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Initially, this looks like something we've seen before. The set-up of Donkey Punch indicates that this is gonna be a standard DTM (which is short for "Dead Teenager Movie," a very convenient term that was coined by Roger Ebert, and that I'll happily steal for use in this review, even though the characters are in their 20s). Three girls are on holiday and they meet three guys who ask them to come away with them and join them on their boat. All six of them are very attractive, almost disgustingly so. Of the three girls, two are pretty wild and seem to want to go with the flow of things, while the third one is more guarded, less slutty, and seems somewhat skeptical of the idea of just getting on a boat with these guys. Right here, those of us who've seen too many of these movies will predict that this will be the final surviving girl, and that everyone else will get picked off by a psychotic murderer in intensely gory scenes. To be fair, this prediction partly holds true for what happens in Donkey Punch, but a great deal of the film is surprisingly unconventional, with well-developed characters and a highly commendable restraint when it comes to the blood/gore aspect that so many of these films overdo.
Those who look up the meaning of the film's title will probably either be perversely curious to see the movie, or they'll want to stay away from it, fearing that it'll be a disgustingly exploitative cinematic experience. Thankfully, I didn't look it up prior to watching it, and had no idea what a donkey punch was until a character first defines it in one of the early scenes. I won't define it here, but I'd just like to say that it really shouldn't be something that dissuades people from watching the film. The titular act is simply one event in the early parts of the film that propels this solid, intriguing and entertaining thriller into everything that follows that event.
Donkey Punch isn't about a psychotic killer who picks off each of these characters, and thank God it isn't. In fact, the film itself doesn't even have an actual villain. These characters make huge mistakes (often fatal ones, to be sure), but they act out of desperation and in protection of their survival. No, one of the guys doesn't have a secret plan to drug the girls and then rape and kill them. The reason why things take a turn for the worse is because one character does something haphazardly, without thinking, in a moment of euphoria, and that act immediately brings calamitous results. The many glimmers of brilliance in Donkey Punch come after someone has committed a heinous act and he/she tries to justify that what he/she did wasn't wrong. None of these characters is evil; they're just in a desperate situation that has gone out of their control, and this makes it easier for us to feel for these people, who are not caricatures, as is so often the case in the DTM.
To make things even better, in addition to this level of complexity offered by Donkey Punch that so many films of the genre lack, the deaths are staged in a nicely unconventional way (there's more than one instance in which something happens suddenly, and a reaction by viewers of "What?! I didn't expect that to happen" is certainly not unwarranted). But even better is the filmmakers' decision to not spill buckets of blood and guts; we see just the right amount of it. Heck, there's a scene that involves some torturous knife-twisting action that I thought would probably lead to us having to see loads of blood everywhere, but instead, the scene focuses on the dialogue and the action between the characters involved in that scene, which features a brilliant moment (reminiscent of Tantalus' story) in which a character tempts another by placing the desired item close to him and then taking it away. If only most thrillers weren't so intellectually-challenged and had the wits to give us more stuff like this.
Many will argue that Josh (Julian Morris) is the unquestionable villain because of his participation in the initial event that propels everything else that happens and because of several other things he does throughout the film, but that's looking at things too simply. All of these characters do something evil at some point as a result of the panic they're in. Julian Morris happens to have the toughest role in the movie, and he manages to be both wickedly calculating and desperately traumatized, depending on the situation his character faces. He's devilishly awesome when explaining why they'll be better off in international waters because they won't be prosecuted, just as he's easy to sympathize with when we realize that he's actually just a good, shy guy who's gotten himself into a terrible mess (it should also be noted that Morris is like a cross between actors Bryan Greenberg and Matthew Goode, except he's actually hotter than both of them, which is a plus). The other noteworthy performance is given by Nichola Burley, as Tammi, the girl who initially seems like the goody two-shoes who will survive till the end, though as it turns out, she's not more good nor more evil than any of the other characters in the film. Tom Burke, on the other hand, is a bit too cartoonish in portraying the "tough guy" persona of his character, who has the odd name Bluey. The rest of the cast is relatively okay.
I should warn that I watched the unrated version of Donkey Punch (because it's the one that was available at the video store), which is why I actually expected it to possibly be even more gory than whatever people saw in theaters, and was pleasantly surprised to witness the restraint that was used. I've yet to mention the orgy scene, which is, as you'll probably predict, the scene in which everything ends up going terribly wrong. The actors here are pretty fearless, and director Oliver Blackburn deserves credit for not making this scene feel like a bit of soft-core porn; instead, it looks just about as real as something like this can be depicted on a film, even if there are some awkward editing transitions (especially leading up to the, um, big moment).
The biggest negative to be pointed out about Donkey Punch is something that nearly ruined the experience for me, and it's the way the final few minutes are handled, in particular the last two deaths that occur. The first of these two is a solid attempt by the filmmakers to portray the consequences of shock and guilt, but the way it unfolds isn't particularly believable. Even less believable, though, is the very last death, which happens way too easily, and seems almost like a way of cheating in order to rush and have the credits roll. Disappointing a conclusion as this is, it's impossible to ignore the surprisingly nuanced and unconventional way in which so much that came before it was handled. As thrillers and DTMs go, Donkey Punch is above the mostly mediocre fare that those genres give us, and it looks like a sign of good things to come from Blackburn, who made his directorial debut here. He's given us a gripping and surprisingly intelligent movie.
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