There’s an argument that crops up – and I generally side with it – when talking about violence in films. And that’s that the unrealistic way it’s portrayed – be it a brick being thrown at someone in Home Alone 2 or a bullet being sprayed in a Marvel film – creates an unrealistic perception as to the damage real-life violence can do. That if you’re going to show a bullet hitting someone, show just what it can do. I’m still haunted, for instance, by the damage that one solitary bullet does in John Singleton’s Boyz N The Hood, some 25 years after I first watched it.
I think that writer-director S. Craig Zahler is a subscriber to this theory. In his debut feature, the micro-budget, maximum-impact mainly-western Bone Tomahawk, his depiction of screen violence was astonishing. No fast cuts, no cheating. Long shots seeing real damage being done, to characters that were properly established.
Brawl In Cell Block 99 adds extra The Raid-style flavoring to the impact of said violence. And so impactful are those moments, that it’s only long after the credits roll that it hits you how little actual flat-out action there is. It’s just when it’s deployed, you utterly, utterly feel the impact of it.
The center of the film is a Vaughn-again Vince Vaughn, here playing a man who never seems to get the cream of life by the name of Bradley Thomas. It’s established in a tense opening that Thomas – a former boxer – is a man for whom anger simmers under the surface, who makes mistakes, but conversely, he’s determined to make his life right. He wants to repair the relationship with his wife, Lauren, played by Jennifer Carpenter. He wants to have a family. He wants to have a good job, a good house, and a dose of fairness.
He does not get all of those things.
Thus, he turns to Marc Blucas’ Gil, who provides him work running drugs, a task he undertakes with calmness, all the morality he can muster, and a focus on what matters. To project this, Vince Vaughn – a man who was urgently in need of a career resurrection – strips his craft right back and starts again. It’s been a long time coming, but his still, resolute performance, and the sheer physicality of his work, arrests you early and doesn’t let go. He is the absolute centrepiece of this film, and he knows how much rests on it. He gives us the kind of controlled, determined acting I forgot he could do, his eyes doing work that previously he’d have called on two pages of dialogue for.
He has chosen his role wisely. It’s a career best for him.
That said, there’s not a prominent character here who doesn’t make some kind of impact. Udo Kier, for instance, takes a cameo that pretty much frosts the screen. Zahler’s screenplay gives him dialogue that could chill bones just reading it written down. Kier’s icy delivery of it is beyond menacing. Calm, simple, chilling conviction. Don Johnson, meanwhile, inhales his tobacco and lays down his own law as the kind of prison warden who, as he effectively admits, Amnesty International wouldn’t be too keen on.
The conviction of the characters is a crucial part of the worlds that Zahler has put on screen in his two films. Movies are very good at setting up horrible situations, and then finding cheating ways out of them. Zahler has absolutely no shrift with that, and the consequence is that when a character makes a threat in his work, you have zero doubt that they’ll carry it out if they’re not stopped. There’s no spoiler there, incidentally, rather that Zahler never shortchanges you. He’ll surprise you, he’ll cut to another scene unexpectedly to unsettle you – and lord, does he unsettle you – but he’s always playing by firm rules.
As with Bone Tomahawk, Brawl In Cell Block 99 is very patient with its build up, and shot impactfully. In this case, it’s a lot more indoors than out, but the trapped nature of key characters is heavily enforced by the camera in the corner of dimly lit rooms, with over-bright light drenching in through the windows. Sound is kept as sparse as some of the shots, with no score to manipulate the tension building in front of us.
It does take its time to build, as this is a story built on concrete rather than gimmicks. Still, I recall there were some complaints aimed at Bone Tomahawk for its opening half hour or so, arguing it was too slow. I never sided with them, but it’s worth noting that if you did, you may have a similar grumble.
I can’t state this enough, either: this is a film that earns its R-rating. Not just for reasons of its violence either, rather that there are very nasty people involved in very nasty things and saying very nasty sentences. It utterly got under my skin,
I think Brawl In Cell Block 99 is an exceptional piece of work, and two films in, I’d already argue that S. Craig Zahler is an astonishing voice in American cinema. He channels exploitation cinema in a way nobody is doing right now, fusing it in this case into a sometimes disturbing, ultimately gripping and human modern day B-movie. Brawl In Cell Block 99 – and boy, does that title only tell part of the story – is a modern late night movie classic.