In both Capernaum and Donnybrook, forgotten people make for rich cinematic experiences

Countries on opposite sides of the world provide the backdrops for two bracingly alive movies, opening Friday in Kansas City in limited release.

Although Donnybrook (filmed in Ohio and set in Midwestern meth country) and Lebanese film Capernaum (nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars next weekend) both profile the lives of poverty-stricken people struggling to stay alive, their approach to storytelling couldn’t be more different. For fans of startling and thought-provoking cinema, these challenging movies deserve to be seen and reckoned with seriously.

Writer-director Tim Sutton’s previous film Dark Night was a gloomy, meditative (i.e., slow) affair inspired by the 2012 movie-theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado. From a propulsive narrative standpoint, Donnybrook is a definite step up, retaining all the former’s gloominess and then some. But it also amps up the violence and amoral behavior into sleazy B-movie exploitation territory.

Essentially a requiem for America’s rural, lower-income class, Donnybrook is adapted from a novel by Frank Bill. The two main characters are Jarhead Earl and Chainsaw Angus, names that immediately give the movie’s otherwise bleak and hard-scrabble tone a near-mythical kind of theatricality. This is driven home by a bracing score that goes from silent to startling with frequent blasts of classical music and opera accompanying its bleakest moments.

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Jarhead Earl (Jamie Bell) is a man with two kids, a strung-out, drug-addicted wife, and seemingly no more options. He’s a powder keg of barely contained rage and desperation. Frank Grillo is Chainsaw Angus, a terrifying Mack truck of a man who makes a scrappy living as a drug dealer. He’s physically, sexually, and mentally abusive to his unfortunate sister Delia (Margaret Qualley), who is completely under his thumb.

Delia is problematic because the film constantly asks for our sympathy toward her, and we are betrayed every single time we extend it. Like her brother, she does unspeakably heinous things. To say Donnybrook portrays the cycle of abuse in visceral fashion would be to undersell it. It’s as cynical as it gets. Then it’s just straight-up brutal.

The Donnybrook — a legendary underground bare-knuckle cage fight where the last man standing is awarded $100,000 — is the final destination of our trio, who suffer a series of perilous situations and make amoral choices along the way. Later in the movie, when it flashes forward to its opening scene (of Earl and Delia traveling downriver to Donnybrook with a guide), it’s hard not to think of Charon leading the cursed souls of the dead to the underworld on the river Styx.

Although the tone is mostly grim, an alcoholic detective played by standout James Badge Dale provides some darkly comic beats, mostly due to his staggering ineptitude. David Ungaro’s cinematography is handsomely framed, but the shots are drained of color, accentuating the kind of dreary hopelessness that permeates the characters’ existence.

The best exploitation movies walk the tricky line between having something legitimately compelling to say and just being exploitative for exploitation’s sake. Donnybrook swerves maniacally between those broken yellow highway lines like a tweaker on a three-day bender, convinced all the while that its characters have no other choice.

Like Donnybrook, the gripping neorealist drama Capernaum, written and directed by Nadine Labaki, puts its main characters in near constant life-threatening danger. Unlike Donnybrook however, it has a moral compass. It may be covered in grime and hard to recognize as such, but at least its guiding arrow isn’t broken off completely.

Set in the slums of modern-day Lebanon, Capernaum begins with a premise that recalls the current news story of the anti-natalist Indian man suing his parents for being born into this miserable world. In the movie’s case, it’s a remarkably present 12-year-old boy named Zain (first-time actor Zain Al Rafeea, a Syrian refugee) who takes his parents to court. The movie flashes back to tell a story of incredible courage and heartbreaking situations.

Zain sleeps on the floor with his parents and many siblings, who live a hand-to-mouth existence that — in echoes of the 2019 Oscar-nominated Japanese foreign film Shoplifters — consists mostly of stealing and staying out of sight. This second part is easy, because “civilized” society, as represented by the judge, turns a blind eye to extreme poverty and tries in vain to impose the same moral restrictions upon them that working people are supposed to live by. Misfortunes pile up, eventually becoming too much to bear, and young Zain runs away to live on the streets.

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Capernaum — which refers both to an Israeli city from Biblical times and an unrelenting, chaotic mess — is anchored entirely by young Al Rafeea’s amazingly naturalistic and centered performance. He’s in every scene and his cherubic face is a marvel in more ways than one, because it hides a deep-seated anger and righteous fury that comes out in short (sometimes hilarious) expletive-filled bursts.

Despite the grim trials of day-to-day survival with no food in the Lebanese urban jungle (comparable in theme to the desolate rural nightmare of Donnybrook), there is more connection and more humanity in Capernaum. A ray of hope opens up when Zain encounters Rahil (Yordanos Shifera), an illegal Ethiopian refugee who mops floors and keeps her baby secret from her employer in a bathroom stall. As one might expect, though, the warmth is short-lived.

With its authentic performances, gritty locales, and handheld-camera, you-are-there immediacy, Capernaum is a remarkable work of social realism. Because of the subject matter, it would be almost impossible for Labaki’s film to not have any melodramatic tendencies. And it does. But every time it borders on being too manipulative, the inherent honesty of Al Rafeea, Shifera, and her baby (Treasure Bankhole) brings us right back into the story.

Every second of continued existence in the uncaring universe of Capernaum is a combination of plucky spirit and dumb luck. The movie puts names and powerful stories to the faces of its undocumented characters, and it resonates with so many experiences that are doubtlessly happening across the globe right now. Just imagine the extraordinary true stories unfolding as you read this that no one will ever hear. Capernaum illustrates not just an indifferent world, but a hypocritical one as well. And like Donnybrook, it answers over and over again the question of why forgotten people are so rarely able to play by society’s rules.

Donnybrook is showing at Screenland Armour and Capernaum is showing at Tivoli Cinemas and the Rio Theatre.

Categories: Movies