Nostalgia is a bit like a stock-market bull run. It starts slowly then gathers pace as everyone jumps aboard the bandwagon; eventually it tops and then corrects with a rapid decline back to the baseline. If you plotted a graph of the most recent ’80s retro revival – main points: Spandau Ballet reforming, Hot Tub Time Machine and Cameron’s Maggie Thatcher impersonation – you’d probably find it started in 2001, around the time of Richard Kelly’s troubling, exhilarating Donnie Darko.
The then 26-year-old’s stunning debut, a paranoid-schizophrenic love letter to the decade that taste forgot, was way ahead of the retro curve. It didn’t find much love when it was released in the US in time for Halloween 2001. Arriving just as the dust from the collapsed twin towers was settling, its flashback to 1988 was unwelcome. Who wanted to see a movie with a crashed-jet-plane-engine plot, a freaky 6ft rabbit called Frank and endless portents of doom?
The answer: us Brits. Despite being cold-shouldered in the states, Donnie Darko became a cult hit on these shores. Almost a decade later – time does fly – its classic status looks secure, give or take the largely unnecessary director’s cut. Full of emotional turmoil and apocalyptic doom, the time-travel/sci-fi/high-school-romance has an incredible undertow that continues to linger. To echo Gretchen (Jena Malone), it’s weird... but that’s a compliment.
What is it about this story of paranoid schizophrenic Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal) that still exerts such a pull? In part it’s a period piece, ’80s gen-X angst repackaged with smart, early noughties irony and a hefty dose of alt-reality wormholes. “Maybe it’s the story of Holden Caulfield, resurrected in 1988 by the spirit of Philip K. Dick,” is the director’s own personal take on it, a perspective that this Blu-ray edition arguably gives way too much of.
Dominating the various commentaries – including one with an over-excited Gyllenhaal doing Christopher Walken impressions and another with self-confessed Darko nut Kevin Smith – there’s perhaps a surfeit of Kelly here, especially since the director seems determined to unravel the film for us. Enough already! We don’t need to know the rules that Kelly created to explain his ‘Tangent Universe’ to himself, or the wacky supernatural powers he thinks are orchestrating events. By telling us so much, he risks breaking the movie’s haunting spell – a pull-back of the Wizard of Oz’s curtain that renders the film’s provocative mystery rather mundane. Director’s cut? Nil points!
Most of the other extras are a facsimile of the goodies on previous DVD releases, likely to inspire déjà vu. While having both cuts of the film together is welcome, the package feels a little jaded: where’s the brand spanking new Making Of doc we hoped for? It doesn’t help that the film’s visuals aren’t full of Blu-ray wow either. The combination of a low-budget shoot and kelly’s love of darkness gives the picture a patina of grubbiness even at its crispest. Where it does impress though is in the audio: the rumbling menace, which growls in 5.1 DTS-HD master audio, gets you in the pit of your stomach whenever Frank the rabbit appears.
It’s that sense of dread and foreboding that gives Donnie Darko its continuing impact. While other ’80s flashbacks wear their period fashions on their sleeve, Kelly’s mindbender captures the creeping horror of being out of time and out of your mind. It’s a classic... a timeless one at that.