Donnie Darko is turning fifteen this year, and while you might want to joke that the movie’s now the same age as its ideal audience, you’d be surprised at how good it remains. Luckily, the Brattle Theatre’s got you covered, as they’re showing the new 4K-remaster of the film this Thursday
(April 13) and it’s never looked better. Fun fact: The Brattle was one of the only theaters in the country to screen Richard Kelly’s first movie on its release in 2002, and it’s probably best to see it in a place that loved it from the start.
It’s easy to assume that the movie’s aged poorly based only on your memories of it. Sure, some of the screenplay is super cringe-worthy now. The “Smurfette” bit comes across as particularly precocious in an unflattering way, and the Frank bits, while brilliantly creepy, also suffer from this — the “why are you wearing that stupid human suit?” bit is “fill-o-sophical” like so many movies from the early-aughts are. But for every bit that makes you go “Oh man, I can see why I liked this when I was a teenager,” there’s another that’ll make you think you might have been onto something there.
The casting is inspired, and while everybody rightfully talks about Jake Gyllenhaal (who after a mid-career lull of playing mainstream protagonists returned to the beautifully creepy roles like this one that cemented him as an actor to watch), his sister Maggie, and Jena Malone (whom Kelly cast because he saw her in Contact, also playing at the Brattle this weekend), the other players are well-served. Patrick Swayze especially stands out, whose work as an honest-to-God actor was never better than in his role here.
Perhaps the most undervalued aspect of Darko is Kelly’s restrained and often beautiful direction and choreography, and nowhere is this better glimpsed than in the famous “Head Over Heels” scene, a series of tracking shots set to the classic Tears for Fears singles that establishes the school’s setting and, more importantly, its feeling. He takes his time moving through the environment, lingering on little ephemeral bits of the day-to-day- school teachers taking a blind eye to drug abuse, the eye-rolls and sighs after a conversation with shitty peers- and keeps the visual puns and timing to a minimum, only really coming at the beginning and end of the sequence (with the bells chiming at the start, and the time-lapse at “time flies”). It’s remarkably grounded and centered filmmaking from a director who was only 25 when he made this film, and it may subtly be one of the reasons this film has endured — those qualities apply to nearly every section of the movie on a pure technical level.
Kelly’s career never really took off in the way that many hoped it would. His deeply underappreciated follow-up Southland Tales is still maddeningly incomplete, given his insistence on making the movie only half a story (the other half to be told in graphic novels released so far after the film’s debut that nobody gave a shit), and though he’s promised he’ll actually complete a final cut if Darko’s release goes well, it’d be a risky wager to place, given how many of his recent projects have fallen through. His last released film, 2009’s The Box, an adaptation of the classic Richard Matheson short story Button, Button, was a bust at the box office and with the critics, and even with all of the interesting personal dimensions Kelly added to the story (James Marsden basically plays Kelly’s dad in that film) it sunk beneath terrible pacing and a genuinely terrible Cameron Diaz performance.
One can only hope that Richard Kelly sees in the potential success of this re-release how many people love his work, and would be interested in seeing more. Still, we’ll always have Donnie Darko to enjoy, even though the reasons we love it change as the years go by