Dir: S. Craig Zahler
S. Craig Zahler divided people with his debut, Bone Tomahawk; a slow burning revenge western with something more akin to Cannibal Holocaust as a third act. I was a fan. It was vicious, but very well shot, darkly funny and character driven. For his second film Zahler has changed the setting, but delivers a similar mix of ingredients.
When Bradley (Vince Vaughn) loses his job he goes to work for a friend, running heroin and meth, but when an exchange goes bad he ends up with a seven year prison sentence. As soon as he’s sent down the cartel kidnap Bradley’s pregnant wife (Jennifer Carpenter) and demand that, for her freedom, he get to Cell Block 99 of a maximum security prison and kill a man for them.
Brawl in Cell Block 99, like Bone Tomahawk before it, takes its time in unfolding what is ultimately a very simple story. Some audiences might find the wait for the brawling a little drawn out, but for me the focus that Zahler’s screenplay puts on establishing characters and relationships and the major screentime he puts into that effort, adds a lot of weight to what could be little more than series of punch ups with some talking in between them. In Bradley, Zahler has written a layered character. He’s never someone we can entirely relax around. Early on, when his wife confesses an affair, he takes her car apart with his fists, punching in widows and tearing off the bonnet. He’s clearly capable of extreme violence, but by the same token we see that he’s not indiscriminate. After destroying the car he talks with his wife and when she goes to approach him at the end of the scene tells her not to, he still needs to cool down. This is a great shorthand encapsulation of the character; a coiled energy that he wants to keep under control, even if he sometimes finds it difficult. Bradley’s no hero, but the film establishes that he has some sort of moral code, and that helps us stay on this journey and, in some odd way, root for him.
I’ve never rated Vince Vaughn. I wasn’t a fan of Swingers nor of many of his comedies, but I did think he turned in a very good dramatic performance in Hacksaw Ridge. This, however, is even better; a career redefining performance. As Bradley, Vaughn is shaven headed and physically imposing, at times in the film’s brutal last third his face is so contorted and focused on the violence he has to do that he essentially becomes a sentient fist, but his performance is anything but a one note show of force. That early scene with Carpenter and others in the film demonstrate an emotional depth we haven’t seen from Vaughn before and Zahler also makes use of his star’s comedic timing. Bradley often has a sarcastic line, especially to authority figures, and Vaughn underplays these nicely, using them as Bradley’s way of getting a little power back as much as making a joke.
The other performances tend towards the broader end of the scale, with Udo Kier (as one of the cartel’s middle men) and Don Johnson (a hammy prison warden) stealing scenes. Marc Blucas, sadly, remains about as anonymous as he was on Buffy, but he’s not in the film long enough for it to matter. It’s also a bit of a shame that Jennifer Carpenter, who is good here and in just about everything else I’ve seen her in, is underused. There was a similar problem with the wife role in Bone Tomahawk, and Zahler could certainly benefit from writing more rounded female characters.
The screenplay is largely excellent; cleanly plotted, with strong character beats and often amusing dialogue, but it’s in the direction that Zahler excels. Visually the film is fairly cold, reflecting the poverty Bradley finds himself in early in the film and the atmosphere of the first prison nicknamed ‘The Fridge’ (for the initials of its full name, but you could just as easily see it as a cold meat storage facility). In the last act, inside the maximum security prison, the visuals get ever danker and darker. At a certain point it begins to feel like a descent into hell, with only orange jumpsuits, blood and bone providing splashes of colour that aren’t black or brown.
The violence is shot with an absolutely pitiless eye, which will surprise nobody who saw Bone Tomahawk. Skulls are exploded, heads stomped, arms ripped open, faces stripped off and there is plenty of fluid, hard hitting, fight choreography. As an action director Zahler stands back and allows the fights to take place in medium to wide shots, showing us that Vaughn is doing most if not all of his own stunts and how the choreography works within the space. It’s exactly how I like to see action staged, none of this hard to see shakycam crap. The level of violence will mean that Brawl in Cell Block 99 isn’t for everyone (or even for everyone who thinks they might ordinarily like a film with this title), it drew cringing from my audience, and even made my toes curl on occasion. That, for me, is a positive. Violence should be cringemaking, should be upsetting, and Brawl in Cell Block 99 certainly manages that.
For me, this is one of the highlights of the London Film Festival this year. It’s proof that Bone Tomahawk was no fluke and that S. Craig Zahler is a name for fans of extreme cinema to keep a very close eye on. This is two hours of nasty, brutal, often very funny, character driven grindhouse cinema. I loved it.