Writer/director Tim Sutton's "Donnybrook" opens with a strange trio on a strange trip. A young man (Jamie Bell) and a young woman (Margaret Qualley) make their way down a misty river on a boat piloted by an older man. Where they're going, they need an entrance fee. How'd he get it? "The only way I know how."
In this adaptation of Frank Bill's novel, the only way Jarhead Earl (Bell) knows how to accrue enough cash to fill a plastic grocery bag is armed robbery, the first moment of violence that sets the tone for his odyssey in this bruiser. He needs the cash for his entrance fee to the Donnybrook, an underground brawl around which the details remain murky until we're thrust into the center of it.
The winner of the Donnybrook takes home a hefty purse. Earl needs that money and that money is what drives Earl's every punch.
After he retrieves his wife and kids from the clutches of sibling meth-cooking duo Delia (Qualley) and Chainsaw Angus (Frank Grillo), the chase is on. Earl makes his way, dragging his sick wife and plucky kids with him. Chainsaw gives pursuit, with law enforcement following the trail of bodies he and Delia leave in their wake.
There are pit stops and pitfalls during this journey, in a plot that loops around and in on itself, with a script that doesn't care to tell you too much about who these people are, beyond a few crumbs. We know Earl is a veteran, and that Delia is not so much an accomplice of her brother, but his miserably abused hostage.
The greatest strength of the lyrical, meandering movie is the cast. The actors melt and disappear into the characters, communicating with few words. Subtext and emotion is read through their bodies and eyes, through a scowl, a swing or a smile.
Bell is transformed as a man who is feral yet noble, simultaneously a protector and a killer. Grillo brings a seductive slickness to the terrifying psychopath Chainsaw, who grows more ominous as he makes his way across the landscape, moving closer and closer to his prey. James Badge Dale is committed — but just this shy of showboating — as Whalen, a cop on the hunt of the trail of violence, but too caught up in the druggy underworld to see anything clearly.
The truly surprising and illuminating performance belongs to Qualley, however. She plays the indubitably traumatized Delia as if she's almost in a daze, sleepwalking through life, just trying to survive with an eerie half-smile on her face, her behavior erratic at best. We can guess at what the men want, what they're moving toward, but you can't ever predict what Delia's going to do.
At times, "Donnybrook" can feel frustratingly opaque — it withholds more information than it grants, which is both effectively intriguing and somewhat baffling. But the film is a mood piece more than anything else. It privileges atmosphere over plot, stirs emotion more than story.
Anchored by a quartet of fierce performances, "Donnybrook" is an intense, visceral tone poem, a rumination on money and drugs and bloodshed as a means of making ends meet in the heartland of modern America.