Brawl in Cell Block 99Reviewed By Rob Gonsalves
Posted 10/31/17 09:48:57
In the first shot of "Brawl in Cell Block 99," the heavy tire of a truck flattens a can of lite beer. This, I imagine, is a signal that you’re about to get a shot of the hard stuff.You may have read about how ferally brutal Brawl is, and what a change of pace it is for its star, Vince Vaughn, but the truly shocking thing about it is how tender much of it is, how much humanity even briefly seen supporting players are apportioned. The movie is hushed, almost meditative, as it lays the groundwork for a grand finale involving crushed skulls, faces scraped against concrete. The audience for the film may fall within a very tiny Venn diagram of those who can sit with subtly emotional, drawn-out scenes and those who can hang with the bone-cracking and bloodletting.
It is also some kind of grim masterpiece, fully delivering on the promise of writer/director S. Craig Zahler’s 2015 debut, Bone Tomahawk. In that Peckinpah-meets-Deodato epic, Kurt Russell and a small posse delve into hell — land of hulking cannibals — to save a woman from a fate worse than death. Here, Vaughn, as recovering alcoholic with a side order of rage issues Bradley Thomas, must descend level by level into a dungeon of horrors to rescue his pregnant wife Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter) and their unborn daughter from an equally ghastly end. There’s a heaping helping of white-knightism in both films, but it doesn’t go unchallenged, nor do easy notions of manhood or machismo. Violence in these films is not to be relished, but to be engaged in with sorrow that it had to play out this way — without sadism but also without mercy. They are portraits of men in extremis, grotesque but fully alive and human.
After being laid off from his auto-mechanic gig, Bradley comes home to discover that Lauren has been cheating on him. He tells her to go into the house, then uses his fists on her car, finally ripping the hood off. We don’t need to be told that he is inflicting damage that he can easily fix; the same would not be true of wounds dealt to Lauren. And then a wondrous thing happens: after punishing the car, Bradley steps inside and faces Lauren, and they talk. They talk like adults in a movie for adults. This, too, is shocking. Everyone who meets Bradley seems to sense that he has, as a detective puts it, a moral compass. They can also see in his eyes that he would rather not hurt people, but is exceptionally capable of doing so if his hand is forced. Well, his hand is forced, in an odyssey that takes him from a minimum to a maximum security prison, and finally to “the prison within the prison,” ruled by the sportive cigarillo-puffing sadist Warden Tuggs (Don Johnson).
Brawl in Cell Block 99, like Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk, doesn’t use brutality for a kick or a tickle. It’s lumbering, terrible, thudding stuff, with the fights often filmed in long takes so we can see that, yes, that is indeed Vince Vaughn and not a stunt double distributing pain like Halloween candy. Bradley is a bad-ass, but Vaughn isn’t interested in that aspect of him (nor is Zahler). You’re not meant to go “whoo!” when the fists fly and arms are splintered, the way you were at something like Sylvester Stallone’s back-to-basics 2008 splatterthon Rambo. You’re meant to wince, avert your eyes. Vaughn brings an intelligent wit and vulnerability that play against his six-foot-five frame. Bradley is a man who could easily be a hero, except that fate has made him a villain.
He does it all for his woman and his unborn child. As with Bone Tomahawk, I couldn’t be less interested in unpacking the story’s politics (avoiding spoilers, but some of the plot hinges on a hot-button issue). A great many effective pulp fantasies of the past, of course, would not pass today’s ideological purity tests. I’m as lefty as they come, and whatever right-wing skeleton may be rattling around inside Brawl concerns me not in the slightest. There’s no agenda being pressed here, just a cracking story with across-the-board fine performances (it’s predictable that Udo Kier is in perfect creepy form as a crime associate, but how about the surprisingly authoritative work from Marc Blucas — the most boring presence on Buffy the Vampire Slayer — as Bradley’s racist drug-dealer friend?).I don’t know how S. Craig Zahler votes, but I have seen how he writes and directs, and I’m ready to say he’s the most exciting filmmaker working in the violent genres since Tarantino raised his flag 25 years ago. Watch him.
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