A man must win a fighting competition in order to make ends meet: It’s the story of countless films across the decades, but never has it been done with the darkness and despair of Donnybrook. Although stars Frank Grillo and Jamie Bell are at their career best in the movie, it’s so entirely unpleasant to sit through that even they can’t save it.
The closest analog to director Tim Sutton's Donnybrook is Gavin O’Connor’s 2011 masterpiece Warrior, which also featured Grillo. Although it's technically an MMA film, Warrior saved the fight scenes for the final act, and instead devoted most of its runtime to fleshing out the family drama. Similarly, Donnybrook spends for more time talking, or even in silence, than in the ring. A better script could have used that to develop its characters, or, heck, to do anything interesting at all, but instead the movie fills 90 minutes with one-dimensional characters and a meditation on the hopelessness of living.
Based on Frank Bill's debut novel, Donnybrook star Bell as Jarhead Earl, a former Marine with a dark past who barely scrapes by, living with his drug-addicted girlfriend and two children in a tiny trailer in Southern Indiana. They’re mixed up with Grillo’s Chainsaw Agnus, a drug kingpin who runs a tight grip on the area with his sister Delia Angus, played by Margaret Qualley.
In the area’s crime community, everyone has heard of The Donnybrook, a bare-knuckle cage fight in which the last man standing wins $100,000. The film follows Earl as he travels across Indiana, desperately trying to make it to The Donnybrook against the wishes of Angus. It’s clear from the outset the two share bad blood, but it remains a mystery as to where that history began. Nevertheless, the relationship only worsens over the course of the 101 minutes, resulting in what comes off in moments as a chase film rather than a meditative crime drama.
In a vacuum, Donnybrook is passable, a plodding affair that lacks any interesting qualities outside of its two lead performances. It’s not particularly well-directed, shot with a monochromatic color palette that’s clearly intended to imbue the movie with a grim, realistic atmosphere, but instead only makes everything hard to make out. The characters are poorly sketched and the dialogue falls flat, taking itself far more seriously than it should, but Bell and Grillo are so believable that they run with what they’re given — Bell turning out a humanistic version of one of Clint Eastwood’s silent protagonists and Grillo turning it up to 10 as a snarling, massively intimidating villain. Separated from everything else the script goes for, these two would have rescued the movie from mediocrity. Donnybrook was probably never going to be a must-watch, but it could have at least been worthwhile. Instead, the film takes a huge, admirable swing at subtext — and falls flat on its face.
In Donnybrook, Sutton tries to make a grand statement about life in the Midwest, but it’s clear he doesn’t quite know how, resulting in a muddled product. Through the conversations between the characters and the many obstacles Earl encounters, Donnybrook argues that Midwestern culture pushes men toward a singular image of a “man,” one defined by violence and dominance. Sutton attempts to critique that, but stumbles when he isn’t condemning The Donnybrook, and instead celebrates the fight. To make matters worse, Sutton’s two female leads have no depth, no character arc and no agency to move the plot forward; they’re only there to serve as motivation for the male leads.
Additionally, in an offhanded comment, one of the characters says the climactic fight is put on by a local Nazi, but that's never mentioned or referenced again. It sort of makes sense, given everyone who ends up at the fight is white, but it makes almost no sense in the movie, as it doesn’t serve to provide subtext. More than anything, this offhanded detail is a symptom of Donnybrook’s messy script, which doesn’t know whether it’s a critique of middle-American toxic masculinity or a celebration of it.
Donnybrook had the makings of an all-time great low-budget genre film. A young, promising director, some of modern cinema’s most underrated actors, and an engaging premise could have led to the best movie of the year, but instead it’s on the other side of “just OK.” If you’re looking for a worthwhile Frank Grillo action movie, just watch Beyond Skyline and stay away from Donnybrook.
Directed by Tim Sutton, Donnybrook stars Frank Grillo, Jamie Bell and James Badge Dale. The film screened at Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, ahead of its 2019 release from distributor IFC Films.