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 did the young man get it? “The only way I know how.”
Jarhead Earl (Bell) needs the cash for his entrance fee to the Donnybrook, an underground brawl of which the details remain murky until we’re thrust into the center of it. In this adaptation of Frank Bill’s novel, the only way Earl knows how to accrue enough to fill a plastic grocery bag is armed robbery, the first moment of violence that sets the tone for this bruising odyssey. The winner of the Donnybrook takes home a hefty purse. Earl needs that money and that money is what drives Earl’s every punch.
There are pit stops and pitfalls 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. After Earl retrieves his wife and kids from the clutches of sibling meth-cooking duo Delia (Qualley) and Chainsaw Angus (Frank Grillo), the chase is on. Chainsaw gives pursuit, with law enforcement following the trail of bodies he and Delia leave in their wake. What we do know is that Earl is a veteran, and Delia is not so much an accomplice of her brother as she is his miserably abused hostage.
The greatest strength of the lyrical, meandering “Donnybrook” is the cast. The actors melt and disappear into the characters, communicating with few words. Subtext and emotion is read 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 —just shy of showboating — as Whalen, a cop on the hunt, too caught up in the druggy underworld to see anything clearly.
The truly surprising and illuminating performance belongs to Qualley (“Novitiate”), however. She plays the indubitably traumatized Delia as if she’s almost in a daze, 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.
Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.
Rated: R, for disturbing violent and sexual content, drug use, language, and some graphic nudity
Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes
Playing: In limited release