Much like the bombastic, free-for-all fight culture at its center, Donnybrook doesn’t let up. Director Tim Sutton’s (Memphis, Pavillion) monumental downer knocks its viewers onto the ground early on, and then just keeps dishing out punches. But before long, it begins to resemble a bed of nails, with each cheerless sequence working to cancel out the others. This mournful and repetitive slice of cynical Americana too often gets lost in its own mindless self-flagellation, continuously forgetting why it’s dragging us through the muck in the first place.
On their way to a bare knuckle cage fight with $100,000 on the line, three victims of circumstance believe they’ve found a way to take control of their situation and ascend from the fringes of society. For ex-marine Earl (Jamie Bell), it is a way to provide a better life for his family. For violent drug dealer Angus (Frank Grillo), it is a means of acquiring more power. For Delia (Margaret Qualley), it is a path away from the seemingly endless spiral of crime she just can’t escape. In their desperate quest for redemption, they must discover the severity of the sacrifices they’re willing to make for the sake of survival.
The morose tale lends itself to challenging the myth of the American dream, as it’s reflecting on the decay of societal empathy. In a world of seemingly inescapable brutality, we follow characters who have been squeezed into the margins, and as a result, they turn into the violence for a chance at escape. In Tim Sutton’s unrelenting journey through doom and gloom, there’s never any room for subtlety. While there is something to be said for its vigor and emotional immediacy, Donnybrook never digs below surface level symbolism. Sutton is clearly attempting to craft his own epic tragedy, but he simply points out the harsh reality of this world without ever actually commenting on it.
Shrouded in the comforts of ambiguity, Donnybrook refuses to take a moral stance on its rather glum observations, which proves to be both a strength and a detriment. By never placing the blame on any of its flawed characters, it can often feel like an empty vessel by which the viewer is to fill in their own ethical judgements. There’s a fine line between trusting your audience and failing to map out the principled ramifications of your story, and Sutton plays Double Dutch with it. Subsequently, there isn’t much of a stamp of personality left on Donnybrook, making even its most dreary emotional dilemmas feel rote and monotonous.
Donnybrook isn’t without its highlights – from its searing performance made even more impressive by their limited material to its gorgeous and grim cinematography – however, it simply feels bleak simply for the sake of bleakness. Sutton celebrates despair in a way that only feels meaningful if it is given a clear purpose (or even a muddled one, for that matter). With its never-ending anguish and glacial pacing, Donnybrook beats its audience down, without even having the courtesy to grant them an explanation. There doesn’t have to be a light at the end of the tunnel, but there should at least be some loose reasoning.