Fantastic Fest 2018 Review: Donnybrook


Jamie Bell’s hands are bloodied, tore up. Sweat glistens down his brow as the water connects with open wounds before dripping to the ground. Eighteen years ago, Bell was Billy Elliot, a young boy who ditched boxing class for ballet. Now he’s a “Jarhead” Earl, a returning veteran who struggles to provide for a wife and two kids. He has the markings of backwoods hick. Sinew. Grungy clothes probably lifted from a re-sell shop. Earl is living in an America where making things great again is still not meant for him.

You want something bad enough you have to fight for it. The answer to a better life: The Donnybrook, a winner-takes-all cage fight where the victor walks out with $100,000. That money would allow the Jarhead clan to put a down payment on a house and make a new life. But before he can unclinch his fists and head to the pay window, Earl’s odyssey begins with crime and ends in punishment. See, Earl’s not the only one going to Donnybrook. His story collides with Delia (Margaret Qualley) and her older brother Angus (Frank Grillo), a pair of crystal meth-dealing siblings whose complex relationship is anything but congenial. Angus has the moniker of “Chainsaw”, though he doesn’t hail from Texas. Dressed in black as if he was an undertaker, Angus is one mean son of a bitch. Callous and unaffectionate, even when it comes to family, if you stand his way he won’t flinch in taking your ass out.

During a brief introduction writer/director Tim Sutton suggested that Donnybrook is a dark feature of much despair with maybe a sliver of hope. All of this is correct. I’d go further in admitting that this adaptation of the Frank Bill novel, described as recession noir, is about the cyclical nature of abuse and desperation; the film wants to be a requiem of the marginalization of current middle America. Sutton’s dark fable partially achieves this effect, highlighting downtrodden, blue-collar white Americans – and only white Americans.

Save the discussion about the absence of color and racism; the narrative doesn’t try to expose the festering white resentment that persists in communities throughout the heartland. We know it exists. Sutton knows we know it exists. He’s not looking to offer solutions. And he’s not looking to move beyond the three principal characters, none of whom are particularly likable. Jarhead Earl is the closest thing to a good man.

Earl is tougher than a piece of stale bread and about as stubborn to swallow. Traveling by boat upstream to a desolate piece of farmland where the titular fight transpires, I couldn’t help shake the vision of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness populated with Mark Twain characters, though lacking in humor (aside from colorful nicknames) and dimension.

A lack of character is my biggest gripe with Donnybrook. Earl, Angus, and Delia are only two dimensional. Of the three, Delia undergoes the most change but pays a steep price. Angus is not quite a sociopath but his controlling nature presents a sense of ownership – of what I do not know. Earl is a simple man with simple needs. If he has to steal bread to feed his family, or in this case make knuckle sandwiches, he will do just that.

Donnybrook is violent with a little gristle hanging from the bone. While it tries to be shocking at inopportune times, the weight of this pessimistic tale is supported by the Earls of the world. Disillusioned men doing desperate things. If this were a B-side record it may be called “Trump Noir.”

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