“Donnybrook,” Tim Sutton’s poetic adaptation of Frank Bill’s novel, is a brutal movie with a soft touch. Orchestral music swells over the image of an empty fighting cage, and a few minutes later, the punches land hard. Sutton, whose mesmerizing docu-thriller “Dark Night” imagined the sleepy routines leading up to a mass shooting, excels at punctuating quiet lyricism with pain. This time, however, the observational textures have been stuffed into the mold of a pulpy survival story against the backdrop of an unforgiving rural landscape. The characters hail from familiar archetypes of impoverished loners, but their world exudes a haunting sense of loss.
The first time we see Jarhead Earl (a grim Jamie Bell), he’s coasting along a foggy river, dwarfed by murky green hills. That image epitomizes the atmosphere of desolation to come, as Earl gears up for a cage match with a $100,000 buy-in. His family’s future is on the line. “If I win,” he whispers, “it’s more money than we ever dreamed of, and we’re free.” But Earl’s chained to a system even when he takes charge, and as Jens Bjørjnkjaer and Phill Mossman’s moody score hits an ominous distorted note and source of his money for the fight reveals itself in a messy bank robbery. That crime, however, looks minor compared to the unflinching parade of bleak twists to come.
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Earl’s at his wit’s end, contending with a drug-addled wife and raising two small kids in a cramped trailer park. His solution: The Donnybrook, the isolated site of brutal cage fighting that pits countless men against each other in a single musty ring. An early description establishes the arena in apocalyptic terms akin to the movie’s forbidding tone: “How you fight is all that counts in the Donnybrook.” It’s a sharp and effective metaphor for the kind of struggling American underbelly this bleak tradition of gothic fiction magnifies so well — in this kill-or-be-kill scenario, nobody really wins.
Rather than lingering in Earl’s quest, “Donnybrook” unfolds as a taut and unsettling B-movie, rounded out by a two-bit villain. While Earl makes his high-stakes calculation, the story turns to Chainsaw Angus (Frank Grillo, all harsh stares and growled line-readings), a muscular drug dealer partly responsible for getting Earl’s wife hooked. With his sister Delia (a quietly menacing Margaret Qualley), Angus sets his sights on destroying Earl’s life, while the pair map out a cycle of criminality along the way.
This includes one of the most disturbing murder-rape scenes in modern film history, less for what it shows than how it unfolds, and a gripping showdown between Earl and a nosy police officer (James Badge Dale) in a shadowy empty parking lot. Sutton oscillates between ironic music cues and pregnant pauses, unearthing the impression of a world devoid of hope just a few shades shy of “No Country For Old Men.” The difference is that, while Cormac McCarthy’s work inhabits an endless cycle of chaos and violence, “Donnybrook” explores the profound and possibly aimless quest of one man trying to escape its clutches.
While the movie develops a gripping and purposeful arc as it builds to the final act confrontation, the humorless aura has a tendency to stifle its characters’ humanity by drowning them in desperation. But “Donnybrook” really stumbles in its climax, which delivers on the bloody expectation of Bell and Grillo beating the crap out of each other even as the violence rings hollow.
Sutton’s tricky balance of B-movie caricatures and gloomy expressionism doesn’t always match up, but that very discordance speaks to the potency of its themes. “Donnybrook” depicts a bruised and tattered country, marred by misguided bouts of masculinity and overwhelmed by working-class frustrations. The men at its center think they can fight their way to a better world, but they’re too blinded by their fierce commitment to see that they’ve already destroyed it.
IFC Films releases “Donnybrook” in select theaters on Friday, February 15, and on VOD on Friday, February 22.