Brawl in Cell Block 99
Director: S. Craig Zahler
Writer: S. Craig Zahler
Actor: Vince Vaughn, Jennifer Carpenter, Don Johnson
Streaming on Amazon Prime (as of 10/10/19)
Brawl in Cell Block 99, the startling second feature from burgeoning cinematic master S. Craig Zahler (Bone Tomahawk, Dragged Across Concrete), depicts characters and events that are at once enthrallingly captivating and darkly depressive. His first, Bone Tomahawk, was an exemplary update of traditional western tropes, but with his second feature, he seems to have found a muse. The film opens with the camera focused on Vince Vaughn, unrecognizable from the wiseass party animal of Wedding Crashers and Old School. He is completely bald, muscled and imposing, with a large gothic cross tattooed on the back of his head. These fearsome aspects of his outward appearance are nothing as compared with the thoughtful, emotional, terrifying figure he portrays throughout the film.
While most characters Vaughn has played in the past speak with a sort of incessantly speedy pitter patter, his character in Brawl, Bradley Thomas speaks in measured clauses and considered sentences. Early in the film, after his drug dealer boss Gil (Marc Lucas) asks him about the proper use of the “N” word, Vaughn responds “I don’t think someone like you could use that word in any way polite.” The film, though full of cleverly plain witticisms like that, never risks becoming what anyone would call comedic. In fact, the film’s director S. Craig Zahler has created the cinematic equivalent of a slow walk into hell, and the tortures heaped on Vaughn’s character expand at an exponential rate.
After a drug deal gone bad results in a shootout with police, Bradley (Vaughn) makes the decision to turn on the drug dealers, shooting one of them in the back and disabling the other with his bare hands. After this selfless act of heroism, our protagonist’s descent into hell begins in earnest. While the opening scenes of the movie are filmed in sharp sunlight, as the film goes into the darker parts of its story, each set piece is given less and less light. When Bradley (Vaughn) first arrives at Redleaf, a high-security prison built in the days before prison reform, the warden (Don Johnson) delivers a speech about the horrors held therein. In this and his every scene, Johnson (Miami Vice, A Boy and His Dog) brings a smirking dignity to these trashy proceedings, and keeps the viewer invested through the film’s trying final third.
When the movie finally comes to a close, it is with a horrifyingly graphic final shot, but this fits the savagery that came before. While Zahler’s debut film, Bone Tomohawk ends with an act of violence so horrible that I am loathe to re-watch it, I’ve viewed the entirety of Brawl on Cell Block 99 no less than five times. I think this is thanks to Vince Vaughn, who shows through his collaboration with Zahler that he understands serious characters, and that his eyes are as still and threatening as any action star. For a pulpy, grimly realistic, and unflinching view into an ordinary man becoming an animal, this film is beyond compare.