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Review: With Donnybrook, Tim Sutton Delivers a Moody Heartland SOS

The film knots several strands of new-millennium despair into something that very nearly approximates greatness in its first half.

2.5
Donnybrook
Photo: IFC Films

A savage dispatch from the tweaker heartland, writer-director Tim Sutton’s Donnybrook knots several strands of new-millennium despair into something that very nearly approximates greatness in its first half. The film’s trip toward a miniature Midwestern apocalypse starts appropriately on a boat, with a quiet man (Jamie Bell) and woman (Margaret Qualley) being ferried upriver to their heart of darkness: a fabled backwoods battle royale called the Donnybrook, whose prize for survival is $100,000. The next hour is a flashback of brutality and hopelessness laying out what led them to this state of affairs.

The man is Jarhead Earl, a rangy war vet trying to escape his demons in a small Indiana town while also trying to give his family, two plucky and adorable kids and a wife fighting a loosing battle against addiction, a chance at a better life. The woman is Delia, who’s seen in the film’s flashback as the haunted, hungry-eyed sister of a local drug lord, Chainsaw Angus (Frank Grillo). “You still tweaking from killing those Muslim babies?” Delia asks Earl with sadistic snark just before he discovers Chainsaw trying to sell to his wife, setting off the chain of events that puts Delia and Earl on the boat, a trail of bodies littered behind.

Donybrook is at its strongest as a chase narrative, with Earl and his son trying to make it to the Donnybook and its $100,000 while keeping ahead of Chainsaw and Delia, each pursuing their own benighted fantasies of revenge or redemption, and Donnie (James Badge Dale), a drunken detective who’s poorly tracking them all in the film’s one concession to black humor. But Donnybrook is far from a thrill ride. Sutton, who adapted the screenplay from Frank Bill’s novel of the same name, takes a lugubrious approach to this ambling, violence-addled passage through a landscape of wintry fields, dying industrial towns, meth labs, and ramshackle bars. The mood is grand and gothic, shivered with opera music on the soundtrack and pocked with depravity that occasionally tips into overkill—particularly in the unfortunately eroticized nature of Delia’s traumatized fetishes and incest-shadowed backstory.

Deliberately paced as it is, the film’s noir narrative nevertheless comes as a sharp change of pace for Sutton. His earlier work, from the ambling plotlessness of Memphis to the glassy vacancy of Dark Night, was characterized by an expansive roominess. But his interests remain much of the same here, in that Donnybrook is another story about some American underbelly story featuring overlooked people at loose ends in a mystifying and unwelcoming land.

The greatest stylistic departure for Sutton is the depiction of the Donnybrook. Envisioned as an aggro-redneck Burning Man, it’s the kind of backwoods lawless gathering that would have fit perfectly into the forgotten-men dystopia of Scott Cooper’s Out of the Furnace. There are fires surrounded by bearded men fighting and slugging beer, black-market weapons of war for sale, and a chain-link cage for the battle royale itself. It’s all a bit much, even before we get to the moment where all these lost boys stop hooting and hollering to listen to the National Anthem and gaze at the American flag hanging ever so pointedly over the fighting cage. Sutton may as well be playing Brad Pitt’s final speech from Killing Them Softly, about living in America and being on your own, as the fight begins. But Sutton’s commitment to this downbeat heartland SOS and the powerful performances, from Bell’s wiry paranoia to Grillo’s stark monomania, still manage to leave a bleak chill in the air after the blood dries.

Cast: Frank Grillo, Margaret Qualley, James Badge Dale, Jamie Bell, Pat Healy, James Landry Hébert, Chris Browning Director: Tim Sutton Screenwriter: Tim Sutton Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 102 min Rating: NR Year: 2018 Buy: Video

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