Directed by S. Craig Zahler
For those of you who have seen movies at an Alamo Drafthouse, you know that there are small sheets of paper upon which you use a tiny pen to scratch down your food and/or beverage order. I bring this up because when sitting in screenings at Fantastic Fest, I’ll often grab one of those sheets of paper to scribble notes for review purposes. When I left Brawl in Cell Block 99, the bottom of my sheet saw two words written in large, inescapable letters: “HOLY SHIT.”
The film follows Bradley Thomas (Vaughn), a Southern man who begins the movie as a tow truck driver/repo man who gets fired only to come home to find that his wife, Lauren (Carpenter), has been cheating on him. After unleashing some rage upon her car – in a scene reminiscent of Street Fighter II‘s bonus stage – the two have a difficult but important discussion in which they decide to give their marriage another chance. As part of this, Bradley chooses to go back to being a drug runner, something Lauren clearly doesn’t like the thought of but accepts because, hey, she just cheated on him.
Eighteen months later and the two are pregnant and living in a beautiful, if not strangely sterile, house. But soon afterwards, a drug pickup organized by Bradley’s boss, Gil (Blucas), which is meant to create a partnership with the foreign drug dealer Eleazar (Mucciacito), goes south, Bradley is sentenced to seven years in prison and Eleazar’s associates are seriously unhappy with the amount of money he’s cost them. That’s when Lauren is kidnapped and threatened in the most harrowing of ways, leaving Bradley to venture down a dark path of violence and destruction while incarcerated.
Right away, I need to state that Vaughn’s performance is absolutely phenomenal. He’s undeniably imposing, his muscular form filling the screen. However, it’s his ability to portray a man constantly teetering on the edge of pure, seething rage that is astounding. Remember when people were scoffing at the idea of Heath Ledger playing the Joker? It’s understandable if there are those who have their doubts about Vaughn’s ability to play a role such as this. Trust me when I say your misgivings are unnecessary; this is an award-winning performance of redemption, whatever the cost.
Essentially an exploitation film, Brawl in Cell Block 99 unfolds at a steady, measured pace. It takes some time to build up, but that only adds to the tension and promise of violence. In a strange way, Zahler’s vision unfolds as a descent into Hell, reminiscent of Dante’s Inferno. Vaughn’s journey takes him deeper and deeper into the prison system, each jail cell darker, filthier and more shocking than the one before it.
Backed by a very smart and witty script, Brawl in Cell Block 99 opts for a far more realistic approach with this story and with the fight sequences, which utilize wide framing so that we may see the action but still appreciate and almost vicariously feel each thudding impact. Oh, and speaking of violence, Zahler doesn’t shy away from bringing viciousness to the screen in levels that made half the audience cringe and audibly gasp. I’ve seen a lot of gore over the years and even I widened my eyes during some moments.
Another Fantastic Fest film that straddles the line of horror, thriller and dark drama, I’ll be the first to admit that Brawl in Cell Block 99 is far more horrific than it is horror. However, genre fans will find vast amounts to love here as Zahler’s latest offering is an assault on your senses that sees Vaughn in one of the best performances of the year.