Written for the screen and directed by Tim Sutton
Starring Jamie Bell, Frank Grillo and Margaret Qualley
Running time: 1 hour and 41 minutes
MPAA rating: R
by Hunter Bush
Donnybrook is like standing around a parking lot after the bar closes, watching everybody make bad decisions. Like listening to two blowhards talk about how they're gonna fight each other, but the logic only kind of makes sense and then when they do, finally, throw hands, it's over in ten seconds. And just as everyone is dispersing, you see that one of them had secretly been carrying a crowbar with the phrase "social commentary" written on it.
"Hm..." you think to yourself, "I don't know if that would've been better if they'd utilized this secret weapon or not but it sure couldn't have hurt."
Based on the 2013 debut novel by Frank Bill, Donnybrook follows Jarhead Earl (alternately just called Jar) played by Jamie Bell. Jar is a veteran (as you might've guessed from the nickname) who plans on entering and winning an underground street fight called The Donnybrook to secure a huge cash prize and thus a new life for himself and his family. Turns out, since he's been away, Jar's wife has gotten hooked on the meth sold by local real bad dude Angus, played by Frank Grillo, though, to be honest that isn't really a motivating factor for Jar (I don't think) since by the time he finds out about it, he's already robbed a gun shop for the Donnybrook entrance fee.
Jar leaves his daughter with his wife (who's detoxing from meth, remember) in a motel room, takes his son Moses (Alexander Washburn) and they just sort of head straight for the Donnybrook. It's not like it's hard to find or anything, it's just...kinda far. Meanwhile Angus and his sister Delia (Margaret Qualley) have recently had a run of bad luck that has them leaving a trail of dead bodies in their wake and a crooked cop (Whalen, played by James Badge Dale) on their tail. Eventually, Delia and Angus part ways (contentiously) and she hooks up with Jar & Moses, correctly assuming where they're headed and hoping to sell her supply of meth there, then disappear.
It's a pretty thin story, which is neither a good nor bad thing in itself. Where it gets bad is that you can feel how thin it is. It's also bleak. Again, neither an inherently good or bad thing but, personally, I prefer my bleakness with a reason. The Coen Bros.' No Country For Old Men, itself also an adaptation mind you, is bleak but about Something, which Donnybrook only thinks it is. The final line, without spoiling it, equates Earl's entire crime-riddled journey from robbing a gun store to competing in a bare-knuckle cage-match for cash to the struggle and sacrifice of soldiers during the Civil War. I literally yelled at the screen: "Really? That's what you think this was?!?!" Remember the crowbar I mentioned? That line was it. Would Donnybrook have been more engaging as a movie if it tried harder to Say Something? Probably not, but it couldn't have been much less.
Despite these criticisms, Donnybrook isn't terrible, like, in an active sense. There's genuinely nice cinematography by David Ungaro throughout the film that showcases the sprawl of the middle American countryside with an eye for dramatic lighting and gritty textures. It's also competently directed by Tim Sutton, with one sequence that stood out in particular where Angus encounters Moses in the woods at night. When he approaches the boy, Angus' black coat seems to swallow the child into total darkness, which would be amazing if Angus felt like the kind of evil-made-flesh that (I think) he's supposed to.
The fault here isn't with Frank Grillo, who does as good a job as anybody in the film. Jamie Bell, Margaret Qualley, James Badge Dale; It's none of their faults. They're not really characters so much as they're each a chain of actions and poor decisions wrapped in human skin. Seriously, most of Donnybrook was like watching something called Poor Decision Theater; at some point it became laughable, then hilarious. "Should I steal this cop car?" "Should I kiss my brother?" and other hits of the rotten life choices genre! It makes every character unlikable, which makes me not care about them, which makes it very hard to care about the movie they're central to. Are we just supposed to root for Jar because he has a family? Why not, instead, show us how much he cares for his family. It probably wouldn't involve leaving one small child with a detoxing mother and dragging the other on one criminal misadventure after another, but what do I know? I'm not a parent.
One of my biggest problems with Donnybrook, overall, was that I never felt like Jar was a good-enough fighter to compete. Almost as soon as the movie opens, Jar gets soundly beaten by Angus (in Jar's own home no less; that's gotta sting) and we don't see him fight again until the top of the third act. When Angus inevitably shows up as a competitor in the Donnybrook, and he and Jar inevitably end up as the last men standing, I was hoping for a real slobberknocker. For a film centered around violence, and specifically building to this fight, it's very anticlimactic.
In the novel, the Donnybrook is a three day affair with a series of 20-man no-holds-barred rumbles that culminate in five finalists having one last winner-take-all match, while in the movie it begins as some kind of battle royale that stops for a cigarette once all save two have been eliminated. I think changing the book's set-up for the event was a mistake and not using the three days of the slugfest to mirror the three-act structure feels like a missed opportunity. Starting with Jar already at the Donnybrook, then periodically flashing back to how he got here would not only help break up the monotonous "and then..." feeling of the storytelling, but also better establish Jar as a serious physical threat. I hate to be This Guy, but Fight Club did everything Donnybrook is trying to do, but better: the violence is more visceral, the message more convincingly conveyed.
Donnybrook feels a little misguided, or maybe mismanaged is a better word; it feels like it doesn't know what kind of movie it wants to be. Is it a Message Movie, using violence as a means to convey a point or is it a Fight Flick where the audience can watch bad people beat the snot out of each other for a cheap thrill, with a lesson tacked on for legitimacy's sake? Ultimately it's neither, or it's the more tepid parts of both. The result is the same: a mediocre viewing experience.