Back in the early days of humanity, men and women had to fight for their livelihood, stripping away all forms of decency in order to make it to the next day. This wasn’t done with words or pledges, yet with blood, sweat, and tears. You see, at their most desperate, human beings can reach their most lethal form, laying waste to anything good that had come before it.
Author Frank Bill’s book, Donnybrook, was a brutal reminder that not much has changed since those rough and tumble beginnings. It’s still a fight to the death out there. As one character says early on in Tim Sutton’s cinematic adaptation of Bill’s book, “the whole world has gone to hell.” In reality, this would be bad news. In the world of entertainment, it makes for one heck of a movie. One that some will cherish and others will run from.
Equal parts visceral and aggressively sinister, Donnybrook is true work of art. It’s not just action, drama, or thrills; it’s a cold, harsh look at people living on the fringe of society. If you think they don’t exist and Bill and Sutton made this up, please look at two things: the drug epidemic and the lasting effects of post traumatic stress disorder among military veterans.
For war veteran, Jarhead Earl (Jamie Bell), the goal is simple: get his drug addicted wife and two kids away from the clutches of the local drug kingpin, Chainsaw Angus (Frank Grillo), and on to a better life. In order to do that, Earl is going to have to hurt people, break the law, rob stores, and make a lot of bad decisions. In order to get out of the Southern Gothic endless pit of misery, Earl had to raise enough to cash to participate in a bare-knuckle fight tournament at a place up the river called the Donnybrook. Standing in his way is Angus, his sister, Delia (Margaret Qualley), and an alcoholic drug-addled deputy (James Badge Dale).
Sutton’s film plays out like a Greek tragedy, soaking a seemingly straight-forward story in hushed overtones of dread and lingering shots of beauty. Instead of orchestrating quick camera cuts and moving the action along briskly, he likes to let the scenes meander a while, like a lost soul trying to decipher a road map. The writer/director chooses a slow burn approach to the material, which allows the actors to go searching for true meaning in their performances.
Bell is all raw nerves and moody hope as Jarhead, a guy reeling from the shock of war yet managing to keep a grasp on his life due to the hope he finds in his two kids. When his wife resorts repeatedly to the allure of drugs, he supports her and wants to save his family’s life against all odds. He’s no hero, but you find a way to believe in him and root for his survival.
Grillo’s Angus is a bad, bad man. If the Grim Reaper worked out all day and had great hair, he’d look and move like Angus. From the moment you lay eyes on him selling drugs to Earl’s wife, you know he’s bad news for every single cast member. Here’s a guy who wants to not just invade your privacy, but literally suck the breath right out of you. He has an abusive relationship with Qualley’s Delia, stabs and shoots people who get in his way, and punches anyone else who questions his motives. The filmmakers don’t have to connect the dots for us to know something in Angus’ past turned him black and blue inside, damaging any shred of decency.
Grillo truly leans into the role, embracing the mad man shock and awe of Angus’ evil ways, and doing so without much dialogue. He speaks, but only in quick bursts of anger and disobedience. With this antagonist, less is more, because Angus’ actions speak louder than words. He’s got a price to pay with his maker, and no living soul matters. For the actor, the role allows him to channel his physicality in a way that his devoted fans may not be used to, but should appreciate. This isn’t your grandpa’s bad guy; Angus is the devil, the man in black who means worse. He makes Brock Rumlow look like Fred Rodgers.
Qualley’s eyes haunt the screen at every turn. You don’t need a three minute monologue about her past with Angus to identify her pain and how deep it burns. She is a woman trapped in an endless rendition of guilt, remorse, and regret. She can’t break away from Angus, but could find salvation in Earl’s fight. Maybe.
Badge Dale doesn’t get equal screen time as his co-stars, but the gifted performer knows how to make a stare translate into a page of dialogue. Whalen has a badge, but it no longer spells out honor and trust, just bad deeds and a long trail of disgrace. He sees the chase after Earl and Angus as penance for a life twisted the wrong way. Alexander Washburn cuts a mature stroke as Earl’s oldest, a boy leaving the end of innocence in the rear-view mirror.
It should come as little shock that these characters will collide in a number of violent ways, with many dead and others sitting on the doorstep of their maker. It takes a little while to reach the Donnybrook, but once there, the film pulls no punches … literally and figuratively.
After all, this is a mad, sad world Bill and Sutton created for us, and there are no shortcuts taken or ill-fated plot threads avoided. Instead of worrying about the justice of these characters, the filmmakers stick to the harsh reality their first hour created. Jens Bjornkjaer and Phil Mossman’s score is opera-like and moody while David Ungaro’s cinematography turns Cincinnati, Ohio into a convincing slice of Indiana dirt and spit.
Donnybrook is a knockout to the senses, relentlessly dark and devoted to its morals. It’s exactly what I wanted going into the film. If Shakespeare wrote No Country For Old Men, added a few pages of Out of The Furnace, and soaked the script in Fight Club fumes, you’d get Donnybrook.
Sometimes it hurts to watch, but you can’t take your eyes away from it. There’s a commitment beneath the carnage that I admired a great deal.
It’s not for everyone, but then again, true art rarely is.