Movie Review : Donnybrook (2018)
There’s no way a movie like Donnybrook could’ve been commercially successful in 2019. Diversity and systemically oppressed voices have risen commercially in recent years and nobody wants to watch the struggle of a white man trying to feed his family anymore even if his struggle is legitimate. That didn’t stop a movie adaptation of Frank Bill’s excellent novel Donnybrook from being made in 2018. And it unfortunately doesn’t live to to the book in any shape or form.
Donnybrook is the story of Jarhead Earl (the talented Jamie Bell), the aforementioned white man struggling to feed his family. Recently back from Afghanistan, he’s facing eviction along with his meth-addicted wife (Dara Tiller) and two kids. The only way he can timely provide for his family is to participate in an underground bareknuckle boxing tournament called the Donnybrook. Unfortunately, the man who turned his wife into an addict (Frank Grillo) plans to participate and kick Jarhead Earl’s ass.
The novel Donnybrook is adapted from is what you call in the professional jargon a “high concept”. That means it’s easy to understand and appreciate by for a large group of people. In this case here, it’s: survival is a constant fight. The director Tim Sutton is trying to elevate that concept here and give it new dimensions. His symbolic use of nature of quite ambitious and take a lot of space in Donnybrook. Images of a powerful, predatory nature are all over this movie: thick, suffocating forests; crawling weeds overtaking people’s yards; nights that draw the darkness out of people’s characters, etc. Man’s tense relationship to (his own) nature the central theme of the adaptation. His inevitable journey towards self-destruction.
Chainsaw Angus is another major change from the original material. He’s a character that works more on a metaphorical level now. He’s not a dangerous crackhead looking to prove himself he’s still got it. He’s more of an embodiment of the evil that’s been eating at Jarhead Earl’s world. I’m drawing a lot of parallels with the novel here and, you know, a movie adaptation is allowed to make such radical changes. The problem with Donnybrook (and the reason why it wasn’t successful) is that it’s difficult to understand if you haven’t read Frank Bill’s book. Or should I say more difficult to appreciate? Tim Sutton’s film is a slower, more philosophical and contemplative endeavor. It lacks in the donnybrook department.
The actual donnybrook segment is forsaken to the last thirty minutes of the movie. There’s a lot less characters and is overall a much more intimate affair than it was in the book. If you don’t already understand the underlying lore of it (which the movie does a poor job at explaining), Jarhead Earl and Chainsaw Angus driving hundreds of kilometers to fight each other is not going to make sense to you. Because it’s established at the very beginning that they live in the same town. I can imagine the experience of watching Donnybrook without having previously read the novel like trying to read a book with a hundred pages missing. You get a gist of what’s going on and why it’s important, but you’re never really sure.
Tim Sutton’s Donnybrook is ambitious and beautiful in a dark, tormented way. But it takes a great, fun and rather easily relatable story and makes it a little less great, fun and easily relatable. Can’t fault a director for taking a hard swing at making something beautiful, but there was an easier way to make a better film and a more faithful adaptation of the novel here. Donnybrook is a mixed bag. It has interesting ideas that fit the overarching themes of Frank Bill’s work, but it tries way too hard to ram them down your throat at the expense of the story it’s actually telling.