Not a year goes by that some movie that plays at a Cannes Film Festival, an Austin's Fantastic Festival, a Slamdance, or a Sundance makes a few headlines. Critics and the lucky audience members in attendance rave. When word spread about Tim Sutton's Donnybrook, thanks to its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, I was genuinely looking forward to it. When given the opportunity to watch a screener I gladly did so, twice. And then a third time on Amazon.
I'll whittle my synopsis down to this: first, the story is relatively simple. A former Marine, Jarhead Earl (Jamie Bell), in petty crimes, decides to take part in a backwoods cage match. Meanwhile, neighborhood meth dealer/unrepentant murderer, Chainsaw Angus (Frank Grillo), and his unfortunate sister Delia (Margaret Qualley) aren't far behind while a crooked cop (James Badge Dale) tries to solve a murder and robbery related to all of them.
On the journey to the donnybrook, where the match takes place, a lot of No Country for Old Men-friendly mayhem and death ensues. Nary a lovable soul exists in this film ... well except maybe Earl's son. It's a bleak film filled with bleak landscapes and even bleaker characters resting their futures on a cage match where the reward will be short term at best. One sex scene between two characters alternates between gruesome, pitiful, and distressing within one long minute.
The performances here are pretty good. Grill plays a character similar to others he's played. Bell is great at conveying Jarhead's desperation. Dale gives asshole cop a pathetic doomed edge. The performance that stands out most would be Qualley's tragic Delia, the sister stuck in a codependent incestuous relationship littered with violence and suicide attempts. If there were any misgivings, it would be a few scenes of narrated self-importance that seemed to try and justify the film's previous 95 minutes of grimy persona. I understand how it played into the rest of the film, but I was sold as is.
I'd say this movie caught me on a good day, but I ultimately watched it two more times, so apparently I really liked it. Something about the movie hit me.
So many other movies came back to my soft mushy brain after watching the film. I thought of Leon Issac Kennedy's Penitentiary series. Mickey Rourke's star turn in The Wrestler came to mind as well. Or maybe The Black Fist, with the IMDB plot description: "a Los Angeles street-fighter getting into the circuit to get his family out of rough times."
- Images courtesy IFC Films
You could dismiss all of these films featuring shitty humans making shitty life choices as grindhouse exploitation trash, and to a certain degree, I suppose you'd be correct. They offer visceral thrills and characters that you could relate to at the most base of levels. The only way to get out from under that debt or free of your prison sentence was, to paraphrase Michael Jai White's Black Dynamite, "to fight fight fight ... and when you get tired you fight some more," while pontificating the socio-political ramifications of that time.
I visited the reliable Tomato rating aggregator, assuming others would see it for what it was and enjoy it. Boy, was I sorely mistaken. Most of the blurbs I saw seemed to actively despise the film, with quite a few references to the orange meatloaf currently residing in the White House. Maybe it depends on what steams your beans most. I can't slag on critics who were offended by this film, saying they saw it as a lazy political allegory, since I spent quite a few paragraphs a few weeks ago spouting vitriol at Green Book.
That said, I think a lot of the reviews for this film were reactionary. Because it takes place in what news outlets label as Trump country, it's been seen (way too quickly, I might add) as a clarion call to white rage and the human Cheeto's race-baiting bullshit. Whether it was Sutton's intent or not, it felt more like watching other pulp tales like Oliver Stone's sensationalistic Natural Born Killers or the Hughes Brothers' Menace II Society. Neither of those films struck me as anything more than a dreary pulp tale filled with harsh landscapes and fight scenes with a palpable Terrence Malick-influenced grimace for good measure. If it ever went into repeats, it'd probably go over well on cable.
For me, Donnybrook is no different from the multitude of earlier films, of "morally dubious characters committing violence" listed with the only difference in the downtrodden location. I'd say people should calm down about this movie and maybe spend more time pondering how we came into the Death of Nuance era in pop culture but, well, Green Book.
That movie sucks.
Donnybrook — Rated R. Directed by Tim Sutton. Starring Frank Grillo, Margaret Qualley, James Badge Dale, and Jamie Bell