Fixing the God Machine

Donnie Darko: The Director’s Cut

deus ex machina ... 2: a person or thing (as in fiction or drama) that appears or is introduced suddenly and unexpectedly and provides a contrived solution to an apparently insoluble difficulty

I expected to reject the director’s cut of Donnie Darko, contenting myself with the version I fell in love with a couple years ago and ignoring how writer/director Richard Kelly soiled it with his folly.

In other words, I anticipated finding the revised Darko a lesser film; I thought Kelly would use it mostly as an opportunity to try to explicate his impenetrable plot, and to impose his reading on a text that had been ambiguous to the point of beautiful inscrutability.

And that’s exactly what he does with Donnie Darko: The Director’s Cut. Here’s the funny thing: I liked this version nearly as much as the theatrical cut, but for very different reasons.

For the uninitiated, Donnie Darko is the story of a teenager with emotional and mental problems who — on the night a mysterious airplane engine crashes into his bedroom — meets a six-foot-tall bunny named Frank on a golf course. The end of the world is coming within a month, Frank tells Donnie. Our protagonist gets periodic visits from the bunny, gets himself a girlfriend, and discovers some unusual gifts: impossible strength, the ability to see movement before it happens, and a book called The Philosophy of Time Travel. And that’s just the beginning of its oddity.

The additions/changes in this director’s cut are myriad, and liberally sprinkled throughout the movie. Kelly’s major aims are easy to discern: He foreshadows a lot more, and he introduces concepts essential to understanding his interpretation of what happens in the movie.

Yet Darko virgins and people who haven’t spent any time on the film’s Web site might find themselves even more lost than if they watched the theatrical version. To my eyes, the time-travel mechanics are still indecipherable based on what’s in the movie; Kelly only builds a framework for his reading, leaving critical details out, and in the process he clutters what was already a dense narrative with mystifying jargon. The elegant countdown structure of the original is sullied with short excerpts from The Philosophy of Time Travel that mean nothing unless you’ve read explanatory essays.

But in terms of communicating the filmmaker’s vision, Donnie Darko: The Director’s Cut is superior to its forebear. I love that the original movie was so open and explained so little, yet those same qualities represent the film’s monumental storytelling failure. If you spend any time with the Web site or supplementary materials such as the director’s commentary on the theatrical version’s DVD, it’s apparent that Kelly’s interpretation of the story bears little resemblance to what’s on the screen and is only supported by the movie to the same degree as any number of alternative readings.

Kelly rectifies that cleverly and efficiently in the director’s cut with the expansion of an English-class subplot that clarifies his vision. After Donnie’s class is forbidden from reading Graham Greene’s The Destructors at school, the teacher gives them Watership Down. In addition to extending Darko’s bunny motif, the book allows Kelly to introduce (through teacher Drew Barrymore) the concept of deus ex machina.

This scene illuminates the entire movie, speaking to both the plot of Donnie Darko and its status as a contrived fiction, and tying the two together; there is some higher power controlling Donnie Darko’s world to ensure a certain result, just as there is a writer/director guiding that force.

And the added chapter titles and excerpts from The Philosophy of Time Travel — the “tangent” universe, “The Living Receiver,” “The Manipulated Living,” “The Manipulated Dead,” “The Ensurance Trap” — intuitively reinforce that reading and resonate in its context, even if one can’t quite grasp how everything fits together.

These changes also make the movie leaner; those English-class sequences become essential instead of simply colorful.

Yet Kelly’s deus ex machina interpretation is problematic from a dramatic standpoint, because it robs the characters of all free will — an issue introduced when Donnie talks to his science teacher about time travel. In Kelly’s construction of the plot, there is no drama, because everybody is manipulated at every step to allow Donnie to save the world. This reading is quite simply not as compelling as others that the original Darko allowed; it makes the movie a pointless exercise, essentially showing the universe’s healing process, as if the jet engine falling through Donnie’s ceiling were no more than a scrape on your arm, easily fixed.

And I have some minor complaints about Kelly’s fiddling. I could do without the montage sequences that seem to come from another movie, for example, and it baffles me why they include what appear to be computer calculations.

Yet in spite of my criticisms, I admire Kelly’s new cut for the way it re-shapes the narrative to better express what he wanted.

And I love it for what no amount of tinkering (outside of a complete gutting) could screw up: the warm, expressive faces of Holmes Osborne and Mary McDonnell as Donnie’s parents; the precise (if slightly overripe) central performance by Jake Gyllenhaal, poised between mental illness and wisdom, child and adult, and vulnerability and resolve; the design of Frank’s metallic mask, ridiculous and frightening, organic and artificial; and the palpable sense of loss conjured by Gary Jules’ heartfelt performance of “Mad World” to close the film. Donnie Darko: The Director’s Cut shows just how beautiful and powerful the movie’s building blocks are, no matter how they’re dressed up.

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