Donnybrook Jamie Bell

Year: 2019
Director(s): Tim Sutton
Writer(s): Tim Sutton (From a novel by Frank Bill)
Region of Origin: US
Rating: R
Color, 101 mins

Synopsis: Two men prepare to compete in a legendary bare-knuckle fight where the winner gets a $100,000 prize. (Source)

Donnybrook is an extreme portrait of the American Nightmare. It’s everything that’s broken in the world and a vivid look at the lives that slip through the cracks. Adapting a novel from Frank Bill, director Tim Sutton’s film isn’t an easy one to sit through. It’s unrelentingly bleak at every turn, and doesn’t flinch from a savage style of violence. Though it’s perhaps a heightened version of the truth, the ideas running through it are unavoidably primal and affecting. The entire thing feels as if it’s captured pain and heartache in every frame, slowly letting it all build before releasing it in one fatal blow. When that final act of cleansing vengeance has been dealt, we’re finally able to breath again, but the film’s ideas are far from done with us.

Deep in the Heartland, a circle of strangers struggle to stay afloat amidst a forgotten America. Earl (Jamie Bell) is a vet who’s been unable to make ends meet. He can barely afford the drugs that help to ease his ailing wife, and his two children aren’t facing much of a future if he can’t afford to raise them. The answer, he thinks is an illegal backwoods cage match called the Donnybrook. Each contestant will fight to the death in order to win a large sum of money. Amidst all of this, Earl’s ruthless drug dealer, Angus (Frank Grillo), is one step behind him, looking to collect on a debt. Even further, Angus’ sister Delia, (Margaret Qualley), has been slowly broken down by the life of crime she’s led with her brother. She’s looking for a way out. As everyone’s lives crash and burn, each will stop at nothing to find their own idea of salvation. 

What makes the film so gripping, is how Sutton delivers its story in the most inescapable way. There’s almost never a moment of relief in a film that thrives through its excessive darkness. At the center of it all, are the emotions and desperation that its characters evoke. There isn’t much exposition or heavy plotting. This thing literally drops us in the middle of a few horrible situations and forces us to cope. The experiential nature of the film is everything. It creates an almost impressionistic tone poem, one in which the symbolism overtakes a few of the film’s more generic archetypes and genre tropes. Ultimately, the film builds up to brutal moment of catharsis that we can’t help but get bowled over by. Above all, this is raw, aggressive filmmaking at its most focused and affecting. 

Donnybrook review Margaret Qualley Frank Grillo

Despite the film’s abstract ideas and deliberate distance from characters, the case sells a brutal realism. Jamie Bell’s Earl is the film’s center. He isn’t relegated to a simple, one-sided hero, but is a truly broken man doing whatever he can at great cost. We relate to him despite some unsavory choices, and Bell really embodies the beating heart beneath the grit. Margaret Qualley makes the most of a simplified role, giving Delia depth through what she doesn’t say. As Angus, Frank Grillo may have the most thankless role. He’s the most underdeveloped of the bunch, but his presence is undeniable. Grillo is an underrated talent who is oozing with a menace that’s palpable. James Badge Dale plays a local sheriff who can’t get himself together. Dale brings a lot to the film’s most fleeting role, and it’s a shame we don’t see more of him.

Donnybrook is definitely not for everyone. It’s nearly 2 hours of nonstop, harrowing aggression, but it’s also impossible to deny the skill that Sutton brings to the table. The film is a welcome look at poverty-stricken desperation even if it’s amped up to its most masculine form. From the tragedy that lines the story to the performances that leap from the screen, this is an unforgiving experience that isn’t without intensity and purpose.