Piecing it together for yourself

The Donnie Darko Directors Cut was recently released on DVD. I'd seen the enigmatic movie before, and though I enjoyed it and would have welcomed watching it again, it's probably not something I normally would have purchased if it wasn't for the fact that this new DVD has a commentary track with Richard Kelly (the film's writer and director) and Kevin Smith (director of Clerks, Mallrats, Chasing Amy, Dogma, etc... who had absolutely nothing to do with the making of Donnie Darko). Kevin Smith is a funny and knowledgeable guy, and the commentary tracks on most of his movies are great fun and fantastic examples of the oft-maligned DVD commentary genre. The involvement of Smith piqued my interest, so I picked it up. After watching pretty much the entire DVD (including the extras and the commentary), I'd say it was worth the purchase.

The director's cut of the film has an additional 20 minutes which seem to clarify some of the more mystifying aspects of the film. When combined with the commentary track, where Kelly expounds on why he did what he did when making the film, you get a really good idea of where he's coming from and what he was getting at. There is still wiggle room and ambiguity, of course, and Smith plays the perfect foil to Kelly's sometimes extravagant overzealousness. Smith doesn't hesitate to point out that he doesn't like one theoretical interpretation or another, and it makes for a compelling dynamic.

One of the things that occurred to me is that Kelly's helf-explainations (as I said, he still leaves it somewhat ambigious and open to interpretation) are somewhat silly. Perhaps silly is the wrong word to describe it, but that's sort of how it feels. And it's not just his interpretation either. Most of the stuff I come up with, when I lay it all out and try to make sense of it, feels very simplistic and sort of silly. To be sure, I'm not sure I can make perfect sense out of the story without leaving gaping holes in the plot (which is, I guess, the point).

The movie works because you have to do all the work to get there. You have to collect all the pieces of the puzzle and put it together for yourself, and doing so can be quite enjoyable (if a little maddening, as the pieces don't seem to fit!) In a sense, Kelly got away with telling a time travel story that was not very reliant upon any sort of guiding principles (at least, not from the viewer's perspective - it's clear that Kelly himself had thought very deeply about what everything meant and how to portray it), whether they be from science or psychology or whatever. He was somehow able to design the movie to obscure the silliness of the time travel needed to tell the story (which doesn't really center on time travel anyway).

Of course, this strategy doesn't always work, and to be quite honest, I can't pinpoint what it is about Donnie Darko that makes me enjoy it so much. A while ago I watched the cryptic, plodding pseudo-thriller Swimming Pool, and came away from the film feeling manipulated and disappointed. There was something similar going on with that film, but it didn't work because I felt like the filmmakers were trying to trick me, especially with that ending. They basically tried to do something similar, but instead of obscuring the silliness, they just lied throughout the movie, then told the truth at the end. I was glad I watched it, but I had no desire to watch it again in the hopes of putting more pieces of the puzzle together (as I did with Donnie Darko).

In any case, Donnie Darko is ambitious, thought-provoking, and adventurous, if a little ambiguous, filmmaking at it's best. The Director's Cut DVD is worth watching, especially because of Kevin Smith's presence on the commentary, but the theatrical cut is quite good as well.