S. Craig Zahler’s Singular Work Comes Home
Having caught both writer/director S. Craig Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk and his latest Brawl In Cell Block 99 at Fantastic Fest on the big screen, I feel like an incredibly lucky genre film fan. Bone Tomahawk broadsided me with that very rare experience of a first time filmmaker coming out of nowhere and heralding his arrival with a full-throated confidence that all but guaranteed I’d see anything he ever created. Brawl In Cell Block 99 skyrocketed to one of my very most anticipated films at this year’s Fantastic Fest, and I was not disappointed. In fact, I called the film a “monster” and wrote a rave review about it on this very website.
Unquestionably one of the very best action films of 2017, handily one of the most outstanding genre projects of the year, and frankly one of the most singular film experiences of 2017 overall, Brawl In Cell Block 99 is hated by many, loved by others, and demands a strong response regardless.
Brawl takes comedic star and physical giant Vince Vaughn and rebrands him as a bruiser with a code. After losing a job and finding out his wife has been seeing someone else after they drifted apart due to a miscarriage in their past, Bradley (Vaughn) and Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter), start over and clearly establish a lasting love that viewers recognize as trustworthy. Their fatal flaw, however, is that Bradley goes back to work as a drug runner in order to put the pieces back together. Between Bradley’s code of honor and his career as a drug dealer, he’s bound to clash with the law and his fellow dealers. Unfortunately, a rival drug dealer takes umbrage at Bradley’s application of his code of honor and kidnaps the pregnant Lauren once Bradley is behind bars. The inevitable brawl is forthcoming, and it won’t go down the way anyone expects. But all of our characters will live out the codes and worldviews clearly established in the front half of the film in a massive genre payoff.
Zahler proves much with this second outing. Far from a sophomore slump, he seals the deal with much of what we suspected after Bone Tomahawk. For one, he’s a playful wordsmith writing fierce and funny dialog for his characters. He’s often compared to Quentin Tarantino, and while I think this is an unfair comparison, I will say the writing and dialog created by both artists is perhaps the area where this comparison is the most justified. Sure, their styles have some similarity, but really it’s just that both create clever dialog that’s closely followed from script to screen. And both are extremely well versed in cinema, masterfully drawing from their own knowledge of genre to create their own thing.
On top of the clever writing, Zahler also proves with Brawl that he’s fearless in portraying exactly what he wants to, regardless of the level of violence or stylization required to get there. I mentioned in my previous review that Brawl progresses further and further into exploitation cinema as the story progresses. This remains a fascinating device on a revisit, but upon even further inspection, it’s almost as if the first half of this film isn’t an exploitation film at all! Until Udo Kier shows up with his disturbing speech about a very precise abortionist this is a slow-burn crime thriller taking its time to establish our characters and their codes methodically. Some accuse Brawl of being slow, and perhaps that is true, but it certainly is intentional, and Zahler displays a confidence of craft with his pacing and storytelling.
The violence of Brawl is so pure. A clear product of Zahler’s vision, all gore and violence effects were created practically, in camera. And the graphic nature of the bodily damage that Bradley inflicts upon those who stand in the way of the safety of his wife and unborn child is fantastic. It is made all the more shocking by the frankness of it, the mundanity with which Bradley inflicts it, and precisely because the first half of the film really doesn’t prepare us for the visceral nature of the back half of the film. The gore traumatizes us all the more because there’s no ominous score or tips for the viewer to cue us in on the Saw-levels of body trauma that are headed for our eyeballs.
On top of the writing, directing, fascinating casting, the performances he draws out of his actors, and the patience he displays in the editing and pacing, Zahler ALSO performs in a band which recorded original music for the soundtrack of the film. Brawl largely eschews traditional score and rarely utilizes music to accentuate the mood. However, the soul-sounding original tracks recorded by Zahler’s band literally sound like deep cut needle drops straight out of the 1970s.
Both Bone Tomahawk and Brawl In Cell Block 99 portend a controversial and visionary new genre director on the scene, bringing a quadruple/quintuple threat skill set to filmmaking and doing things the way he wants to. This in the midst of an era where vision is being choked out by corporate IP management is a breath of fresh air that cannot be underestimated. Zahler’s next, Dragged Across Concrete, is sure to prove equally as disturbing and uniquely his own. I could see a day coming when I hate an S. Craig Zahler film; but I certainly love his first two. And I am not sure I see a day coming when a Zahler film does not elicit a very strong reaction.
Reviewing this title on 4K Blu-ray was an interesting experience because the one area where I would take issue with Zahler’s style is in the cinematography. It isn’t the shot composition or anything like that. It’s the look. I don’t know how to identify it, but there’s a direct to video quality to the visuals. I don’t know if it’s filter choice, or lighting, or even the cameras used. But Brawl could certainly have looked richer. That said, as Bradley descends further into the depths of Don Johnson’s Red Leaf Prison, the rich deep blacks of this 4K transfer started to kick in, and everything in the final act really looked a lot more pleasing to the eye. This is wholly a subjective aesthetic critique, and many might beg to differ with my assessment.
On top of the film in both 4K and high def Blu-ray, you also get a great little behind the scenes featurette and the full Q&A from the film’s screening at Beyond Fest which features all the main actors and filmmakers.
This is a great package for a film that one wouldn’t have guessed would receive a 4K home video release. The visuals of Brawl don’t exactly make it a showcase for your 4K system, but this film comes majorly recommended for genre fans and those with a high tolerance for bone crunching.
And I’m Out.
Brawl In Cell Block 99 is now available on 4K UHD, Blu-ray, DVD, and VOD from RLJE Films