The grass is always greener, or so the saying goes. But America, in many ways, is a country of haves and have-nots and Donnybrook is an unflinchingly brutal and gritty look at the have-nots, where the grass is unquestionably not green. Director Tim Sutton, adapting author Frank Bill's debut novel, delivers a true gut-punch of a drama that offers a drearily dark look at some diametrically opposed people from the wrong side of the tracks. As difficult as this movie is to watch at times, it's no doubt going to stick with viewers and works as a stunning showcase for its stars.
The fates of two already desperate men propel them brutally towards a brawl with stakes far higher than expected. Jarhead Earl (Jamie Bell) wants a good life for his wife and children. In order to try and get them to this better life, the military vet decides to rob a gun store in order to get entry money for a winner-take-all bare-knuckle boxing match that will give him the money needed to escape their desperate existence. Meanwhile, Chainsaw Angus (Frank Grillol), a meth dealer in business with sister (Margaret Qualley), finds himself in the crosshairs of a crooked cop (James Badge Dale) and, for his own reasons, is also on his way to this boxing match at Donnybrook. As Jarhead and Chainsaw's paths draw closer to intersection, the violence and cost begins to add up for both men on their quest for something better.
Despite the brutal nature of this movie, director Tim Sutton allows the grim events to unfold with a caustic whisper, as opposed to a loud and jarring bang. Certain viewers will assuredly be turned off by the movie's bleak nature. Nothing is sugar-coated along the way. The lesson largely seems to be that bad things happen to people who do bad things, whether or not those people have good intentions. It's a movie about choices, or the perceived lack thereof. People who don't come from means often feel like a rat trapped in a cage. They will do anything to escape and desperation doesn't often lead to the best decision making. Especially when you're not simply a rat, but a person with a family to be concerned with who the world, as it exists, doesn't afford many options.
Even though this is almost entirely a movie comprised of ugliness and misery coated with foolish optimism, it has some undeniably memorable and spectacular imagery. Sutton lingers on moments that are equally beautiful and distressing. There are also some incredible moments of action thrown in to break up the quiet and gut-wrenching cold nature of the story. Not to spoil anything, but the climax at Donnybrook is truly something to behold, for those who don't have a weak stomach for intensely real violence.
One would be remiss to not discuss the performances of both Jamie Bell and Frank Grillo, who topline the cast. Bell, unfortunately, is often time seen by more casual moviegoers in blockbusters, such as the tragedy that was Fantastic Four, that are less-than-stellar and don't serve as a good showcase of his talents. Donnybrook, on the other hand, is an incredible showcase for Bell, who gives one of the best performances of his career here. Bell's character is a man who wants to do the right thing and cares deeply about his family, despite making very poor decisions. Bell doesn't overdo a single frame and plays the role with respect and subtlety, with stunning results. Grillo, on the other hand, is known for playing brooding men, be it good or bad. Here, Grillo plays one of the most despicable characters you're likely to encounter in mainstream cinema and does so captivatingly. Audiences will leave despising Angus, but Grillo deserves a lot of credit for going the places he went for the role.
There are shades of Martin Scorsese in the violence and flashes of the Coen brothers when it comes to the atmosphere. It's certainly not for everyone and I would blame nobody for being put off by this movie, but those who can enjoy something this dour, with just the tiniest bit of almost indistinguishable light at the end of the tunnel, will leave with their hair blown pack. Don't sleep on IFC Films'Donnybrook when it comes out.