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In a year that’s seen a number of humane, incisive films address the increase in poverty in America, such as Andrew Haigh’s Lean on Pete and Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace, the lumbering arrival of Donnybrook feels like even more of a misstep. It’s a pulpy slab of exploitation masquerading as an important treatise on the struggles faced by the working class in rural America, thumping us in the face with its shallow viewpoint until we beg for mercy. Or at least the credits.
Based on the book by Frank Bill, the barebones plot sees Jamie Bell square up as “Jarhead” Earl, a veteran and father of two who somehow decides that the only way to save his family, including his cancer-stricken, opioid-addicted wife, is to rob a local gun shop (without any form of disguise) to pay for his entry fee to a life-or-death bare-knuckle fighting competition called the Donnybrook. But as his journey to possible redemption, and a $100,000 prize, awaits, he finds himself inextricably linked to a sadistic local drug dealer, Chainsaw Angus (Frank Grillo) and his long-suffering sister Delia (Margaret Qualley), for reasons that make little to no sense.
The director Tim Sutton’s previous features have gained quiet acclaim for their naturalistic, some say poetic, others say lethargic, looks at those living on the outskirts of society. Donnybrook is a clear lurch towards something more accessible (his previous films featured mostly non-professional actors, often found via “street casting”) and in the process, Sutton has attached himself to a more linear plot. But there’s a dissonance between what’s essentially a simple midnight movie set-up and the suffocatingly overstylised direction ladled over the top. The on-the-nose dialogue (“The world’s changed and criminals are running everything so the only things worth living for are vice and indulgence!”) clangs when coupled with a staggeringly self-important score (every single piece of music might as well be called Great American Tragedy) and the clumsy insistence that this film is somehow making a profound statement about the state of the country.
When the pretentiousness is briefly held at bay, one gets an idea of the film that could have been: a grimy, balls-to-the-wall grindhouse shocker. Sutton does evoke a certain, squalid atmosphere (although a confusing, gratuitous sex-and-death scene is a step too far in the wrong direction) and he’s clearly technically proficient, the film never failing to at least please on an aesthetic level. Bell also gives it his all, even if he feels somewhat miscast, while Grillo’s villainy is so overpronounced, he might as well be called Mr Bad Guy. His hard-boiled one-liners feel embarrassingly affected, like he stepped in from a mid-90s sub-Tarantino thriller, and again this might have felt fitting if Sutton had succumbed to the genre.
The script asks too many illogical questions that can only be answered by “to progress the story” and Sutton’s stagey, witless dialogue fails to rise to his skill as a director. He does achieve some rare, swelling moments of power through visual and aural means but they’re ultimately empty as there’s no emotion or substance supporting them. There’s not as much to his film as he seems to think and this is highlighted by a hopelessly misjudged ending that lays the film’s agenda out with a crushing lack of subtlety. If Donnybrook had eased into its extremity, it could have been a contender.
Source: The Guardian
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