What could go wrong with an underground neo-Nazi sponsored, bare-knuckle cage fight event in the backwoods of America’s hinterland? In the very moody and dark-hearted Donnybrook by writer-director Tim Sutton, it becomes the intended salvation for a trio of lost, downtrodden souls who hope to use the place as a springboard for a better life.
As exemplified in his previous film, Dark Night (2016), Sutton’s penchant for the pervasively oppressive nature of human beings to wreck havoc on others is something that interests him. Using the real life story of a mass shooting at an Aurora, Colorado movie theater to weave a skeletal fictional tone film about the lives of several disparate people who happen to end up in the carnage felt manipulative and borrowed in the worst possible way.
And Donnybrook employs some of the same free-flowing arc towards eventual destruction. Of the three souls mentioned, Jamie Bell’s ex-soldier Jarhead Earl is the most agreeable of the bunch seeking redemption at the altar of broken teeth and bloody noses. To get to the Donnybrook, he’s forced to rob a pawn shop for the entrance fee and then hightail it out of town with his son in tow.
Also meandering away from something and towards something else is Delia (a wonderful Margaret Qualley). The sister of local meth dealer Chainsaw Angus (Frank Grillo), her relationship with him is vile and hateful. Anytime she tries to get close — with several scenes that belie an even more sinister pull between the two — ends up with him spitting in her face or jerking her head violently and then kissing to apologize. For his part, Grillo plays his character with stunning, methodical rage.
Once Delia decides she’s had enough, she steals his stash and moves towards the “Donnybrook” where she meets up with Earl and forms a broken family looking for atonement in the wretches of modern America.
Or, at least, that’s what the film wants the viewer to feel. Completely conflicted about it, Donnybrook is a film so bleak and dour that even the subplots demand a level of ‘miserablism,’ including a local sheriff (James Badge Dale) who drinks from a flask incessantly and hunts Chainsaw Angus with an aggression that seems right at home in the next season of True Detective. Bracketed by a swelling soundtrack by Phil Mossman and Jens Bjornkjaer, Donnybrook imparts a sense that it’s a grand statement on our divided Here and Now, where the only two things that exist are evil and more evil, whose deliverance can only be found in the pummeling of others.
Yet, outside of its self-important, low-rent Cormac McCarthy wallow, Sutton’s film strikes a chord of underlying beauty in its images and tone. Bell and Qualley embody their damaged-goods characters with vulnerability, although, due to one shocking scene of sadism, one may not identify with Qualley’s Delia quite so easily. And their trek, once they find each other, becomes a sort of mythological trip across the river to an island of desperation whose whiffs of ancient literature lend the film a deeper commentary.
As a whole, the rigorous violence and dampening widespread malaise ultimately make Donnybrook more of a chore to sit through than anything else. It does feature some sparkles of brilliance and Sutton is an interesting filmmaker whose career of America’s hardened edges may still coalesce into something great. With Donnybrook, the hardness is certainly there, but nothing else.
Donnybrook opens in the Dallas/Fort Worth area on Friday, February 15 at select theaters.