By Thomas Puhr.
It’s only fitting that writer-director Tim Sutton’s latest, Donnybrook (2018), opens with a voyage by boat. Like Odysseus, Jarhead Earl (Jamie Bell) undergoes a long journey that culminates in a bloody showdown. Waiting for him at the end of the river is the titular underground fight, which rewards its winner with $100,000. Also like Homer’s epic hero, Jarhead hopes to reunite with his family after this final victory.
Allegorical underpinnings aside, the film also operates as a lean crime thriller. On Jarhead’s heels is the bloodthirsty (and aptly named) Chainsaw Angus (Frank Grillo), himself being pursued by world-weary Sheriff Whalen (James Badge Dale). As Jarhead and his son, Moses (Alexander Washburn), travel through a dilapidated Ohio on their way to the fight, Sutton additionally flirts with (but never completely indulges in) father-son road movie and underdog fighter tropes.
Perhaps most importantly, the film functions as an often scathing commentary on American poverty. The devastating effects of the country’s opioid crisis, for example, ripple throughout the narrative. Chainsaw and his sister, Delia (Margaret Qualley), both dealers, leave a literal trail of death and suffering in their wake; Jarhead’s wife, Tammy (Dara Tiller), and Sheriff Whalen are recovering addicts (and former customers of the Angus siblings).
Qualley stands out among the uniformly strong performances. Her portrayal of Delia somehow elicits both terror (she is responsible for one of the most disturbing death scenes in recent memory) and pity (her tough exterior crumbles under the pressure of her maniacal brother). Unlike Chainsaw and his Anton Chigurh-like persona, she shows some tenderness through her interactions with Jarhead and Moses. Later, she naively hopes to begin a new life after selling the rest of her stash at Donnybrook.
Anyone familiar with Sutton’s previous work will note that Donnybrook is far more story-oriented in nature; indeed, there is probably more plot in the first five minutes of this film than in both Pavilion (2012) and Dark Night (2016) combined. It should come as no surprise, then, that the source material is a 2013 novel by Frank Bill.
Nevertheless, fans fearing the filmmaker has gone “mainstream” need not fear. His contemplative, elliptical visual style remains intact and is all the more striking now that it has something, however bare-bones, to stick to. Consider, for example, a beautiful shot in which a police car’s vibrant taillights fade into the black countryside until their appearance borders on the abstract, or an extended tracking shot of Moses riding a bike through the wilderness. Some images are almost mythically grandiose: the first glimpse we get of Donnybrook itself features a tower of fire that makes the festival look like a gateway to hell, its drunken attendees a bloodthirsty cabal.
At its bleak core, Donnybrook is about our repulsion toward (and fascination with) violence. As such, there are plenty of disturbing moments to go around, but they are never glorified or celebrated. Bucking the current trend of elongating action sequences as much as possible, the fights are brutally efficient (and realistically messy) in their execution. The climactic brawl, a bare-fisted free-for-all in a cage, ends within minutes. Most tellingly, a villain’s death occurs just offscreen; Sutton is not merely teasing his audience but willfully denying an easy, gory catharsis.
If the filmmaker’s previous minimalism teetered toward vapidity (the fascinating but hollow Dark Night comes to mind), Donnybrook has the opposite issue in that it contains perhaps one subplot too many. Sheriff Whalen’s story thread, which centers on his failed marriage and one-man vendetta against Chainsaw, ultimately feels extraneous. After being introduced and generating our curiosity, he is abruptly cut from the narrative. It’s as if Sutton didn’t quite know what to do with the character.
The film is also hindered by Jarhead’s dubious characterization. On some level, we are clearly meant to root for the character when he first steps into that cage, but is it warranted? He is indeed the closest thing to a moral center in the story, especially compared to Chainsaw or even Delia, but when a tragic event befalls his family and fuels his bloodlust during the fight, I felt just as angry toward him as I did his enemies. This tragedy is a result, in part, of his negligence as a father and husband, and Sutton never really grapples with this harsh reality.
Despite these concerns, Donnybrook is a major step forward for the filmmaker, who proves his capability of tackling more linear fare without foregoing his distinct visual aesthetic. The final product is a mesmerizing, often subversive response to genre expectations. In Sutton’s cinematic world, a son hitting a punching bag in emulation of his father is heartbreaking rather than inspiring, and a moment of glory in the ring proves fleeting and pointless.
Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy Beast, Birth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International.