Jamie Bell and Frank Grillo bare knuckle box as the world burns
If I’m being honest, it was Frank Grillo and “bare knuckle boxing” that got me in the door to see writer/director Tim Sutton’s Donnybrook at Fantastic Fest. The programmers had done enough to dissuade me of the notion that this was some kind of heroic action film, so my expectations were in check. But nothing can probably prepare you for the bleak depths that this film is willing to go to in order to portray the broken humanity of its characters and these United States in which our characters find themselves.
I’m going to go ahead and share my beefs with Donnybrook right up front, because then I can spend most of my time singing its praises. Beef number one is that while I love Frank Grillo and actually feel he did a great job as an absolute monster in this film… the team didn’t do enough to make Frank Grillo fit into this rural Ohioan(?) hellscape. He just looks and sounds like Frank Grillo, trademark peacoat and all, and doesn’t quite fit in with everyone else’s look in the film. Sutton argued that this was intentional in the film’s Q&A, making Grillo’s Angus character an outsider even among his own people. I’m glad it was intentional but it didn’t work for me. This could have been an opportunity for Grillo to try a different look, get a little uglier, or at least dress like a blackhearted hick-monster instead of a tight t-shirted hunk.
Beef number two is simply that the film perhaps lays on one layer too thick its social commentary. One of the first spoken lines includes a character opining “the world has changed”, and a few other instances occur where characters more or less verbalize the ideas that the film is otherwise doing a great job of showing us visually and through its script. It’s a minor beef, and honestly removing just a few of those “too overt” lines would have sent Donnybrook into “greatness” territory.
Enough with the criticism. Because Donnybrook is a powerful film that throws punches and pulls none.
Jarhead Earl (Jamie Bell in a riveting lead performance) is a veteran, husband, and father. We meet him on his way to the Donnybrook in a small boat accompanied by Delia (Margaret Qualley in perhaps the film’s most remarkable performance). The Donnybrook, we come to understand, is a bare knuckle tournament that take $1,000 to enter, with the winner taking home the pot. It’s whispered about around the region, and it appears to be just about the only ticket out of the economic despair of our characters. We jump back in time from the boat and watch as Earl robs a store to collect his entry money. When he arrives home he finds Grillo’s Angus in his home supplying his wife with the meth she’s addicted to, accompanied by his sister Delia. Earl and Angus’ initial violent clash sets the stage for what will come after, and it’s all quite effective. We follow Earl and his family, and Angus and Delia through a fateful few days in which each are committing multiple crimes. It’s clear, however, that Earl fights for his family and simply to survive. Angus, on the other hand, represents the truly monstrous, surviving only by destroying. On Angus’ trail is James Badge Dale’s Marshall Whalen. Donnybrook is the kind of film that seeks to remind you that a badge does not a hero make, and Whalen is shown to be just as broken as the rest of our ensemble.
Tim Sutton clearly has a lot on his mind about America today. Adapted from a novel of the same name by author Frank Bill, Donnybrook is anything but a heroic action film offering cathartic, redemptive violence. In Sutton’s America (an America I recognize all too well despite my own privilege) the law as represented by Whalen is not only amoral, but an empty void. Whalen is intent upon catching and killing Angus, but wreaks as much havoc on those around him as he can in the process, and ultimately proves to be completely ineffective. The law isn’t going to help you here.
The drama and character work that comes through in the script and performances is actually enough to sustain the vast majority of the film’s runtime, to the point where I began to believe we’d never even get to the actual Donnybrook. But we do, and that’s where the film truly plays its entire hand. I won’t spoil much in the way of plot, but I will say that it’s here where we understand the full weight of what Sutton has to say. Here we realize that the America we’re living in today has already fallen so hard that we don’t even need some calamitous nuclear war to experience post-apocalyptic cinema. Grimy, rainy, barb-wiry, and on fire… the Donnybrook is hell and no one is getting out unscathed. And gott-damn if the neo-Nazi who runs the Donnybrook won’t stop everything to make sure the national anthem is sung before the wholesale slaughter for entertainment begins.
More traditionally, we do find ourselves rooting for Earl and his family, and it’s clear that Earl is an otherwise good person forced into Donnybrook’s hellscape by the system that has ensnared him. Qualley’s Delia is remarkably complicated as the younger sister of a human monster. She’s victimized, forced to do unthinkable things (but still does them), and seemingly occasionally allows herself to dream of something different. She’s unpredictable in a film replete with surprises and seemingly no bottom to hit in the black hole. All of our main characters are born out of the broken country in which they were raised. We encounter them on some kind of march towards their ultimate fates, but in all the years before we met them, the hardscrabble fight to survive shaped them, and ultimately Sutton reminds us that these individuals are more real and tangible than the high flying ideals of our pledges, creeds, and anthems. The Donnybrook is the consequence of the America that we’re currently allowing to exist, rather than the America those increasingly hollow ideals upon which we’re supposedly founded promise. There’s little hope to be found in Donnybrook, but there is an inherent will found within Earl, Delia, and many of us to fight. That base instinct to fight propels Earl and compels us to perhaps escape the Donnybrook with our lives and try to do what we can to right the ship.
And I’m Out.