Fantastic Fest 2017: BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99 Is A Monster

S. Craig Zahler Delivers Unspeakable Violence At The Hands Of Vince Vaughn

Writer/Director S. Craig Zahler, much like Dr. Victor Frankenstein, has a vision… and has created a monster.

Unlike most anything I’ve ever seen in the past two decades of rabid film fandom, Brawl In Cell Block 99 is simultaneously patient, methodical, sharply character focused, and shockingly frank in its unparalleled violence. It is possible that the body horror of this film is the very worst I’ve ever experienced on screen after seven Fantastic Fests to date. And when you’re delivering something that feels that unique, that unparalleled in its commitment to its vision, you better believe I’m going to appreciate it.

With Brawl In Cell Block 99, Zahler takes us on a journey from the real world of low level crime and socioeconomic status into an exploitation setting of the trashiest kind. Scene by scene the movie establishes itself, and then pivots ever closer to the world of “minimal freedom” that is Redleaf prison, in which the titular, apocalyptic brawl will occur.

And much like the ever shifting nature of the film, Vince Vaughn also takes the audience on a fascinating journey with his character Bradley Thomas. Vaughn is one of those actors who has to prove himself to me perpetually. He does not disappear into roles (a challenge for someone of his enormous stature), and I simply have trouble seeing it when he’s cast outside of his range. That’s how I felt going in to Brawl, and even as the first act played out. It seemed like another actor would have been a better fit, and that I was being asked to believe Vaughn as a character simply too far outside of the box for him. By the end, I was convinced there was no one else who should ever have played this part. Oddly, Vaughn’s size has not often played a huge role in his oeuvre. The quick tongued smartass he’s so well known for portraying could just as easily be 5 foot 5. Bradley Thomas is someone defined by his size, his capability for violence, and his unflappable way of being which is made clear through his actions. And Vaughn ultimately knocks the role out of the park.

Bradley’s journey in Brawl is meticulous. Many reactions to the film I’ve seen online suggest the pace was even plodding. I, too, felt like it took a long time to get going. But by the end it became clear to me that it was all part of Zahler’s crystal clear vision for the project. And upon repeat viewings (there will be many), the pace and tone will only become more clear. The final act of Brawl In Cell Block 99 is pure genre trash, riddled with practical gore effects heretofore reserved for splatter horror, and it’s all so damn effective because of just how far we’ve come from the wholly realistic McMansions and domestic challenges of the first act/s.

For half of the film, I knew I was watching something that wasn’t on par with Zahler’s previous effort Bone Tomahawk. It just didn’t grab in the same way. The signature snappy and eloquent dialog was there, but without the old west setting it didn’t land quite as effortlessly. The 1970s inspired music queues had a Tarantino vibe, but felt out of place. By the end, once again, I was proven to be in the hands of a director in complete control, who was feeding me clues of what was to come, beckoning me to an apocalyptic conclusion of exploitation glee. Brawl is a different beast than Bone Tomahawk, but similarly mashes genres together and ends in a place drastically and unpredictably different from where it began. It’s that rare film that genuinely surprises.

Much has been said of Vaughn, but one can’t fail to mention a remarkable turn by Jennifer Carpenter as Bradley’s wife Lauren, Udo Kier as a henchman known as Placid Man, and Don Johnson as Redleaf prison warden Tuggs. Vaugn is the eternal focus of the film, but his marriage to Lauren is the heart, and his unfailing desire to protect his wife and unborn daughter may be the stuff of cinema cliche by this point, but theirs is a marriage that feels fleshed out. We’re invested in them thanks to the writing of the first half. Kier delivers bone chilling dialog that threatens unspeakable violence against Bradley’s family, and his contributions to making your skin crawl are considerable. Don Johnson has a little less to do than expected, but continues his streak of playing fearless tough old man roles that make me love him. There are some less known actors turning in good work here as well, and some behind the scenes talent such as stunt coordinator Drew Leary and anyone involved the blocking, staging, and shooting of the naturalistic fight sequences and traumatic practical gore effects. They’re the unsung heroes of Brawl In Cell Block 99.

Brawl will not be for everyone. Much more divisive than Bone Tomahawk, audiences just probably aren’t prepared for the frankly X-rated levels of body dismantling that take place right before one’s eyes in glorious, practical effects work. Others will take issue to the pacing and casting, issues I started out with, only to have them stripped away. Brawl In Cell Block 99 is mean, singular, muscular, committed, and has no respect for decency (or Hollywood). It’s a film I adore as much as I admire, satisfying my lizard brain as much as it engages my thoughts. It’s unparalleled, and so much of what I love about genre cinema.

And I’m Out.

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