'Donnybrook': Film Review | TIFF 2018

Courtesy of TIFF
Deserves a knuckle sandwich.

Two down-and-out American men travel to a big-payout cage match in Tim Sutton's unpleasant, off-putting drama.

With Donnybrook, writer-director Tim Sutton returns to the forgotten America that informed his three previous features, Pavilion (2012), Memphis (2013) and Dark Night (2016), though whatever vision those films had (and it tended to be of a very minor sort) is absent here. This is a movie to which the term "derivative" entirely applies, a repellent mixture of Malick-like dreaminess, Scorsese-esque brutality and the lurid shock/schlock of William Faulkner in Sanctuary mode (just replace corncob rape with the grisly seduction-murder of an orgasming, pallid-skinned meth dealer).

At the story's heart are two men on separate, occasionally converging paths. Jarhead Earl (Jamie Bell) is an ex-soldier trying desperately to provide for his sick wife and two children. Chainsaw Angus (Frank Grillo) is a hotheaded drug dealer who murders with impunity and abuses his perpetually shellshocked sister/sidekick, Delia (Margaret Qualley). After coming to blows in an early scene, Earl and Angus each head off on their own languorous, increasingly violent journeys. The destination: the Donnybrook, an illegal group cage-fighting match with a $100,000 cash prize awarded to the last man standing.

Sutton peppers the duo's odyssey with self-consciously poetic scenery and condescendingly employed local color (dappled sunlight eking through windy reeds; background extras who read at a glance as "regional") as well as an extraneous subplot about a troubled lawman, Whalen (James Badge Dale), on Angus' tail. Earl's young son Moses (Alexander Washburn) acts as a pair of innocent eyes through which to view all the resultant carnage. It's The Night of the Hunter light, something especially apparent when Grillo's character becomes a kind of carbon copy of that film's demonic preacher-cum-angel of death, Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), toward Donnybrook's end.

Sutton is aiming to make a grand statement about America's downtrodden, and he never lets you forget it. Just before the cage match begins the camera focuses intently on a woman singing the national anthem; the ironic counterpointing of fervent patriotism and skull-crushing violence is so ham-fisted it elicits several eye rolls or face palms (pick your peeved pleasure). Same goes for a climactic scene set on a Civil War battlefield in which a sorrowful Earl sums up the story's do-what-we-gotta-do thesis with a Screenwriting 101 didacticism that is truly embarrassing.

Bell's natural allure and charisma somehow carry him above all this macho dross, to the point that he nearly sells his character's aching emotional arc. Grillo's third-gen Method psycho shtick grates early and often, though at least he's not cringingly put through the wringer like Qualley, who is basically asked to unearth the manic pixie dream girl lurking within a victim of unspeakable trauma. Her character is, unfortunately, the beguiler/killer of the above-mentioned pallid-skinned meth man, played with gusto by Pat Healy, the only performer who seems to intuit that this is low-grade trash with risible delusions of grandeur.

Production Companies: Rumble Films, Backup Media
Cast: Frank Grillo, Margaret Qualley, James Badge Dale, Jamie Bell
Director-writer: Tim Sutton
Executive producers: Joel Thibout, David Atlan-Jackson, Jean-Baptiste Babin, Andrew Schwartzberg, Jon Shiffman
Producers: David Lancaster, Stephanie Wilcox
Cinematography: David Ungaro
Editing: Scott Cummings
Original Score: Phil Mossman
Production Designer: Michael T. Perry
Sound: Craig Mann
U.S. Sales: United Talent Agency (UTA)
International Sales: Sierra/Affinity
Publicist: Cinetic Media
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Platform)

101 minutes