Digs for Pennies

By Evin O’Neill | Drama
A bare-knuckle boxer tries to earn enough money to escape to America.

It’s post-famine Ireland in the early 1900s, where alcoholic bare-knuckle boxer Dan is trying to eke out enough money to emigrate to America and escape a place that seems to offer nothing for him.

He and his manager and best friend Matty travel the countryside, competing in ramshackle bouts for mere penny bets. Matty arranges fights and collects bets while Dan fights, often escaping the irate gatherings by the skin of their teeth.

But despite the constant fog of drunkenness, Dan soon begins to suspect that Matty is ripping him off, hiding some of his earnings from him. The confrontation becomes about more than money, though — and comes at just about the most inopportune time for both boxer and manager.

Writer/director Evin O’Neill, along with co-writer Dara O’Neill, has fashioned a handsomely filmed Irish short that highlights both the beautiful Irish countryside and the hardscrabble life of the time, where bare-knuckled fights become piecemeal entertainment. Viewers would be forgiven in thinking that the film is a lushly appointed historical drama at first, with its gorgeous cinematography and elegant camerawork serving as a somewhat ironic backdrop for an ugly, brutal milieu.

But as the storytelling proceeds, the lens gradually hones in on the dynamic between Dan and Matty. At first, it seems to be a bond of a somewhat professional nature, or perhaps a troubled soul and an enabler. But their witty, often spiky banter reveals something closer and more brotherly in many ways, and actors Chris Tordoff and Dara O’Neill portray Matty and Dan with a great sense of begrudging reliance upon one another, a mutual dependence that may not be healthy, perhaps, but has a latent quality of connection to it.

After Dan begins to suspect Matty of ripping him off, however, the emotional minefield between the two men is exposed, and the film really takes off in terms of finding its unique voice. It reveals a scrappy, delightful combination of bromantic comedy, farcical touches and sincere emotion.

Some may wish that “Digs for Pennies” revealed its tonal sleight-of-hand earlier on, but the reveal functions well as both an emotional build-up and a comical climax. The drama comes from a genuine and sincere (albeit loud) expression of vulnerable sentiment; the comedy comes from the circumstances and timing. But the combination results in an ending that is equal parts funny and heartwarming.

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