DONNIE DARKO Now with 20 percent more carrying girls while looking bored.

Donnie Darko: The Director's Cut
dir. Kelly
Opens Fri Sept 3
Cinema 21

At one point in Donnie Darko, the titular character (Jake Gyllenhaal) is having a conversation with Frank (James Duval), who happens to be a giant, terrifying rabbit. In a series of disconcerting sleepwalking incidents, Frank's been haunting the teenage Donnie with ominous messages about the end of the world and Donnie's increasing grasp of time, space, and his own metaphysical potential. Despite all this, Donnie asks Frank a simple question: "Why are you wearing that stupid bunny suit?"

In response, Frank poses a question of his own: "Why are you wearing that stupid man suit?"

With that line, it becomes clear that Donnie, like his film, is far more than he appears to be. What role Donnie fills and what power he wields isn't made clear until the film's climax--indeed, for some, the answer isn't made clear at all. But regardless of what role he's filling, or what suit he's wearing, Donnie's character remains the driving force behind the inexplicably powerful Donnie Darko, a film that worked like a sledgehammer to the head of conventional cinema when it was released in 2001.

A darkly funny, unabashedly intellectual debut from then 26-year-old writer/director Richard Kelly, Donnie Darko's depth wasn't lost on its theatrical viewers. It wasn't until DVD that Darko really took off, becoming a cult hit that proved more popular and obsessed upon than the film's distributor, Newmarket Films, could have ever hoped.

Three years after its theatrical release, Newmarket asked Kelly to put together a director's cut of the film. With Darko's notable and vociferous following, Newmarket saw the potential for a director's cut that would reveal more of what Kelly had intended for the Darko universe--including stuff that didn't even make the cut when Kelly premiered Donnie Darko at the Sundance Film Festival.

"Distributors [at Sundance] were freaked out by it," Kelly says of his original Darko cut. "Nobody wanted to distribute it. It became the word on the street that it was ten minutes too long... so I ended up just having to start cutting and cutting and cutting, and rearranging music, and changing everything [from] the way it originally was. It was a pretty tumultuous process between Sundance and the theatrical release."

It's not that Kelly doesn't like the commonly seen version. "I'm very, very proud of the theatrical release," he quickly adds. "It isn't going anywhere. But I wanted to be able to reassemble the original, long incarnation of this film."

Kelly's aware that many of Darko's devotees will be anticipating his director's cut with a combination of optimism and cynicism--those who like Donnie Darko, really, really like Donnie Darko, and things that could change the already established plot could meet with mixed response, as did some of the deleted scenes on the DVD.

"I just want people to keep an open mind that there can be two versions of one film out there," Kelly says. "I've gotta remind people here that like... this is my movie," he laughs. "It got taken away from me. It's not their movie. They never got to see what was at Sundance... and they weren't there when people were coming up to me after the theatrical release. People were coming up to me like 'How dare you cut the scene with the dad in the backyard?' 'How dare you get rid of the Watership Down subplot? It doesn't make as much sense now!' 'What happened to Drew Barrymore's character?' 'Why'd you have to add the voiceover at the end?' You're constantly dealing with people who are discovering the film late in the game, or discovering it at a time when they don't understand what was originally constructed."

In addition to restoring elements to strengthen his original intent, Kelly has another agenda with his cut--making his own interpretation of the film's events clear. "There are basically two different interpretations of this movie: [it's] either a dream experience that Donnie has at the moment of his death, or an elaborately constructed alternate dimension/alternate universe that Donnie enters into," Kelly notes. "This director's cut is much more in line with my original design for the film, which is more of an elaborate Philip K. Dick, Carl Sagan [science fiction story]. I had elaborated and constructed this really pretty enormously complicated tangent universe thing... and then, all of the sudden, when I had to keep it under two hours, all that stuff just got truncated. Which is fine, because the theatrical version works very, very well... but there are all these missing pieces."

As adamant as Kelly is of his vision, he's also aware that to some extent, debates over the film's content are out of his hands--that there are those who "don't want to think about this story in logical terms. They want it to be a mystical, dream, enigma [story] that never kind of ties itself together--which is fine. That's what the theatrical cut is. But there was always a more logical science fiction interpretation of this story that was important to me to present to people, because there have been a lot of misconceptions about this film, some of which have really bothered me." (Chief among them, he notes, are the all-too-easy interpretations of Darko's disturbing story that assume Donnie's actions are a result of mental illness. "Donnie is not crazy," Kelly says. "At all. That's the most important thing for people to take out of this film.")

Darko's new cut does indeed stress the science fiction aspect, but there's still plenty of nebulous territory for cerebrally inclined viewers to mess around with. The director's cut, Kelly notes, contains everything in the original Darko--including the much-debated ending and multiple meanings--it's just that the director's cut is, according to Kelly, a truer, purer manifestation. "There's more of everything. There's more of the supporting characters, there's more comedy, there's a lot more science fiction. There's a lot more logic in the narrative. But there's a whole new layer of mystery," Kelly adds. "There are questions answered, but there are new questions proposed at the same time."