It’s kind of fascinating how hicksploitation has slowly moved away from the fast-ass cars and good ol’ boys in Burt Reynolds’ heyday and into the same grim-and-grit juvenilia that sank the comic book industry back in the 1990s. Case in point: Tim Sutton’s Donnybrook, another movie in the vein of Out of the Furnace that attempts to diagnose pugilistic rednecks as a symptom of What Is Ailing America.
The title refers to the film’s final set-piece: A mythical yearly battle royale held somewhere in the South, where a building is always burning in the background, a sort of Kentucky-Fried Thunderdome. How do you manage to make that premise — which I was happily on board with until the first 10 minutes dragged by — as boring as this is?
It is, ultimately, the story of two men headed for the titular contest: Jarhead Joe (Jamie Bell), who is just looking for a way to care for his sick wife and his two children, and Angus (Frank Grillo), a psychopathic meth dealer just looking to kill some people (I guess), and the two, over the course of the film, will come to blows after suffering some great losses. James Badge Dale is also around as a corrupt deputy, but he barely registers beyond one meth-fueled beating he gives a junkie friend and a great George Jones needle-drop. There’s also Angus’s suicidal sister (Margaret Qualley), whom the film leers at in a lengthy and creepy nude scene, but she’s ultimately incidental to things as well, as it all turns out. Perhaps one could have given Grillo something to chew on — the guy is a great actor, after all — to make her scenes land, but instead, he just throws fits.
These characters are slathered in bleakness like sausage gravy on some diner biscuits, surrounded by the kind of photogenic misery that filmmakers often find in rural America, in a bare-knuckle attempt to “tell it like it is” out in the country these days. It’s all grey and lifeless, the predominate aesthetic of decidedly unserious things trying to tell you that they, in fact, mean something, and it just makes everything all the more exhausting.
God, just a little bit of life might have made it palatable enough to choke down all of its bullshit, but this is prestige DTV, I guess. I think this is the kind of movie people see in their heads when they hear about a movie like Brawl in Cell Block 99, which at least is honest enough to admit that its ugliness is intended for you to have fun with. Sutton wants you to feel misery, and though he achieves that, it’s not at the plight of these poor people: It’s at the fact that you sat down to watch this movie instead of, well, cutting your toenails or petting your cat.
Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus. Featured image courtesy of TIFF.