‘Donnie Darko’ Arrow Video 4K UHD Blu-Ray Review – Jake Gyllenhaal Cult Favorite Holds Up As A Mind-Bending Classic

Fifteen years before Stranger Things combined science fiction, Spielbergian touches and 80s nostalgia to much acclaim, Richard Kelly set the template – and the high-water mark – with his debut feature, Donnie Darko. Initially beset with distribution problems, it would slowly find its audience and emerge as arguably the first cult classic of the new millennium.

Donnie is a troubled high school student: in therapy, prone to sleepwalking and in possession of an imaginary friend, a six-foot rabbit named Frank, who tells him the world is going to end in 28 days, 06 hours, 42 minutes and 12 seconds. During that time he will navigate teenage life, narrowly avoid death in the form of a falling jet engine, follow Frank’s maladjusted instructions and try to maintain the space-time continuum.

Described by its director as “The Catcher in the Rye as told by Philip K. Dick”, Donnie Darko combines an eye-catching, eclectic cast – pre-stardom Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal, heartthrob Patrick Swayze, former child star Drew Barrymore, Oscar nominees Mary McDonnell and Katharine Ross, and television favorite Noah Wyle – and an evocative soundtrack of 80s classics by Echo and the Bunnymen, Tears for Fears and Duran Duran. This brand-new 4K restoration, carried out exclusively for this release by Arrow Films, allows a modern classic to finally receive the home video treatment it deserves.

For thoughts on Donnie Darko, please check out our discussion on The Video Attic here

Donnie Darko

Video Quality

Donnie Darko makes its long-awaited 4K UHD Blu-Ray debut with a stunning 2160p/Dolby Vision transfer derived from a 4K scan of the original camera negative for both the Theatrical and the Director’s Cut versions with an additional scan of 35mm digital intermediate elements for some footage unique to the Director’s Cut. The restoration has been approved by Director Richard Kelly and Director of Photography Steven Poster, and it allows the film to look much better than it ever has. When compared to the old Fox Blu-Ray, this disc offers monumental improvements in all respects. That release was passable in its day but contained a good amount of compression noise and dismal black levels, among other issues. This new 4K scan has a fine amount of natural film grain that allows this movie to shine and gives a lot of pleasing texture and detail to the transfer. For the first time on home entertainment, you can clearly see specific text and objects located in the production design. The image presents with a miraculous amount of depth that makes the house and school feel more three dimensional than ever. The improvements in contrast and overall clarity are outstanding, especially when you look at the interior of the house, Frank’s bunny costume and the clothing of various characters. Special effects makeup also feels more textured and natural than ever before.  

The UHD disc contains very sophisticated colors throughout even with the more dour color palette to suit the shadowy narrative. The most impressive moments of Dolby Vision implementation are in the black levels that exercise a much greater depth and control without any crush. With this the picture maintains an excellent amount of detail in darker environments. This especially comes in handy considering the amount of scenes taking place at night or in shadow. White levels are brighter and offer a greater stability without veering into blooming. Skin tones look more natural and the clarity of the transfer gives you a great amount of facial detail. This transfer is a treat for fans of the film. You honestly could not ask for better from the folks at Arrow Video. For those who are curious, there are no Blu-Rays included with this release, only two 4K UHD discs featuring one cut of the film on each disc. 

Donnie Darko

Audio Quality

The 4K UHD Blu-Ray comes with a strong DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 lossless audio track for both cuts of the film (with slightly different sound design) that offers a nearly perfect representation of the film. Rather than provide this film with a new Dolby Atmos presentation, it sticks with a stellar 5.1 presentation that still dazzles. The sound design opens up the world in a really fulfilling way. The movie offers up plenty of chances for the track to show off with sci-fi moments really giving the speakers a workout. In these scenes, the soundstage demonstrates how open and rich it is in its nuanced execution. The score and soundtrack are presented with an impressive amount of clarity and fidelity. Music is used effectively throughout the presentation, but it never overpowers the dialogue or other important information. The dialogue comes through clearly and never falls victim to any digital anomalies. Rear speakers get a pleasing amount of activity throughout. The low-end support is hard hitting when the moment calls for it. There are no complaints at all with this presentation. 

Donnie Darko

Special Features

Theatrical Cut

  • Audio Commentary #1: Director Richard Kelly and Jake Gyllenhaal deliver a really entertaining and informative archival commentary track in which they discuss various nuances of the story, shot composition, the benefits of having Jake’s real-life sister in the film with him, inspirations for certain ideas, shooting in Southern California to portray Virginia, changes from the script, and so much more that make for an entertaining listen, especially know how Jake’s career has progressed. 
  • Audio Commentary #2: An archival audio commentary featuring Richard Kelly, Sean McKittrick, Drew Barrymore, Jena Malone, Beth Grant, Mary McDonnell, Holmes Osborne, Katharine Ross and James Duval. This commentary track is way more busy and free-wheeling than the previous one with actual information competing with the good vibes amongst everyone being in the same room. 
  • Deus Ex Machina – The Philosophy Of Donnie Darko: An excellent 86-minute documentary on the making of Donnie Darko featuring interviews with writer-director Richard Kelly, producer Sean McKittrick, director of photography Steven Poster, editor Sam Bauer, composer Michael Edwards, costume designer April Ferry, production designer Alec Hammond and actor James Duval. This piece delves into the origins of the project, the casting of the feature, the crew that helped bring it to life, the actual production process, post-production efforts, the release into the world, the director’s cut of the film and more. 
  • The Goodbye Place: A nine-minute short film by Richard Kelly from 1996 which delves into some of the stranger themes you find in his feature-length work. 
  • Deleted And Extended Scenes: Twenty unused scenes totaling 32 minutes featuring longer conversations with Frank, pumpkin carving, a moment of fatherly advice and so much more. You can view all of the scenes with optional audio commentary from Richard Kelly. 
  • Trailer: The two-and-a-half minute trailer is provided here. 

Donnie Darko

Director’s Cut

  • Audio Commentary: Richard Kelly and filmmaker Kevin Smith deliver an incredible commentary track in which Smith acts as an audience surrogate by asking all of the questions you would want to ask to try to cut through some of the layers of the film even more. There are discussions about the importance of music to Kelly’s creative process, what Kelly crafted with his director’s cut, the shifted sound design, the importance of the time period to the story, reasons for certain narrative choices and more. 
  • The Donnie Darko Production Diary: A 53-minute documentation of the making of this film including location scouting, planning shots, collaborations between director and performer, rehearsal footage, on-set interviews, makeup application and more. You get to act as a fly on the wall during this whole process. There is also an option to watch this with commentary from Richard Kelly. 
  • Archive Interviews: A series of brief interviews totaling 14 minutes featuring Jake Gyllenhaal, Mary McDonnell, Holmes Osbourne, Maggie Gyllenhaal, James Duval, Jena Malone, Drew Barrymore, Noah Wyle, Katharine Ross, Richard Kelly, Sean McKittrick, Nancy Juvonen, Hunt Lowry, Casey La Scala and Steven Poster.
  • They Made Me Do It: A five-minute piece exploring an art exhibition inspired by the film. 
  • They Made Me Do It  II: A 30-minute featurette about the “Cult of Donnie Darko” and the impact the film has had since its release. It is intriguing to see what elements of the film have embedded themselves into the minds of the interview subjects. 
  • #1 Fan – A Darkomentary: A 13-minute fan documentary in which the subject explores his passion for the film that earned him the winning entry for DonnieDarko.com
  • Storyboard Comparisons: An eight-minute piece which compares the finished film to the initial storyboards. 
  • B-Roll Footage: A five-minute collection of on-set footage from the film. 
  • Cunning Visions Infomercials: A six-minute piece in which you can see the full-length commercials featured in the film with optional audio commentary from Richard Kelly. 
  • Music Video: A three-and-a-half minute Donnie Darko-inspired music video for “Mad World” from Gary Jules. 
  • Image Gallery: A collection of stills from the film and production.
  • Director’s Cut Trailer: A minute-long trailer for this new cut of the film. 
  • TV Spots: Five TV Spots are provided here totaling just over two minutes. 


Final Thoughts

Donnie Darko is one of the mythical underground success stories that all independent films hope to become but rarely actualize. This is due to the incredibly dense and thrilling screenplay crafted by Richard Kelly which reveals new layers every time you revisit it. Jake Gyllenhaal shows early signs of the greatness he would soon become known for along with the terrific ensemble that fleshes out this world into something special. This is one of the more enduring directorial achievements of the past couple of decades. Arrow Video has released a new 4K UHD Blu-Ray featuring a magnificent A/V presentation and an intimidating amount of special features. Fans of the film will want to add this to their collection as soon as possible. Highly Recommended 

Donnie Darko is currently available to purchase on 4K UHD Blu-Ray and Blu-Ray.

Note: Images presented in this review are not reflective of the image quality of the 4K UHD Blu-Ray.

Disclaimer: Arrow Video has supplied a copy of this disc free of charge for review purposes. All opinions in this review are the honest reactions of the author.