Director Tim Sutton is no stranger to expressing the hellscape that is modern America. His previous film, Dark Night, was inspired by the movie theater mass shooting that took place during a premiere for The Dark Knight Rises. There is something uncomfortably meta about Dark Night’s play on the Batman franchise title, and about Nolan’s films not only being darlings here in the States but also in that they became culturally iconic, woven into our very fabric and thematically connecting the dots of our authoritarian selves.
Dark Night took these observations and applied them to our love affair with guns on top of our overall detachment, disassociation, and aggressive fear & anger towards our neighbors. Sutton provided a meditation by way of documentary captured narrative hyper-fiction, one that makes all think and ponder our very way of living and feeling.
His follow-up, the violent and violently matter of fact depiction of below the poverty line scrap fighting Donnybrook, is both a necessary progression and a depressingly nightmarish view of where our world is. Compared to Night, Donnybrook might be seen as stylistically average, being a relatively straightforward tale of a father/husband on his way to compete in an illegal cage battle royal for hard cash. What isn’t average are the singular moments of soft reflection with and between characters, as well as the environment itself, by which I mean the very design of the setting. This is Main Street, America folks. It looks like the Rust-Belt but also has part Deep South in it. Factories are closing or closed, skies are grey, and the only escapes are joining the military or taking meth. America, as designed by Sutton and crew, is vibrant in its decay and alive in ways that make you appreciate what little you have.
The standout actors here are the gentlemanly Jaime Bell and the bringer of death Frank Grillo. Both are products of this country for sure, both having fought overseas and both scraping and scraping together what they can to get by. Where Bell has more compassion and respect for others (even those he may have to hit or punch), Grillo is a killer, making and dealing meth, putting bullets in skulls, choking people, etc. Neither are “thriving” or even really “living” – the landscape of this country as depicted in Donnybrook isn’t all too dissimilar from purgatory – leading both desperate men to a fight that can only be found at the end of a river, in the middle of nowhere, behind barbed wire and the screams & cheers of fellow poor people.
Grillo is stone cold here, never once breaking to show anything other than disdain, toxicity, or anger for everyone he encounters, treating all as if dogs on a leash. If there is one fault of Sutton’s in this film, it would be his over-indulgence in showcasing and expressing the themes at play. Before the main event, a woman sings the National Anthem in front of our flag, dissolving all nuances previously shown. At the same time, I can’t and won’t discredit elements like that, because no matter how theatrical, they still work. It’s staggering just how much people want to and do believe in the ideals and virtues of a country that turns a blind eye to a large portion of those struggling to make their dreams come true. We wear the flag on Wal-Mart purchased shirts, we work at Save-A-Lot for discounted groceries, and we love our wealthy President.
Donnybrook may not be subtle always, but it is American through and through, for better and worse. It’s impressive just how well the locations become characters unto themselves, and how the movie skirts around naming a particular city or state. This really could be anywhere, from sea to shining sea. Why do we identify with Batman so much? Maybe the same reason Trump got elected.
Chew on that.
RATING: 4 / 5
Donnybrook screens at Zeitgeist starting this weekend.
Bill Arceneaux has been an independent writer and film critic in the New Orleans area since 2011, working with outlets like Film Threat, DIG Baton Rouge, Crosstown Conversations, and Occupy. He is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association and is Rotten Tomatoes approved.