On the surface, Tim Sutton’s adaptation of Frank Bill’s novel Donnybrook seems to address major issues facing poor Americans today: lack of opportunity, opioid addiction, ambivalent justice system, etc. In the world of Donnybrook, fighting is the only way to possibly have a chance at a better life, and you have to go through hell just to get to the fight. But Sutton renders his world in such outlandishly bleak terms that he misses the cruel indifference his characters would actually face in favor of just pushing his audience further into brutality and ugliness. There’s no denying that brutality and ugliness is something the impoverished truly face, but in Donnybrook it comes off as exploitative as the film never makes the effort of creating a realistic world, and instead prefers to jump straight to the themes and emotional weight without laying any of the groundwork, which renders its depictions cheap and flimsy. Donnybrook has a story worth telling, but Sutton bungles it completely.
Jarhead Earl (Jamie Bell) has come home from fighting in the Middle East and there’s nothing here for him in America. His wife Tammy (Dara Tiller) is addicted to drugs, which are sold by the cold psychopath Chainsaw Angus (Frank Grillo) and his sister Delia (Margaret Qualley). Seeing only one opportunity to pull his family out of their desperate situation, Jarhead resolves to go to the Donnybrook, a no-holds-barred cage match where the victor takes home $100,000. As he makes his odyssey towards the Donnybrook, Jarhead is eventually joined by Delia, who is on the run from Chainsaw after she tried to kill him. Additionally, Chainsaw’s string of crimes are being tracked by the local law enforcement officer, Whalen (James Badge Dale).
Despite the handheld camera and muted color palette, it only takes about twenty minutes or so to see that Donnybrook isn’t really operating in our plane of reality, or at least it would rather play up the sensational rather than the crushingly mundane. Early in the story, Delia is forced to kill a man (Pat Healy) for Chainsaw, but she decides to have sex with the man first and then at his moment of orgasm, she shoots him in the head. The scene does fall in line with the film’s credo that all that remains for people in this world are indulgences, but it’s shown in such extreme, borderline comical terms that the message has no impact. The weight of the murder doesn’t really seem to affect Delia, and the crime is just part of the larger milieu of this bleak world.
With so little care or attention paid to the characters or their circumstances, it’s hard to believe anything Sutton is selling. Later in the film, Chainsaw and Whalen have a shotgun battle and you’re just left wondering, “Why isn’t Whalen wearing a bulletproof vest? Where is his backup? Why didn’t he call anyone to say, ‘Hey, I’ve tracked the whereabouts of a known felon?’” If the argument is to be made that Donnybrook exists in an exaggerated world to better emphasize the shortcomings of our own, then it’s a disservice to the film’s subtext because we can’t buy anything that’s happening. The film just ends up being consumed by its own bleakness rather than using that bleakness to convey a point about America.
At best, you can view the world of Donnybrook as a kind of “American Purgatory” where no one has any means of mobility except extreme ways like the Donnybrook. But to make the audience believe in that purgatory, Sutton needed to play his film far closer to a recognizable reality of scraping by on the margins. Without that realism, the film plays like an exaggerated view of American poverty that lacks even basic empathy for its characters. Despite strong, quiet performances from Bell, Qualley, and Grillo, their characters feel like pawns being used to make a point rather than real people who are worthy of our empathy and understanding. I understand denying that empathy to the villainous Chainsaw Angus, but all we really know about Jarhead and Delia is their desperation, and that’s not enough.
Donnybrook feels exploitative of poverty, showing it in lurid detail, but rarely empathizing with it. Instead, it seems like Sutton wanted to tell a story about a dying America where those at the bottom are fighting over the scraps, which is a good story and one we need right now. Unfortunately, the way he chooses to depict that story is unintentionally comic in its darkness and anger. Donnybrook desperately wants to land a knockout punch, but it never bothers to build up any muscle.