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‘Donnybrook’ Film Review: Jamie Bell’s Miserabilist Boxing Drama Has No Uppercut

Director Tim Sutton shoots for scuzzy bleakness, but the end result is overpowering yet unfocused

Tim Sutton’s “Donnybrook” is like getting wasted on expired beer at a bar with no liquor license, fighting three strangers in a parking lot, and passing out in a pool of vomit — which may or may not be your own — at the end of the night. On a Monday. It’s a brutal, depressing, filthy motion picture. But for whatever it’s worth, that’s the point.

“Donnybrook” stars Jamie Bell as Jarhead Earl, a war veteran with two kids, a drug-addicted wife, no money, and only one chance of improving his circumstances: The Donnybrook, an illegal, bare-knuckle brawl with a $100,000 grand prize. (The runners-up, apparently, only get the beating of a lifetime. Or a violent death.)

But Sutton’s film, based on a novel by Frank Bill, isn’t a conventional fight movie. This is a movie about the tragedy of getting beaten up and not about doing the victorious beating. It falls to Jarhead Earl to make a perilous journey to the Donnybrook, stealing the entrance fee, protecting his young son, and wandering into strange dive bars and offering to fight random hooligans for money. The Donnybrook doesn’t even begin until the film’s final act.

Meanwhile, an abusive drug dealer named Chainsaw Angus (Frank Grillo) and his severely disturbed sister Delia (Margaret Qualley, “Novitiate”), are acting like monsters. They murder their incompetent meth-lab flunkies, they keep Earl’s wife hooked on narcotics, they beat up Earl when he quite reasonably objects, and Delia does something almost unspeakably vicious and perverse to their would-be investor, played by Pat Healy.

Calling Delia’s despicable sex scene the “highlight” of Sutton’s film would be a gross misnomer. Then again, everything about this movie is gross. It’s certainly the most memorable moment, but by the time she’s done what she’s done you realize that there was no narrative reason why we had to actually watch it. The movie forgives her right away, and that storyline goes nowhere. It’s just a declaration of the whole “Donnybrook” aesthetic: brutality as a state of mind.

As Jarhead Earl, Chainsaw Angus and Delia worm their way towards their inevitable confrontation at the Donnybrook, Sutton’s film exerts more energy on getting depressed than on building tension. The cinematography by David Ungaro (“Mary Shelley”) is disinterested in conventional beauty, de-saturating the colors until even the bright red and blue hues of emergency police car lights are milky and gross. The light is dark in Tim Sutton’s world. You are not supposed to have fun here.

“Donnybrook” plays like a dreary slog through the lives of miserable people, with only a few pointed words at the end to contextualize the film’s meanness. And even those words are depressing. One might be tempted to label “Donnybrook” — with its emphasis on criminality, moral desolation and senseless violence — as a film noir, but it’s not dark, it’s bleak, and it’s cruel. It’s scuzz, through and through. And it’s superficial scuzz too, no matter how hard Sutton’s screenplay tries to make it seem like this is all a metaphor for the economy.

There’s something intoxicating about scuzz cinema, the kind that exposes the most terrible elements of the human condition, forcing the audience either to watch in silence or to chicken out and ask for their money back. “Donnybrook” has that morose aesthetic and grim determination, but the plot and pacing are too aimless to sustain much interest, even for these relatively brisk 101 minutes. There’s a journey to the Donnybrook and some stops along the way, but the stories of Jarhead Earl and Chainsaw Angus are too disconnected for too long, giving the film a tedious quality. And several characters that seem important, like a detective played by James Badge Dale, hot on their trail, have only anticlimaxes ahead of them.

The cast gets stuck in the quagmire. Bell, who brings a Fred Astaire quality to many of his performances, is perfectly believable as a troubled, hardened, violent criminal. But Grillo has little to work with besides physical and psychological intimidation (at which he’s scarily good), and Qualley has difficulty making Delia’s bizarre journey look natural. Halfway through the film, Delia undergoes an emotional metamorphosis that’s so radical it’s almost impossible to accept, and “Donnybrook” doesn’t give the actor nearly enough real estate to make that transition plausible.

The cynicism of “Donnybrook” is overpowering, but unfocused. It’s easy to see why some people would react strongly to its ugly tale of misery and violence, and yet without context and contrast, without making statements beyond “the world sure does suck,” Sutton’s film feels frustratingly hollow. It makes an impact but leaves no impression.

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