Disturbing Donnybrook a Bleak American Nightmare
“Jarhead” Earl (Jamie Bell) is an ex-United States Marine living somewhere in upstate New York with his family. Wanting to provide a better life for his two children he robs a local general store for the entry fee to a secretive once-a-year bareknuckle backwoods cage fight known as the Donnybrook where the winner takes home a cool $100.000 and the losers are lucky to head back home with their lives. Before leaving he makes an enemy of drug dealer “Chainsaw” Angus (Frank Grillo), and while the two have never been friends after their latest confrontation it’s safe to say their mutual distaste for one another has grown into a full-fledged homicidal rage.
Nonetheless, after making sure his wife and daughter are squared away safe, Earl hits the road with his son heading towards the Donnybrook, picking up Angus’ estranged sister Delia (Margaret Qualley) along the way. With her brother on their trail, they are all also followed by local Sheriff Don Whalen (James Badge Dale). He has it in for Angus for reasons of his own, and he honestly doesn’t care whose toes he steps on or what laws he breaks in order to see the violent criminal buried six-feet underneath the ground. All four individuals are on a collision course at or near the Donnybrook that potentially none of them will survive, Earl’s gambit to make a better life for his family one that for all its selfless intent might have inadvertently spelled their collective doom.
Based on the book by Frank Bill, writer/director Tim Sutton’s (Dark Night) aggressively bleak Donnybrook isn’t for the faint of heart. A morose descent into the underbelly of the American Dream that has been turned inside out, this movie is dangerously brusque human melodrama where survival is a victory and compassion is a sentiment that might get a person killed. It is an intense, singularly focused story of vitriol, recrimination and punishment that grows in catastrophic intensity as it goes along, Bell’s magnetic, uncomfortably resolute performance the pugnaciously heartfelt glue that holds everything together.
This isn’t an easy film, and based on how nondescript most of the character interactions and narrative constructions turn out to be, and having not read the source material, I can only assume Bill’s book ties most of its disparate plot strands together a bit more cohesively than Sutton’s adaptation does. But the director unapologetically trusts his audience, his confidence that they’ll be able to put all the various pieces of this puzzle together on their own obvious right from the start. He is presenting a melancholic aria for a vanishing America, a land where those struggling and fighting for survival do so in a realm that looks upon their suffering more as a spectator sport than it does anything else. This is a place where empathy and kindness are quickly vanishing into the ether, those who exhibit either sentiment just the type of people nihilistic sociopathic executioners like Angus are out to destroy.
Some of this can be a little too indistinct for its own good. It’s never clear why Whalen is so willing to do anything he can to get face-to-face with Angus, the sheriff’s single-minded pursuit of vengeance a seemingly self-destructive act of lunacy I found vexingly odd. As such there’s not really anything Dale can do with his performance save look determinedly miserable no matter what might be happening. On top of that, by the time Whalen and Angus do finally meet up with one another the moment is so fleetingly inessential I couldn’t help but wonder why Sutton’s script had up to then been making such a big deal out of it in the first place. The director is making some sort of statement about revenge that I honestly didn’t find altogether clear, the ephemeral nature of it all just too imprecise for me to be able to find any meaning in what he was attempting to say.
To a lesser extent the same could be said about Delia, but Qualley’s powerfully melancholic performance is such a thing of plaintively mournful beauty it didn’t matter to me that Sutton’s scenario wasn’t spending a lot of time fleshing out the more complex interiors of her psychologically damaged character. There is a grace to what the actress is doing that I found affectingly poignant, and while it’s clear doom and despair stalk her every move those fleeting moments of hope the young woman joyfully allows herself to exude make the painful tragedy to come all the more devastating because of their presence.
Yet it is Bell who impresses the most. A man of few words, that does not mean that Earl isn’t speaking volumes with every action (or inaction) he chooses to take. His propensity for kindness and understanding is never in doubt. At the same time, it’s equally clear that this is a man who can take great joy in his violent talents, and while he always respects his opponents it’s obvious he still sees himself as their superior no matter what their apparent size, strength or ability might be. Bell finds a way to inhabit the haunting interiors of this broken man who has seen all that he once thought was innocent and pure in the world stripped down to its bloody, callously venal interior. The young actor’s inhuman calmness masks a powerful rage that might never get bottled back inside once it’s been unleashed, and whether or not Earl is able to find peace at the end of his journey is an unanswered question the movie thankfully refuses to definitively answer.
In the spirit of full disclosure I wasn’t certain I liked Sutton’s film when it came to an end. The last 15 minutes are a serious punch to the gut that left me reeling, and while the outcome wasn’t unexpected, that didn’t make what transpired any more palatable. But I couldn’t get any of what I just saw out of my head for hours after I had viewed it, the final bits of dialogue coupled with a haunting fade to blank left me with lots to mull over and contemplate. Donnybrook matters because it doesn’t hesitate to speak truth to power in ways that go from unpleasant to unbearable in the blink of an eye. It is a timely parable of life’s indignities that cuts right to the marrow, its pugilistic nightmares universal in their all-encompassing emotional magnitude.
– Review reprinted courtesy of the SGN in Seattle
Film Rating: 3 (out of 4)