Film Review: Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2017)

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How exactly do you follow up a horror so scarring, it sent even hardcore genre fans into fits of vomiting?

That’s the question that no-doubt plagued novelist-turned-nightmare-maker S. Craig Zahler every morning for the past two (possibly even three) years. Zahler’s first movie, Bone Tomahawk – an old-school western starring Kurt Russell no less – seemed to start life as a sturdy character piece, before very suddenly plunging itself into an ocean of death and dismemberment so deep, the movie’s bloody stumps stood no chance of ever quite touching the bottom.

The image of a tooth-laden tribesman brutally cleaving a certain beloved character from genitals to face has still stuck with many of us, this writer included, many years on. So when we say that Zahler’s instant follow-up, the Vince Vaughn-starring prison/crime ‘drama’ Brawl in Cell Block 99 takes things that little bit further, you should probably know that it really means business.

Vaughn doesn’t so much lead here as he does beat the entire picture into submission, as Bradley Thomas (much like another named prisoner from another cult prison drama, the name is very important to him), a former alcoholic forced to turn back to a life of crime to support his pregnant-and-ready-to-pop wife. Naturally, his next drug run goes awry and while technically doing the right thing (whatever that may be in a Zahler movie), Thomas ends up cuffed and sentenced to a whole lot of jail time. From there, things hit something of a downward spiral, but we’ll let you figure out the how of that last bit for yourself.

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After all, Brawl is positively caked in reveals. Zahler seems to know his audience well enough coming into this one; no longer will they be lulled into the false sense of security that Tomahawk led with. And with a washed-out, grime-ridden colour palette to boot (that wouldn’t look out of place in a Saw flashback), not a second goes by of Brawl that you’re not almost begging for something seriously bloody to kick off.

Yet, the director holds back. It’s nearly an hour into the movie before Vaughn finds himself behind bars and even longer until the ’99’ of the title makes itself know. Which many might see as slow, but the longer you spend being coaxed further and further into Zahler’s deranged little world, the more necessary the snail’s pacing becomes.

He’s messing with us, well and truly. Because just when you think things are starting to level out and you’re finally settling into the present on-screen mayhem, it spirals, it spirals and then it spirals some more, eventually going so far as to bring new meanings to the word ‘nasty’. Maybe not quite as jarringly as Tomahawk, but Brawl still shocks, digging its nails in even deeper than you’d expect. To warn you would be to take away from the experience, but seeing this one with a packed-out crowd is almost essential; the collective wincing is like nothing else. Zahler’s own private, specially-unhinged chorus.

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But what sets this one above many others isn’t really just the careful attention to injury detail, or the blindingly brutal offings; I mean they certainly help, but still. What drives Zahler’s work to the forefront is his characters. And while Tomahawk boasted a whole star-studded search-party of them, Brawl settles for one, totally killer lead.

Vaughn’s not always been the rom-com-friendly Mr Reliable, it’s true. Just look as far as True Detective or Gus Van Sant’s Psycho rejig and you’ll see plenty of darkness about him. But here he does something totally, completely cack-eyed and different; equal parts avenging hero, and unequivocally disturbed individual. Watching him slowly dismantle a car with a pair of very bloodied fists in the film’s prologue certainly sets things up well – the ballad of a very angry, very repressed man – but the darker Zahler gets, the deeper Vaughn manages. It takes someone special to endure what’s thrown at Vaughn throughout Brawl without so much as skipping a single beat, or losing an ounce of believability, and here he not only masters the cold-eyed stare, he grabs it in a vice-like grip and pushes two inward-pointing thumbs sharply inside it.

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Brawl in Cell Block 99 is an experience. Not a particularly nice experience, or one you’ll want to show your grandparents, but a tremendously affecting one all the same. A full-on audience movie that feels like a very natural step-forward in Zahler’s career, and the natural progression of genre and its 1970s-roots as a whole.

Brawl in Cell Block 99 was screened as part of the 61st BFI London Film Festival and is released in the UK on 20th October.

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