Donnybrook movie poster
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Donnybrook
Donnybrook movie poster

Donnybrook Movie Review

Donnybrook used to be called Shitty People Doing Shitting Things before test audiences exclaimed it wasn’t an old Steve Martin comedy but a bleak, depressing drama about bleak, depressing people doing bleak, depressing things. While bleak and depressing are right up my alley, and as intriguing as Donnybrook is at times, it was a real challenge to get invested in any of the shitty people writer/director Tim Sutton concocted who spend their time doing shitty things.

The movie, based on the novel by Frank Bill, is about a young man named Jarhead Earl (Jamie Bell) desperately trying to get out of dodge, but even his car hates him so much it breaks down before he makes it very far. He’s small but he packs quite a wallop, and is preparing to fight in a bare-knuckles, all-out cage fight brawl to win $100,000.

Meanwhile, there is a dude named Chainsaw Angus (Frank Grillo), who is an early contender for Best Villain of the Year—a ruthless sociopath who leaves in his wake a string of bodies and blood.

Donnybrook has a lot going for it.

The acting is top notch, with the former Billy Elliot sliding into his gritty character with gusto and Grillo delivering one of the most chilling performances in recent memory, one in which he manages to chew up scenery but in a dark, quiet kind of way. Margaret Qualley is also really strong.

Sutton makes the most of his color-drain aesthetics. Countless directors have made films with dark filters that suck the color—and inadvertently the life—out of their stories, but the look and feel is a perfect match for the tone, the characters, and dark plot. Donnybrook looks great, at least when you can see what’s happening.

The story itself is intriguing. I’m not sure how closely it holds true to the novel—based on the book description, it sounds a bit different, with the brawl being a multi-day tournament that sounds more like The Hunger Games than the cage match depicted in the movie, relegated to the film’s final minutes—but the convergence of seemingly disparate characters is skillfully drawn.

Still, a lack of truly compelling characters keeps Donnybrook from being anything more than a footnote. Bell’s character, the closest thing to a protagonist, is a bit of an empty vessel, his name more fascinating than anything he does or say in the movie. Chainsaw Angus is twisted, but would have worked better with someone worthy of his antagonism. James Badge Dale does a good job, but his character is a nothing-nothing. Qualley, playing Chainsaw Angus’ sister, is probably the most fascinating of the bunch, but she’s also someone who has sex with a bloodied and bruised old man before shooting him in the head.

Donnybrook works on many levels, but its characters are so bleak Sutton seems determined to keep them at arm’s length, unwilling to let you fully absorb this dark, deranged world he has brought to the screen.

Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.

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