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By Brian Lafferty


October 19, 2011 (San Diego) – There’s major box office successes, the ones that rake in millions upon millions of dollars. There’s box office sleeper hits, the kind that come out of nowhere and attract lots of audiences.


But sometimes there will come a movie that, no matter how good it is, just won’t do well in theaters. It could be for a variety of reasons. Lack of a good promotion or lack of promotion can doom a picture. Perhaps a major event happens that changes audience’s attitudes towards a subject. The movie could be a little too ahead of its time, something that contemporary audiences just aren’t ready to accept. Or maybe the movie is so different and so unusual that audiences aren’t accustomed to it, preferring to spend their money for something within their comfort zones.


But a movie’s success doesn’t have to be defined by the box office. It can begin when it’s released on home video. A good movie that failed at the box office can now be fully and properly appreciated thanks to the low cost of renting it. Just as Internet word-of-mouth can make or break a movie’s reputation at the box office, it can resurrect it at the video store.


This is the success story of the cult classic Donnie Darko, the first feature film by Richard Kelly. It was first released ten years ago to theaters, where it failed despite its four and a half million-dollar budget. It gained a new life on home video. Now it’s available for the first time on Blu-Ray in both the original and director’s cut.


Donnie Darko’s plot goes like this. Donnie (Jake Gyllenhall) is a troubled, emotionally dysfunctional teenager with a sleepwalking habit. One night a voice calls to him. It’s Frank, a tall, facially disfigured bunny who warns him that the world will end in twenty-eight days. During this time, a stray jet engine falls through the ceiling of Donnie’s bedroom. Frank manipulates Donnie into committing a series of criminal acts including flooding his school and burning down the deluxe mansion of a motivational speaker (Patrick Swayze in one of his finest roles, right up there with his performances as Johnny Castle in Dirty Dancing and Sam Wheat in Ghost).


I revel in films that challenge me. I suspect one reason why Donnie Darko didn’t succeed at the box office was because audiences are used to formula stories that spell everything out, leaving no loose end untied. Richard Kelly’s screenplay refuses to reveal too much. The Director’s Cut does explain things a little bit more through showing us pages from a book about time traveling and through a couple of scenes that didn’t make the theatrical cut. But no matter which cut you view, Kelly still leaves you with plenty of questions and your own interpretations.


The Blu-Ray set contains three audio commentaries. The theatrical cut has two of them, one with Kelly and Gyllenhall and the other with Kelly and most of the ensemble cast; the latter is so full of conviviality from the cast that it creates an odd dynamic between hearing the jovial commentary and seeing the dark, disturbing events on the screen. The director’s cut commentary features Kelly and director Kevin Smith.


It’s beneficial to see both cuts as well as the commentaries. With each viewing and with each commentary brings an increased amount of appreciation. I saw something new each time that I didn’t see before. The fellow commentators present multiple opportunities for Kelly to finally explain the whole movie. He not only refuses, there’s the sense that he’s teasing the audience.. Even when it looks like he explains something, he never fully confirms it. Gradually, I accepted that they were only ideas, not facts. Sometimes I got the feeling even Kelly didn’t know everything.


The film is loaded with bonus features but is sorely lacking in the transfer department. Cinematographer Stephen Poster imbues each scene with lots of shadows, shades, and darkness that’s spookily prevalent even in daylight. The film has the dark palette of a horror movie that can be creepy, especially at night. Unfortunately, the image resembles nothing more than an upconverted standard definition DVD. It’s not a bad transfer by any means. It just didn’t wow me like a Blu-Ray should.


A 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment release. Director: Richard Kelly. Screenplay: Richard Kelly. Cinematography: Steven Poster. Original Music: Michael Andrews. Cast: Jake Gyllenhall, Holmes Osborne, Maggie Gyllenhall, Daveigh Chase, Mary McDonnell, James Duval, Patrick Swayze, Noah Wyle, Drew Barrymore, Katharine Ross, Jena Malone, and Beth Grant. 113 minutes (theatrical cut). 133 minutes (director’s cut). Rated R.


Brian Lafferty can be reached at brian@eastcountymagazine.org. You can also follow him on Twitter: @BrianLaff.


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