While I don’t think the movie is entirely successful, paired with the extended Q&A with director Tim Sutton and actors Jamie Bell, Margaret Qualley and Frank Grillo it was one of the most interesting movie experiences I’ve had at TIFF in a while.
Donnybrook is up for the Platform Prize at TIFF which presents twelve movies that will be examined by a jury of three filmmakers, and intends to promote directors who make “bold choices” in their filmmaking.
That applies here to Sutton’s own screenplay adapted from the novel by Frank Bill about a Marine veteran turned brawler known as Jarhead Earl (Bell, who I loved in last year’s Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool) trying to get his meth-addicted wife and his two kids out of poverty by making his way to a legendary backcountry fight tournament called The Donnybrook, with a $100,000 dollar prize. His plans get complicated when he has to rob a gun shop to get the $1000 entrance fee and that puts laconic sheriff Whalen (James Badge Dale) on his tail. His wife’s drug-dealer Angus (played like the Devil incarnate by Grillo) is also in furious pursuit of Earl after Angus’ sister Delia (Qualley) breaks away from their abusive relationship to find Earl and make her own fortune by selling her brother’s meth stash at the Donnybrook.
If that sounds like a lot of plot, an interesting fact is that Sutton’s previous features were known for having no plot and were essentially cinema verite observational films with non-actors in the roles. Much of the interesting part of the post-film Q&A was Sutton talking about making a very different kind of film and working with professional actors.
I think therefore the movie shows that the director has the potential to make a great film in the future, but this one isn’t it. There are abrupt tone shifts, though in one case this works and produced one of my favourite scenes, where the US national anthem is sung just before the Donnybrook starts. There is too-abrupt editing in some parts. The influences of films like Blue Velvet and Apocalypse Now are a bit too obvious. But on the plus side Sutton’s style does remind me of director Nicholas Winding Refn who has made interesting, decidedly non-Hollywood flicks that are always memorable even when they don’t quite work.