There are a lot of small independent movies out there; some are bad, some are good, and some are great. Occasionally, one shows up out of left field, and while great, it doesn’t get the distribution or the audience recognition that it deserves- DONNIE DARKO ($30) is such a movie. Seen primarily at film festivals and in art house theaters, the DVD release of DONNIE DARKO will allow audiences the opportunity to check out this darkly intense and truly unique motion picture. I should note that while looking at the DVD packaging, I tempted to think that DONNIE DARKO is just another teen thriller; however, that aspect is just a single layer of what one finds in this dark and unsettling movie.
Mentally disturbed individuals have the tendency to hear and see things that the rest of us do not. What if these perceptions were something more than just mere mental illness? Well in the case of the film’s title character, they may well be… Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a troubled high school student, who needs to be medicated to control his urges, plus he is seeing a therapist on a regular basis. The effectiveness of both is called into question because Donnie still has a tendency to walk in his sleep and converse with a hideous six-foot rabbit named Frank. Actually, the sleepwalking turns out to be a blessing in disguise, because Donnie is on a somnambulist trek across the golf course, when a jet engine falls out of the sky and crashes into his bedroom. However, Donnie’s encounters with his six-foot rabbit pal Frank are another matter entirely. As Frank gets deeper and deeper into Donnie’s mind, the rabbit causes him to perform increasingly destructive acts, not to mention that Frank informs Donnie of the exact date and time that the world is going to end… To give away anymore of the story would spoil the surprises and rewards of watching DONNIE DARKO for yourself.
Although made on a minuscule budget, DONNIE DARKO is a well-crafted film that benefits from the single-minded vision of writer/director Richard Kelly and first rate troop of actors. Jake Gyllenhaal successfully embodies the character’s teen angst and mental turmoil, yet he maintains just enough restraint to keep the performance from lapsing into caricature. Mary McDonnell is amazingly good as Donnie’s mother Rose; McDonnell takes a seemingly small role and makes it incredibly multifaceted. Patrick Swayze has his best role in years, as the film’s self help guru Jim Cunningham. The cast of DONNIE DARKO also features Drew Barrymore (who executive produced the film) Jena Malone, Holmes Osborne, Noah Wyle, Maggie Gyllenhaal, James Duval, Beth Grant and Katharine Ross, an actress who has been too long absent from films.
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment has made DONNIE DARKO available on DVD in a 2.35:1 wide screen presentation that has been enhanced for playback on 16:9 displays. Fox has produced a very good-looking transfer of a film that has a decidedly stylistic vision, which was produced for relatively little money. The image is usually sharp and well defined, although there are shots that appear somewhat soft. Colors are rendered at a very natural level of saturation and flesh tones appear completely realistic. There are no problems with either chroma noise or hues bleeding beyond their boundaries. Blacks tend to be reasonably accurate, but not as intensely deep as they appear on most new films. Because the blacks are slightly off, the image did not have the level of depth one associates with brand new movies. Still, both shadow detail and contrast seem fine throughout the course of the movie. Digital compression artifacts are never problematic on this dual layered DVD.
This release of DONNIE DARKO features an excellent Dolby Digital 5.1 channel soundtrack. The sound mix utilizes the discrete encoding very well, sometimes to create an unnerving sense of atmosphere. Surround usage is surprisingly effective, yet it marries into the forward soundstage flawlessly. Dialogue reproduction is always clean and fully understandable. The bass channel is solid, without becoming boomy. Music is well integrated into the five channels; with both the film’s score and eighties pop music sounding full-bodied. English and French Dolby Surround soundtracks are also encoded onto the DVD, as are English and Spanish subtitles.
Full motion video, animation and sound serve to enhance the DVD’s interactive menus. Through the menus, one has access to the standard scene selection and set up features, as well as a nice complement of supplemental features. DONNIE DARKO includes not one, but two separate audio commentaries. The first track features director Richard Kelly and star Jake Gyllenhaal, while the second includes the director again, along with cast members Drew Barrymore, Mary McDonnell, Jena Malone, Beth Grant, Holmes Osborne, Katherine Ross, and James Duval, as well as producers Sean McKittrick and Nancy Juvonen. I found both tracks to be informative and entertaining and recommend listening to both. Those with a casual interest would probably find the cast and crew commentary more entertaining and should start there. Also included on the DVD are twenty deleted and extended scenes, which can be viewed with or without director commentary. There is a lot of interesting material amongst the deleted scenes, which were removed for pacing and timing concerns. Next up is the complete Cunning Visions infomercial from the movie that includes the option of an amusing audio commentary. A Mad World music video is also included on the DVD, along with an art gallery, a web site gallery, a glimpse at The Philosophy of Time Travel book from the film, a theatrical trailer, five TV spots, cast filmographies and filmmaker biographies.
DONNIE DARKO is a unique movie that deserves to be seen by a wider audience than it had in it limited theatrical screenings. Fox has produced a solid DVD edition of the film that should remedy the situation. If this review has piqued your interest in this terrific little movie, go out and get your hands on a copy of DONNIE DARKO.
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