As with his intense debut Bone Tomahawk, S. Craig Zahler’s second movie bypasses Australian cinemas and arrives direct-to-home entertainment. But be under no misapprehension about its quality, Brawl In Cell Block 99 is a very well crafted, blisteringly violent prison movie, with a tough-guy sensibility that has swaggered right out of the ‘70s to sock you square on the jaw.
Bradley Thomas (Vince Vaughn) is laid off from his tow-truck driver job and with his strained marriage to wife Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter) adding to his issue-list, he finds little other option other than to become a drug runner for local dealer Gil (Marc Blucas). As can be deduced from the title of the movie, things do not go well and Bradley finds himself in the clink. On his first day inside, rival drug dealer Eleazar (Dion Mucciacito) contacts him to offer a terrifying ultimatum: in order to save his wife and child, he must kill a fellow inmate.
Brawl In Cell Block 99 is mean, its subject matter is ugly and it relishes the brute force at its disposal. Let us be clear, this is no Shawshank Redemption. It’s not a heart-warming tale of a wronged, innocent man. The orchestra won’t swell as the ‘warm and fuzzies’ envelope you like a comfy blanket. Bradley is a drug runner. He might have the odd moral here and there, but when we get right down to it, he’s a guilty man. He’s a textbook anti-hero and Cell Block’s sneering, aggressive, thug-cinema stomp is straight out of the exploitation hey-day.
Cell Block has much in common with Zahler’s wildly impressive Bone Tomahawk, from the glacially slow beginnings – the plot eeks itself out over the first hour – to a gobsmacking third act of blood, guts and retribution. The languid beginning dares us to believe Cell Block might not be the movie we thought, only for it to suddenly deliver exactly what we expect from the creator of a grisly cannibal western, here turned loose on a prison flick.
The point to both Tomahawk and Cell Block’s measured beginnings is so the impact of the dénouement is felt more acutely. Zahler’s methodical approach might seem unnecessary if all you’re hanging around for is to see where Cell Block rates on the Richter Scale of gore (note: it’s ten), but in rounding out these characters – in giving us Bradley and Lauren’s life – the stakes are that much higher. The fact we actually care about these characters serves to offset some of the, let’s say, cheapness found in vicariously enjoying the brutality.
And let’s make no bones about it, Cell Block is brutal. Audiences alarmed by the level of violence in Bone Tomahawk might want to give Cell Block a wide berth. At those crucial moments, where most films will yield to convention and cut away, letting imagination take care of the rest? Well, Cell Block doesn’t so much break that convention inasmuch as it jams matchsticks under your eyelids, ties down your arms and forces you to watch.
The fighting is crisp and brutal. There’s no hyper-confusing Bourne-style editing here. Vaughn gets into one punch up after another and the camera simply takes a step back to watch, like school kids forming a circle around a playground fight. As each section of the film plays out, it ends up structured like a video game, with Bradley scrapping his way through each new environment to an end-of-level boss. You can half imagine playing an 8-Bit console tie-in – the side scrolling beat ‘em up to end them all.
Vaughn is revelatory as Bradley. Turning his acting gear on something serious is nothing new, as his sterling performance in season two of True Detective will attest. Yet he is still best known for his comedy roles and affable on-screen persona. In Cell Block Vaughn subverts the image he has spent years building, and he is incredible. Utilising the excellent character work delivered in Zahler’s script, Vaughn gives an impressively complex turn. We get Bradley’s moral core, his petulance, his devotion to family, and, most of all, Vaughn sells us Thomas as one hard nut. A granite-jawed ex-boxer and an unstoppable force when everything he holds dear is on the line.
There’s plenty of quality to be found in the rest of the cast too. Jennifer Carpenter is very good as Lauren, who gets put through the ringer from start to finish as the wife of our walking wrecking ball. And Udo Kier’s character, The Placid Man, is an ice-cold mob caretaker, his frosty countenance as chilling as a snowball upside your head. There’s lots of tough-guy dialogue to chew on too – most of it espoused by the excellent Don Johnson as Warden Tuggs. Whether Tuggs is insisting on helping prison economics “by deploying some cheap lead”, or reflecting on the fact that “Amnesty International would frown upon the contents of this room”, he is yet another hard case in a hard place, and he’s totally great.
With Brawl in Cell Block 99 Zahler has delivered the same low budget, no constraint exhilaration as Ben Wheatley did with Kill List or Jeremy Saulnier did with Blue Ruin and Green Room. In less skilled hands the lurking nastiness could render Cell Block unwatchable, but instead Zahler has emerged as a genre alchemist – confecting gold out of the dirt and grime. Cell Block is bound to polarise opinion. For some it will be too violent, but for others – and let us hope they are the majority – Brawl In Cell Block 99 is unmissable crime pulp, from an unbeatable filmmaker.
THE REEL SCORE: 9/10