From The Playlist
By Rodrigo Perez
“The world’s changed,” the craggy old boatman says at the beginning of the unflinchingly visceral “Donnybrook” as a menacing, operatic piece of music swells, ferrying the naïve hero to a looming Hades while delivering the movie’s aggrieved, despondent manifesto. “Criminals running everything. Got no money, just debt. Only thing worth living for is vice and indulgence.” “Jarhead” Earl (Jamie Bell), the ex-marine in question being shipped across this veritable River Styx, isn’t quite dead yet, nor has he paid Charon his coin for passage, but the toll for crossing over into hell will exact a cruel punishment much more severe than death.
A stunning, often flooring masterwork about desperation, writer/director Tim Sutton’s, “Donnybrook” is a brutal elegy for those living on the forgotten fringes of America. It is a smoldering picture for this exact moment in time, and for better or worse, it may end up becoming disenfranchised, Deplorable White America’s favorite film of the year, or at least, a terrifying case study about the whitelashed road that got us to Trump. It’s also exciting, uncharted territory for a filmmaker that’s usually elliptical and has never worked with Hollywood stars.
Everything in “Donnybrook” is swelling and red. In Sutton’s extraordinarily crafted fourth feature film, “Jarhead” Earl is desperate, and his life is burning. His wife’s crippling crystal meth addiction is worsening, his children live inside an impoverished trailer trash hell, and he’s just robbed a gun store to pay the entrance fee to the Donnybrook: a savage, bare-knuckled brawl fight club where the pot has raised to $100,000. Earl’s life is ablaze, and the only light he sees at the end of his dark, hellish tunnel is this once-in-a-lifetime payday— what he sees as a chance for his family to get out and begin again, a ride or die only hope that he lays everything on the line for.
But Earl must break a lot of eggs (and skulls) to get there. One of the men crossed who comes gunning for revenge is “Chainsaw” Angus (a frightening Frank Grillo), a sadistic drug dealer who lives in a world of self-inflicted pain and anguish. He’s also been wronged by his conflicted sister Delia (Margaret Qualley), who’s made the unfortunate choice—for everyone involved—for joining forces with Earl on the way to the Donnybrook. What ensues, as “Donnybrook” works its way back in time to tell the story of Earl leaving his family and embarking on the Odyssean quest for the prize, is a violent, disturbing portrait of a uniquely American brand of despair.
“Donnybrook” is also not for the squeamish and should possibly come with a trigger warning. There are at least three scenes—an aborted suicide attempt, a twisted gangland-style execution, and an odious moment of physical and mental abuse—that are three of the most genuinely disturbing moments I’ve seen on screen all year. “Donnybrook” could prompt walkouts, and at least one or two people will hurl rancorous charges of misogyny against the film (Grillo’s character is a repellent monster).
But Sutton, an arthouse darling also known for the mythopoetic “Memphis” and the disturbingly oblique “Dark Night,” isn’t interested in shock or exploitation, as much as some of “Donnybrook” is deeply upsetting. His unapologetically uncomfortable film—easily his most accessible, and mainstream, especially given its cast, but still artful and unsettling—simply wants to depict unvarnished suffering in stark, unambiguous terms. “Donnybrook” is a world of anguish; alcoholics, opioid addicts, losers, hustlers and methheads, all trying to claw at whatever tiny diseased crumb of the American dream has been left behind for them to fight over.
To this end, the severe drama is startlingly different and direct compared to Sutton’s previous dreamy, meandering, poetic works (though it does have its moments of austere lyricism). It is, for lack of a better analogy, a lacerating punch to the face that leaves molars and blood clots behind on the cold hard floor. And that’s to say nothing of how anxiety-inducing and stressful “Donnybrook” is from second one, as it lurches towards its final bout and how it coils the threat of hostility and violence around the corner of every frame.
And that’s just the movie. None of this angst and enmity accounts for the ferocity of the ensemble cast—Bell, Grillo, Qualley, and James Badge Dale as a corrupt local sheriff—all who turn in scorching, raw-nerve performances that only aggravate the movie’s already-irritated skin. In a perfect movie world, critics would be holding their own gruesome fight-to-the-finish battles over who’s allowed to praise the actors first and loudest. As the volatile embodiment of bitterness and misplaced, unquenchable rage, Grillo is chilling, Qualley is going to be a superstar, and Jamie Bell has never been better. None of the cast leaves anything on the table, and like the movie, they all go for the jugular.
While not overtly political on the surface, “Donnybrook” is implicitly, intrinsically linked to our current, polarized, angst-ridden era of politics; inflamed like a throbbing wound that won’t heal. Like our country in the here and now, “Donnybrook” is a movie that feels like it’s on fire the entire time; flames rising and falling unpredictably, sometimes smoldering, sometimes raging and always, always angry.
Following his abstract critique of suburban Florida and gun-culture in the alienated “Dark Night,” Sutton clearly has American disillusionment on the brain. And with his searing and seething movie, Sutton takes the exploration one step further, tapping into the pulse of some very primal feelings of hopelessness, resent and the fear behind the struggle.
The world’s gone to hell and Sutton’s film crafts a devastating howl; a tragic requiem for American desolation and those abandoned on the margins. Everything comes at a great cost in “Donnybrook,” no one comes out unscathed and its final moments are a breathtaking gut punch. Everyone in Donnybrook will always have to fight to survive. “It’s the only way for folks like us.” [A]