Donnie Darko in 4K: notes on a high-res fever dream

Donnie Darko is a midnight movie, but I saw the 15th anniversary 4K restoration at 9:30PM at the Metrograph, a two-theater art house on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. That’s not where you want to see a movie like Donnie Darko.

The building doesn’t remotely resemble a movie theater — no ticket window, no lights, no Art Deco design elements, no posters. It sits flush with the rest of the city block. The lobby sells air-popped popcorn in presorted clear plastic tubs, four different draft beers without names, and classic movie candy arranged artfully on a bookshelf with white backlights. The seats are assigned. Donnie Darko is currently playing in a theater with braided leather on the walls, and the rows of seats look like a stylish reinterpretation of Adirondack chairs. It’s a super-fancy barn without the dirt. I’m sure this is a lovely place to watch a documentary or a live-streamed opera, but on this night, in this context, it was at odds with what I was there to feel.

In a phone interview a few weeks before this high-profile anniversary release, the film’s director, Richard Kelly, told me what he hoped the re-release would feel like, given that Donnie Darko’s only true public life had been as a midnight movie, starting two years after its original release: “I made this movie for the big screen, and so few people saw it in a theater when it first came out. So in some ways, it feels like the first time… We need to keep the theatrical experience alive and bring people together in movie theaters. Movie theaters are like churches to a lot of people.” So his film’s return to theaters was coming with some pretty high stakes — as urgent as God.

In the 15 years since Donnie Darko debuted in theaters, flopped, and was resurrected as one of the last true midnight movies for weirdos, Richard Kelly has never made another movie that anyone cares about. It’s the main thing anyone knows about him — he somehow made Donnie Darko with a paltry budget of $4.5 million at age 25, and that was all he had in him.

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Actually, Kelly had a string of truly impressive bad luck. Donnie Darko, a dark, disorienting science-fiction film about a plane crash, crawled into about 50 theaters in October 2001, with the country still reeling. Then the 2008 writers’ strike hit just as the stars of his second film, Southland Tales, were set to start making the late-night TV rounds to promote it. The Box, his 2009 Cameron Diaz-led psychological thriller, prompted The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis to dub Kelly a filmmaker “as lost as his characters, trapped in a Pandora’s box of his own making.” So Kelly wrote a true-crime thriller as a vehicle for James Gandolfini, and then James Gandolfini died. I’m not terribly superstitious, but Kelly seems… cursed. Which, for better or worse, ties in pretty well with Donnie Darko’s tragic mythos.

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