Let Brawl in Cell Block 99 Beat You to a Bloody Pulp
Review by Jake Bottiglieri
Sometimes an artist just hooks you. Like a band whose albums you listen to on repeat, never once wanting to hit the “skip track” button. Maybe it’s because of what you were exposed to before, maybe you have a similar sensibility with the creator, or maybe its content just drives straight into your soul like a diamond bullet.
S. Craig Zahler hooks me.
The prolific writer has spent the better part of two decades circulating his scripts within the industry. He sold many, but almost none of them went on to be produced (Zahler refers to this period as providing film companies with "great bathroom reading"). It wasn’t until Bone Tomahawk, his directorial debut, that he truly got to see his vision fulfilled on the big screen.
Admittedly, Zahler’s style isn’t for everyone. He tends to write purple and include extreme details about locations and character’s mannerisms. His dialogue has a very specific flow to it, and what characters say often sounds heightened and formal. These things can turn some people off, but not me.
My first exposure to Zahler’s work was when I read his then (and still) unproduced screenplay The Brigands of Rattleborge, a blood-splattered Western of epic proportions. He hooked me; I sought out everything I could find by him. It inspired me to push my own work further, and to not be afraid to be uncompromising if it’s important to the story.
When Bone Tomahawk dropped, it was a sleeper critical success — garnering praise from both niche genre websites and high profile film critics. My experience with its reception was a little different. It seemed like half of my friends who saw it, appreciated all of Zahler’s idiosyncratic artistic choices, while others took to it like curdling milk. How do you account for this? They’re no more “wrong” for thinking the characters talk funny than I am for liking it. They’re no more wrong for thinking the violence felt uncanny and excessive than I was for thinking Matthew Fox’s performance was one of the best of 2015.
I have a very strong feeling that Brawl in Cell Block 99 will follow this pattern.
Bradley Thomas (Vince Vaughn) loses his mechanic job and starts dealing drugs to provide for his wife (Jennifer Carpenter) and their unborn daughter, “Koala”. Bradley is sent to prison after his moral code leads to his arrest, at which point The Placid Man (Udo Kier) informs him that if he does not get himself transferred to RedLeaf, a separate maximum security prison, and kill a man in Cell Block 99, his unborn daughter will be mutilated prior to her birth.
That’s all the plot you’re getting, because I’m not a fan of playing that game where the reviewer just gives you a Wikipedia summary. Needless to say, things quickly get bloody and chaotic.
Brawl in Cell Block 99 speaks the same language as Bone Tomahawk. This is because Zahler is an auteur; and like all auteurs, he leaves a very discernible fingerprint on each film he does. To that end, whether or not you liked Bone Tomahawk may be a good indicator of what you will think of this film.
Apart from its spectacularly executed fight scenes (choreographed by Drew Leary), the characters in Brawl in Cell Block 99 are its biggest strength. Behind the cracking bones and crushed skulls, they are real people who push the story forward emotionally as much, if not more than, they push it forward with physical spectacles.
Vaughn, Carpenter, and Don Johnson all give career best performances here; but even the supporting cast excels. I want to give a quick shout out to Clark Johnson (who plays Detective Watkins) and Marc Blucas (who plays Gil) for stellar delivery of Zahler’s dialogue. From what I understand, this film was originally developed as a vehicle for pro wrestler “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. Ghosts of this can be felt in the writing: Bradley’s southern drawl. His dialogue referencing “finishers”. His absence of hair. As much as The Texas Rattlesnake has permanent real estate in my heart, I can only see Vince Vaughan as Bradley. While I’m sure Austin would’ve tackled the physicality of the character with great gusto, the role demands a level of complexity in craft that I’m not sure he would’ve been capable of delivering.
The violence here is profuse, but not excessive. The film has a significant lead up before it hits the bone-crunch button, and everything contained thereafter feels essential to the narrative being told. Again, specificity of the violent acts is subjective. It’s taste. There’s a scene at the end of Bone Tomahawk that many felt was the most violent thing they’ve seen in a movie. To me, that honor goes to the fire-extinguisher bashing in Irreversible, which I think is 100x more disturbing than Tomahawk’s troglodyte wishbone-ing. I found that almost comical in its excess. Maybe you would prefer Brawl with less head stomping. But you don’t get to decide. Zahler decided for you. I liked his decisions. Taste.
The filmmakers suffered and sweated to make this. Multiple department heads were fired, and one night on set, half the crew contracted food poisoning. And they still wrapped in under 30 days.
Whether or not you like a film with slow-burn pacing, or a film where characters choose to say “make yourself vertical” instead of “stand up,” seems secondary to me. You can’t be a fan of film and not appreciate what Zahler is accomplishing within the core of his works for the screen.
He takes plot set-ups that would feel at home in pulp novels and exploitation films and fleshes them out with depth, nuance, and unique execution. Brawl in Cell Block 99 is genre cinema with a brain, and its title is almost referencing this in and of itself. To me, the elevation of genre cinema is the antidote for the virulent monotony of the AAA studio release cycle. Studios will not deviate from their formula because we’re not giving them a reason to. Artists eschew formula, or at the very least modify it creatively to fit their vision.
If nothing I’m describing sounds interesting, maybe it’s just not for you. To anyone that appreciates a film willing to merge nuanced and complex characters with the shock and awe of exploitation cinema, Brawl in Cell Block 99 is not only a great film, but an important one. It hooked me.
And to touch on the soon-iconic scene where Vince Vaughn (actually) beats up the car, give this a spin: Vaughn represents the film, the car represents your own sense of complacency with the cinema mainstream. Now let him destroy it.
Rating: 5 head stomps outta 5.
What do you think? Does this sound like something up your alley? Are you excited to check this one? Does it not interest you in the slightest? Tell us why. We want to know. Share your thoughts and feelings in the comments section below, and as always, remember to viddy well!