Drama, rated R, Jean Cocteau, 2 chiles
It’s a long leap and a heavy landing for Jamie Bell from Billy Elliot — where he played a British lad who discovered ballet on his way to boxing class back at the turn of the millennium — to his Jarhead Earl, the ex-U.S. Marine roughneck who grabs at fighting as a way out of the dead end of trailer-trash hell in Donnybrook.
The donnybrook of the title is more than pugilism: It’s a no-holds-barred mass cage fight held in a remote Midwest backwoods location, with a $100,000 cash prize to the last man standing. Jarhead needs the money to rescue his family from opioid hopelessness. To raise the entry fee, he holds up a gun store, bashing the owner in the face to emphasize his seriousness. That’s one of the lighter scenes.
Director Tim Sutton’s pulverizing ode to nihilistic violence hints at a kind of No Country for Old Men elegiac quality, but aside from a few wistful sylvan detours, it never rises above an extended wallow in smashmouth viciousness.
None of that is accidental, of course, and Sutton (Memphis, Dark Night) achieves a lot of what he’s after in painting his bleak picture of life on the desperate fringes. It’s just so damned unpleasant to watch, and difficult, too — some scenes are rendered in such darkness, both of tone and of lighting, that you can’t see what’s going on, and believe me, you don’t want to.
Bell has come a long way since his ballet days (we last saw him in Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool), and the stringy tough of this movie is to Billy Elliot what Godzilla is to Bambi. He and his fellow actors do a convincing job conveying the characters with whom Sutton peoples this grim tale (adapted from the novel by Frank Bill). There’s Chainsaw Angus (Frank Grillo), the murderous drug-dealing sociopath who is Jarhead’s main antagonist, and his abused and equally deadly sister Delia (Margaret Qualley). There’s Whalen ( James Badge Dale), a corrupt, coke-snorting cop who follows the trail of dead bodies and tries to hunt the killers down (though it’s no secret where they’re headed). And there’s Moses (Alexander Washburn), Jarhead’s young son, who tags along with his father while Mom and little sister wait anxiously behind.
The bloodbath climax is never in doubt, as a few dozen brutes gather in a cage surrounded by beer-swilling enthusiasts to beat the crap out of one another in a brawl where killing is no disqualification. There’s every chance that in the end, it will come down to Jarhead and Chainsaw.