Best known as the kid from an English coal-mining town who wanted to dance, one-time “Billy Elliot” star Jamie Bell has grown rugged with age. In director Tim Sutton’s dark, bruise-inducingly poetic “Donnybrook,” he plays Jarhead Earl, a former U.S. Marine who’s stuck in comparably grim economic circumstances. Eighteen long years have turned the actor’s once-angelic features tough. Disappearing into the role, instead of beaming with hope and possibility, his face reveals a man who’s seen rock bottom. He’s a fighter in the most literal sense — a scrappy, slightly runty pugilist who knows no other way to escape his trailer-park existence than to go up against the county’s most dangerous thugs in the death match that gives this haunting, slow-burn thriller its name.
Actually, the Donnybrook might be a death match. Even by the end of the film, one can’t be too sure what the well-kept secret is, though the mere mention commands respect in the opioid-ravaged corner of America where the film takes place. The Donnybrook is a kind of white-trash fight club — hidden away somewhere off the grid and run by men who look like a gnarly cross between neo-Nazis and Hell’s Angels — where a high-stakes buy-in earns desperate people a shot at a $100,000 pot. From the looks of it, it’s kill or be killed once you step in the ring. This much is certain: Jarhead Earl plans to win or die trying, like a ferret that bites down hard until its heart stops beating, or a ferocious Jack Russell terrier facing down a much larger adversary.
For Sutton — whose previous film, “Dark Night,” inspired by 2012’s Aurora megaplex shooting, made an austere statement about gun violence — “Donnybrook” marks a major step forward in both ambition and style, earning the distinction of opening the Toronto Film Festival’s competitive Platform section. Instead of sticking to the rarefied art-house feel of his previous projects, Sutton goes the gritty genre-film route, wrapping his concerns about frustrated American masculinity in the slick, unexpectedly existential mantle of a Coen brothers-style thriller (others will be reminded of “Green Room” director Jeremy Saulnier’s more nihilistic style).
From the opening monologue, spoken by a grizzled backwoods hermit who ferries Jarhead Earl toward the Donnybrook, Sutton’s script sounds like “No Country for Old Men” — or more accurately, like the kind of elegiac, coal-black portrait of dead-end America that Cormac McCarthy has been peddling all these years. (It’s no surprise that Frank Bill, upon whose novel “Donnybrook” is based, draws frequent comparisons to the Western writer.) “World’s changed. Criminals running everything,” the codger opines, his voice like a tree stump dragged across concrete as he steers Jarhead Earl down the redneck River Styx. “Comes back to a man knowing what he can do. It’s how you fight — that’s all that counts.”
Sutton uses music unconventionally, not as score so much as an attention-grabbing blast of raw energy, emphasizing that this is no ordinary drama. Rather, it’s a hard-boiled crime saga (tragic boxing characters are so common in pulp fiction that Quentin Tarantino wrote one into “Pulp Fiction”), the kind where half the characters established in the first act are fated to wind up shot, stabbed, choked, or burned to death. Only one of these corpses could reasonably be grateful for his exit after bad-news femme fatale Dalia (Margaret Qualley) is forced to give him a disturbing-to-us/demeaning-to-her “happy ending.”
Fighting, as far as Jarhead Earl is concerned, is “the only thing for folks like us to do.” And so he grabs a shotgun and robs the local pawn shop, stealing just enough to cover his entry fee. Weirdly, when the broken-nosed cashier calls the cops, Sheriff Donny Whalen (James Badge Dale) urges him not to press charges. He’s got real criminals to catch — like a sociopathic drug dealer named Chainsaw Angus (Frank Grillo), a thoroughly amoral killing machine who’s this movie’s version of Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh in “No Country.”
Grillo’s one of those secret-weapon character actors whom filmmakers are only just figuring out how to deploy properly, and here, Sutton has perhaps come closer than anyone else to maximizing that potential. He’s like a leading man gone wrong: grizzled, chiseled, and Jon Hamm handsome, with a sadistic streak in place of that mischievous spark. He’s introduced as the goon who’s selling opioids to Jarhead Earl’s wife (Dara Tiller, who doesn’t have much to do other than look strung out or worried), finding it all too easy to beat up her angry husband in their first confrontation — not a promising start to things for Jarhead Earl, who’s counting on his fists to earn him that fight money.
As the film progresses, alternating between these two ultra-macho characters as their paths separate and ultimately reunite, Angus’ mythic status looms ever more intimidating, rendered doubly sinister by the unseemly dynamic he has with his sister Dalia (glimpsed in the early ferry-boat scene with Jarhead Earl, which teases the possibility of twists ahead). Bell may be the film’s tragic antihero, humanized somewhat by his interactions with son Moses (Alex Washburn), but in many ways, Qualley’s character is the film’s soul: someone who comes from broken circumstances and grew up with no moral compass and no proper role model. As it happens, Dalia’s got some fight in her, too, accompanying Jarhead Earl on the final leg of his journey to the Donnybrook.
That brings us back to the question of what it is exactly, this ominous Donnybrook — this place abstractly glimpsed in the opening shot and represented throughout by co-composers Phil Mossman and Jens Bjørnkjaer’s bone-chilling score. For all the buildup, the finale feels anticlimactic, rushed, and not nearly as nightmare-producing as the previous 90 minutes. It can go only one of two ways, and it goes one of those ways. Turns out the title also refers to the First Battle of Bull Run, which sets up an unnecessary coda for the downbeat epic poem that has come before, allowing Sutton to offer a tidy summation of his requiem for the American dream.