Certified critic on Rotten Tomatoes. Member of the Houston Film Critics Society. Also writes for Bounding Into Comics and GeeksHaveGame.
Consumed By Darkness
Based on the 2013 novel of the same name by Frank Bill, Donnybrook is the story of Jarhead Earl (Jamie Bell); a man so desperate to make life better for his family that he’s willing to travel by any means necessary to a 20-man battle royal tournament where the last man standing receives $100,000. A ruthless meth dealer named Chainsaw Angus (Frank Grillo) always gets what he wants in brutal fashion, but his sister and business partner Delia (Margaret Qualley) is looking to branch out on her own. Donnybrook is a documentation of two men traveling from southeast Kentucky to southern Indiana as they break every law, kill every man, and steal every dollar they require to get there.
It sounds like Frank Bill’s novel dives into the specifics of not only the tournament, but fleshes out these characters to a satisfying extent. The Donnybrook tournament takes place over three days; Angus started cooking meth to get away from fighting, and the dialogue apparently has this zesty gusto to it that makes everything abrasively memorable. Despite screenwriter and director Tim Sutton being able to capitalize on the violence and cruel nature Frank Bill was aiming for and some strong performances from Bell, Grillo, and Qualley, Donnybrook drowns in its intense brutality and sinks without a logical destination.
The film adaptation follows Jarhead Earl like a lost, beaten puppy that doesn’t know any better and keeps returning to its owner to repeat its bruised and broken existence. Earl’s desperation is obvious from the get-go; he intends to make a better life for his wife Tammy (Dara Tiller), son Moses (Alexander Washburn), and daughter Scout (Rhyan Elizabeth Hanavan) and blatantly states that winning the Donnybrook is his only option and that he has to win on multiple occasions. Chainsaw Angus is this vile and nasty antagonist with little reason or purpose to his malevolence other than he loathes everything and everyone. Angus is essentially a force of nature that wipes out everything in his path and that path is always either tailing or standing directly in front of Jarhead Earl.
The desire to escape poverty in Donnybrook is slightly intriguing. The message the film is going for isn’t executed to its fullest extent because the film and characters mostly come off as overwhelmingly aimless. No one in this film is a good person and it’s difficult to side with anyone who kills, steals, and treats other people like garbage at every turn. The fresh start aspect introduces the intent to escape this ugly and misshapen world filled with muted colors, the sky consistently being overcast, and a veil of veiny tree branches that seem like fingers attempting to block what little blinding light bleeds through the clouds. But that thirst for a better tomorrow has no follow-up; the intent to make things better and make more money is all these characters have. Outside of their animalistic behavior, these characters are flat and paper thin with a lack of proper development that sucker punches you and leaves you gasping for breath for the entire film.
There’s this sadistic nature to Donnybrook that only exists because everyone in the world it portrays is an a-hole. There’s a torture sequence where Delia toys with a beaten man named Eldon (Pat Healy), who has loaned money to Angus and or Delia in the past. Eldon is bloody and tied up as Delia takes off her pants and underwear. She has sex with a restrained Eldon until he’s on the verge of climax and then she shoots him in the head. There also this weird and one-sided sexual tension between Delia and Angus; her constantly trying to get close to him as he either pummels her with his fists or spits in her mouth because she makes him sick. There’s no remorse or emotion in Donnybrook; just pure, unbridled savagery.
At its core, Donnybrook has a muddled message of attempting to gain freedom from the hindrances that are holding you back like being poor or a controlling family member. If you’re going to make it in the unprotected and unpredictable world of Donnybrook then you need to take the gloves off and approach each obstacle with a kill or be killed mindset; you need to strike first otherwise you’ll be consumed by darkness. If you’ve resorted to selling meth to make ends meet then you have to do whatever it takes to make a profit and do what’s best for business. If you’ve given up everything and have put family in harm’s way for a dream of collecting prize money when your odds are 20 to 1, then your actions have to be as unshackled and relentless as your reputation as a fighter.
But Donnybrook doesn’t dive into these characters as much as it should. There should be more to both Jarhead Earl and Chainsaw Angus since their motives outweigh any sort of depth whatsoever. James Badge Dale’s sheriff character Whalen seems like a complete waste since his desire to track down Angus and unwavering alcoholism fail to make the character memorable. Donnybrook feels like a halfhearted attempt to be Fight Club meets Killing Them Softly with a Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome kind of atmosphere, but its lack of character development and inability to explain why the world has become so cutthroat makes the drama film nothing more than clouded torture porn that pummels its audience into a pathetic puddle of acceptance.
© 2019 Chris Sawin