A grim, violent story about people who live not so much on the margins of society but virtually off the grid, Tim Sutton’s “Donnybrook,” adapted from a novel by Frank Bill, is titled after a free-style rustic rumble in a cage that promises a prize of $100,000 to the sole survivor. It’s also a tale of good against pure evil, presented as though it were a dark, iconic fable.
Though the location isn’t precisely specified, the film is set somewhere in the decaying heartland of America. We meet ex-Marine Jarhead Earl (Jamie Bell) as he’s being ferried down the river to the fight by an old coot who mumbles about how the world has changed, how criminality reigns, and how each man must make his own choices.
Earl, we see in flashback, is a desperate man. He’s just taken a beating from local drug-dealer Chainsaw Angus (Frank Grillo), who, along with his sister Delia (Margaret Qualley), has been selling opioids to Earl’s wife (Dara Tiller). And he needs money to support his young son Moses (Alex Washburn), whom he genuinely cares for. That’s why he’s willing to rob a local store to finance the Donnybrook entrance fee.
Meanwhile Angus and Delia have brutally killed one of their confederates in the trade (Pat Healy), sending stern Sheriff Donny Whalen (James Badge Dale) in pursuit of them. He’s far less concerned about Earl, whom he considers a basically solid fellow driven to crime to save his family.
The film becomes a back-and-forth journey as Sutton follows Earl and Angus on their separate routes to the fight; a showdown between them is inevitable, especially after Delia abandons her brother and joins up with Earl. One sympathizes with the sad, sullen Earl, of course, but it’s Grillo’s malevolent villain who burns up the screen as he proves himself a killing machine that seems unstoppable, as the sheriff—and some other characters–find out.
Inevitably the two face off in the cage, having disposed of the other contenders in relatively short order. But even if Earl manages to win, the cost of victory will be high.
Sutton presents this brutal tale as though it were the modern equivalent of a Greek tragedy, complete with a music score (by Phil Mossman) that uses sudden brassy fanfares for overwhelming emphasis. (The very opening comes across like a homage to “The Shining.”) Obviously it’s intended as a parable of the cruel reality of contemporary American society, with its divisions of class and economic opportunity, but it comes across instead like vicious, overblown pulp.
Still, you have to recognize that single-minded skill with which Sutton—abetted by David Ungaro’s starkly beautiful cinematography, Michael T. Perry’s grubby production design, and Scott Cummings’ brooding editing—has realized his unsparing vision.
Nor can one fault the performances. Bell has long since abandoned the boyish charm of “Billy Elliot” to develop a scruffy look that goes along with Earl’s despondency, and Grillo is the very image of macho nastiness, while Qualley captures Delia’s shifting moods and Washburn Moses’ innocence. Dale’s stoicism is also on target.
In the end, though, as was the case of Scott Cooper’s “Out of the Furnace” before it, “Donnybrook” is so utterly nihilistic that it seems a pointless wallow in misery, however skillfully made.