5 Films That Had A Better Theatrical Cut Than Director’s Cut

Donnie Darko (2001)

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The first feature length movie from director Richard Kelly, Donnie Darko quickly became an acclaimed film, despite failing to set the box office alight upon release. It was a showcase for some early brilliance from Jake Gyllenhaal as the titular Donnie, but also featured fantastic turns from Maggie Gyllenhaal, Mary McDonnell, Beth Grant, Patrick Swayze, Jena Malone, Noah Wyle, Drew Barrymore, and even Seth Rogen.

The non-linear storyline deals with time travel and, to an extent, alternate realities – as well as touching on the subjects of mental illness, domestic violence and child abuse. Its theatrical cut is a deeply engrossing and satisfying movie, which works almost perfectly. However, a director’s cut appeared in 2004, containing some twenty minutes of additional footage. The extra content mainly concerns the book that Donnie finds and reads throughout the film – The Philosophy Of Time Travel, by Robert Sparrow – which is essentially the framework for all the events in the movie. It discusses Primary Universes, Tangent Universes, the Manipulated Living, the Manipulated Dead, Artifacts and Living Receivers.

Though the book is clearly integral to the structure of the story, the addition of the detail detracts from the power of the film. It is the uncertainty that makes Donnie Darko so compelling, so to lay out the rules that govern the events is to remove all sense of dramatic tension. In addition, while in the theatrical version, Donnie Darko is an intriguing young man, trying to find his way through a confusing situation and settle on his destiny, the Director’s Cut suggests that the time-loop situation has provided the hero with a range of super-powers which, in this instance, is the element to render the story completely unrelatable.

In sticking with a version of the film that leaves the detail unexplained, there is always the question as to whether what we are seeing is reality or fantasy. In this context, when Jena Malone’s character states that the name Donnie Darko “sounds like a superhero,” Donnie replies, “How do you know I’m not?” with the dialogue sounding natural to this character who is dealing with therapists and medication and difficult visions. Making him actually a superhero strips the tale of all its mystery, and a world of possibility along with it.