In director Tim Sutton’s adaptation of Frank Bill’s novel Donnybrook, positive feelings are scarce. This film is ugly and brutal, propelled by grisly violence in a dark underbelly of America. The relentlessly bleak nature of Donnybrook will undoubtedly turn off a number of viewers as it’s characters circle the drain of life, but there will be those, like myself, who find themselves captivated by the fatalistic nihilism at the heart of the film which serves as portrait of the desperation that drives those who’ve been forgotten in the world of late capitalism.
Earl (Jamie Bell) is an ex-marine trying to survive through various hardships. He’ll do anything to survive, including armed robbery. He’s no saint. Earl has his sights on going to Donnybrook, a backwoods haven of illicit activity where he can win $100,000 in a brutal cage match. Also on their way to Donnybrook are Angus (Frank Grillo) and his sister Delia (Margaret Qualley). Angus is a ruthless murderer and meth manufacturer, and his sister has grown weary to this life of crime. When she leaves her brother behind with a bag of his meth, Angus goes on a rampage, leaving a trail of bloodied bodies behind on the road to Donnybrook. Trying to stop Angus before he reaches his destination is the world-weary Sherriff Don Whelan (James Badge Dale).
The likability factor of Donnybrook takes a hit because there are no heroes in this bleak world. The protagonist in Earl is a man with a checkered past and we see him commit any number of crimes on his desperate journey to Donnybrook. We’re witness to Angus and Delia each carrying out violent murders – one particular murder by Delia being one of the most bizarrely grotesque murders I’ve ever seen in a film. Even Sherriff Whelan struggles with his own demons, the badge on his chest not symbolizing any kind of moral superiority. You have a film of bad people doing bad things devoid of hope or optimism, and Sutton’s film is unrelenting in driving home its ugliness.
Despite the ghastly nature of Donnybrook’s content, Sutton is able to inject a warped sense of humor to the film. Sometimes the humor is just too dark to make an instant impact. But in these moments Tim Sutton is able to emphasize how Donnybrook is an ultraviolent satire of the American id. When the characters make it to Donnybrook we’re witness to a black market bazaar of drugs and assault weapons. Though this redneck haven is overflowing with illegality, they make sure to take the time to honor America by singing the national anthem before the brutal winner-takes-all cage fight.
Donnybrook will take audiences on an ugly journey through the heart of America. You will cringe. You will gasp. You will avert your eyes. Whether you not you’re able to connect to the ugliness of the material depends entirely on your personal taste. Tim Sutton has made a great leap forward from his last work, Dark Night, while still retaining a critical eye on the violence that has come to define America in the 21st century. Sutton hasn’t softened any of the edges to this violent odyssey, and that ensures that Donnybrook isn’t a movie for everyone.
A relentlessly bleak, brutal work of storytelling, writer-director Tim Sutton’s Donnybrook pushes its characters and the audience to its limits with a haunting journey through the violent heart of America and the desperation of those left behind by late capitalism.