scenes featuring Watership Down and Donnie's conversations with family and friends don't really seem to add much besides time and dialogue.  Ultimately ambiguity allowed the film to take on a much broader meaning, and the different layers made it more intelligent than the clearly spelled out Director's Cut.

S.Darko:  S.Darko is set in 1995, five years after the conclusion of Donnie Darko.  It follows Samantha (Daveigh Chase), Donnie's younger sister, as she attempts to escape from lingering fallout of the events that transpired in the first Darko.

Where to start?  Well, the cast reads like The CW's main TV stars: James Lafferty (Nathan in One Tree Hill) plays Iraq Jack, Ed Westwick (Chuck in Gossip Girl) plays Randy, and Matthew Davis (Alaric in The Vampire Diaries) plays Pastor John.  The film also stars Step Up 2's Briana Evigan as Corey, and the Twilight franchise's Jackson Rathbone (Jasper Cullen) as Jeremy.  While it's clear they all tried, I'm afraid the performances aren't what they need to be.  While Jackson Rathbone did a pretty decent job playing a nerd gone homicidal, Briana Evigan muddled through her more weighty scenes and Daveigh Chase similarly couldn't convey the eerie horror of being a messenger from beyond the grave.  While Matthew Davis was satisfactory as the pastor, it didn't seem like much a stretch for Ed Westwick to play a directionless party-boy and James Lafferty couldn't make his mental illness and PTSD look believable.  The performances I found most interesting wound up being those of fringe characters who got very little screen time: Elizabeth Berkly as Trudy and John Hawkes as Phil the motel manager.

The real shame about the film is that it's very clear how much thought and work went into it.  Dispersed throughout the movie are small homages to the original Donnie Darko.  Randy's introduction is when he drives up in a red muscle car - a newer model of Frank's - and almost runs over Samantha; an allusion to when Frank hit Gretchen.  After their car has broken down, Samantha and Corey go to Frank's Echo Service, and during Randy's party we see a whiteboard note from his mother that echoes the whiteboard use in the first film.  A large iron statue of Jesus seems to transplant the statue of the Mutt in Middlesex, and Randy's brother's room contains a poster of a skeleton almost identical to a diagram in Roberta Sparrow's Philosophy of Time Travel, which is carried by Samantha in S.Darko.  Pastor John and Samantha have a discussion about the future while sitting in an empty movie theater - a scene that mimics Donnie and Gretchen's movie date.  References extend even further: on numerous occasions dialogue from the first film is directly transplanted into the second, for example "the kids have to save themselves" and "they made me do it".  Unfortunately I found some of these references took away any mystery as to what would happen next.  When Pastor John's church is burnt down it makes it obvious that he is the pedophile abducting local boys (as well as his pedophile glasses - see The Lovely Bones), since the pedophile in the first film, Patrick Swayze's Jim Cunningham, was also a victim of arson.  A further testament to the thought put in were the films showing at the local theater: Strange Days and Twelve MonkeysStrange Days was a film about dreams, while Twelve Monkeys dealt with time travel and a coming apocalypse.  Later in the film these titles are rearranged into a message for Samantha: "Ten Sam get keyys n save world".  The motif of windmills that appeared periodically seemed to draw attention to the theme of action caused by unseen forces.

Why do pedophiles always wear these glasses??

In S.Darko it is no mystery as to which version of Donnie Darko it takes its thematic cues from.  Believe it or not, S.Darko managed to be even more religious than the Director's Cut of DonnieS. featured repeated shots of a post-crucifixion type scene which has substituted a female martyr for the traditional Christ, featured a number of crosses, and the re-vamped Frank-the-bunny mask included a crown of thorns (I'm not kidding).  When Iraq Jack first holds aloft this mask (of his own construction) he is backlit and the angles make the ears appear as wings: he becomes an angelic figure.  Later, Corey decides to sacrifice herself to save Samantha and she is guided into "the light" - her own semi-angelic role is reinforced by the dog tags that both she and Iraq Jack wear throughout the film, drawing a parallel between their functions and motives.

Besides lackluster casting, the real issue with S.Darko was the plot.  They took the idea of time travel from the first film, but redid it too many times to the point where it was difficult to follow and meaning began to be nullified.  Certain aspects of the film - the myriad American flags and the strange feather - had no distinguishable function whatsoever [While technically the film was set shortly before Independence Day I felt this was inadequate to explain just how many (and there were many!) flags were scattered throughout the film - the only other explanation I could come up with was that it was yet another homage to the frequent use of American flags in the original Darko].  The time travel plot device became gimmicky and it was irritating when characters would repeatedly die only to come back again shortly.  To give some idea of the complexity of the theory behind the plot, this is just a sample of what I found on IMDb:

"In the first Tangent Universe, the Artifact is the Meteorite, the Manipulated Dead is Samantha (that was/would be killed by Iraq Jack's Mask) and the Living Receiver is Iraq Jack.  In the second Tangent Universe, the Artifact is the Black Car, the Manipulated Dead is Billy (that was/would be killed because he is locked in the mine) and the Living Receiver is Corey." and "She pours over the text, some of which reads: When the fabric of the fourth dimension within a Tangent Universe becomes corrupted, a highly unstable and volatile Fragmentary Universe can occur, sustaining itself for no longer than several days..."

See what I mean?  Interesting ideas, but taken waaaaaaaaay too far.  As for the soundtrack, S.Darko's music wasn't as good as Michael Andrew's compositions for Donnie.  However, Ed Harcourt did do some great stuff, one track of which I have posted at the top of this entry for your viewing pleasure.

Ultimately it's no surprise that S.Darko failed to live up to the original.  It had a different writer and director, and when is a sequel ever as good as the original anyway?  It was, however, an interesting way to spend an evening and keep my skills of observation nice and sharp.  If you've managed to read this whole essay then congratulations, you've exceeded my expectations.  Hopefully you enjoyed it, and if you haven't already seen Donnie Darko watch it!!!

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