Starring: Vince Vaughn, Jennifer Carpenter, Don Johnson, Marc Blucas and Tom Guiry
Written by: S. Craig Zahler
Directed by: S. Craig Zahler
Original Year of Release: 2017
Run Time: 132 minutes
Brawl on Cell Block 99 requires a fair amount of unpacking afterwards. Once you get past the fact that it’s flat-out brilliant, unspeakably violent, and includes the greatest performance Vince Vaughn has ever given by a country mile. It’s the second home run in a row from director S. Craig Zahler, whose Bone Tomahawk is a must-see for anyone willing to chance some of the most horrifying imagery ever put on screen. He hasn’t pulled back a single bit with Cell Block 99: merely transferred it to a similarly neglected genre in need of a little shot in the arm. He patterns it on 70s exploitation movies: specifically a righteous-man-imprisoned flick, which has the potential for something genuinely transgressive if someone had the guts to go there.
That someone is Zahler. And in Vaughn, he finds an actor as well-suited to the material as Kurt Russell was to Bone Tomahawk. The star plays Bradley Thomas, a former mechanic who turns to running drugs when work dries up. He ends up on the wrong side of the law – and the kingpin he works for – when a pick-up goes wrong. Once he lands in prison, things go from bad to worse to horrific as the kingpin demands repayment for his part in the debacle.
To go into the specifics would be to engage in copious spoilers, and one of the pleasures of Cell Block 99 comes in seeing where the twists and turns lead. Needless to say, it constitutes quite a journey – a descent, more accurately – intended to push a strong, principled character to the brink and watch how he responds. Thomas enters into his profession out of necessity rather than desire, and when he does, he commits to certain hard, firm ethical lines. Those lines get pushed to their limits from all directions, both from the system itself and from his fellow criminals (behind bars, on the outside, and sometimes in between).
The film owes part of its success to pacing: watching the pressure come from seemingly all directions and wondering just exactly how bad it can get for this man. You think he’s touched bottom, only to watch it get worse and worse and worse until death itself looks like sweet release.
And yet we get hints early on not only that this man possesses the most unerring moral compass on Earth, but has the sheer brute strength to take anything his tormentors can dish out. He carries a lot of anger, but he knows himself well enough to channel it away from those he loves. An early scene shows him literally pounding his wife’s (Jennifer Carpenter) car into oblivion before going in to confront her: knowing that his rage could overwhelm him and ensuring that it doesn’t.
The impressive sight of him bringing the pain to a piece of steel and emerging the obvious victor speaks to his sheer brute strength too: something his enemies think they understand but continually underestimate at every turn. Cell Block 99 thrives simply by taking us step by step through the kinds of torment inflicted on this man and makes you ask how and where he’s going to strike back.
With another director that would feel like emotional exploitation: getting a cheap rise out of the audience for low-end surface gratification. But Zahler has more on his mind than simple button pushing. With Vaughn – whose hulking size and understated physicality make him ideal for this character – he crafts a protagonist of depth and complexity: someone worth rooting for through the most vile circumstances. Things get ugly, then uglier, then absolutely unspeakable… but there’s this strange sense that he’s still two steps ahead of everyone, and that all of this serves some larger purpose. That frees the story from grindhouse button-pushing, and allow us to focus on the implications as much as the sleaze. (And to be sure, sleaze is a part of the equation: a means to engage in the kind of uniquely thoughtful look at violence and its consequences that defined Zahler’s last film.)
That said, it cannot be emphasized enough: this movie is not for the squeamish. Zahler continues his uniquely gifted way of showing us exactly, precisely what real violence looks like and exactly, precisely what it does to the human body. But he also knows when the geek-show stuff is necessary to the exercise, and when the threat of such damage is enough. (That applies especially to Thomas’s wife, who in her own way is in even more peril than her husband.)
But with a filmmaker this strong, it triggers the kinds of questions that need asking instead of just wallowing in the depravity. It turns what could have been just another grindhouse homage into something well worth paying attention to. Only can only wonder which undervalued genre he’ll turn his attention to next.