From the title and premise alone, you’d be forgiven for expecting nothing more here than a simple prison punch-up exploitation thriller. In a way, Brawl in Cell Block 99 offers up exactly that; the essential plot beats and the level of violence would feel entirely at home on a 1980s video store bottom shelf. However, this particular jailhouse beat-’em-up takes 135 minutes to reach its blood-drenched conclusion, and doesn’t even land its protagonist behind bars until around an hour in. Following on from his attention-grabbing debut Bone Tomahawk, writer-director S Craig Zahler’s sophomore feature leaves behind the old west setting but continues down a similar path of masculine contemplation, tackling questions of honour and integrity in the face of the harshest adversity – and, while it does not explicitly address the current political climate, there’s no avoiding a sense that it is very much a product of 2017, and a highly provocative work at that.
Bradley Thomas (Vince Vaughn) is a physically imposing, softly spoken white man from the south, with a tattoo of a cross on the back of his shaved head. These are the first things we notice about him, not that all these attributes are discussed out loud in the movie, beyond his stature and his regionality. However, while he may look like the sort of man that a great many people would cross the street to avoid, when we meet him he’s living a simple, peaceful, relatively comfortable life in the suburbs with his wife Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter). However, Bradley’s about to have a very bad day, as he finds himself unexpectedly fired from his job at a local garage – cutbacks, they say – then returns home to discover that Lauren has been unfaithful to him.
As Bradley proceeds to take out with his anger with his bare hands on Lauren’s car, we see that he’s sporting not only a considerable temper, but some truly awe-inspiring physical strength as well. Regaining his cool, Bradley resolves to save his marriage and improve their circumstances by returning to an old life he once swore to leave behind: working as a pick-up guy for drug baron Gil (Marc Blucas). For a time, this seems to have fixed everything, but when one particular deal goes wrong, Bradley finds himself locked up. He’s barely been in the slammer 24 hours when he’s visited by a mysterious stranger (Udo Kier), who issues him a horrific ultimatum: Bradley must get himself sent to maximum security, track down a particular inmate and kill him. If he fails to comply, terrible things will happen to Lauren and her unborn child.
One of the first things that needs to be stressed about Brawl in Cell Block 99 is that at no point are you likely to look at the leading man and say, “oh look, it’s that affable non-threatening everyman guy from Dodgeball, Wedding Crashers and all that.” Between this, True Detective and Hacksaw Ridge, Vince Vaughn has been making significant efforts to reinvent himself as a more serious actor in recent years. The role of Bradley Thomas undoubtedly provides him with his meatiest opportunity yet to put his comedy past behind him, and he absolutely makes the most of this. Again, this is a long film that really takes its time to play out, and there are only a handful of scenes that Vaughn doesn’t appear in, meaning that writer-director Zahler is extremely focused on telling us the story of this one man from his point of view. We have a great many very long takes, with a massive amount of pregnant pauses and uncomfortable silences, made all the more prominent by the almost total absence of a musical score. In so many respects it has the feel of an art house film, and yet it winds up hitting most of the same plot points and bringing in the same stock characters you’d expect from any rough prison thriller, particularly once we reach the maximum security facility overseen by Don Johnson’s oily-haired, moustache and cigarillo-twirling warden. Taking a sombre, upmarket approach to such generic pulp material might seem reminiscent of Tarantino, yet Zahler for the most part plays things so straight and grounded that it’s an altogether different kettle of fish.
In fact, the film I find myself most unexpectedly reminded of is Moonlight. No, really, hear me out on this. Both films have a single-minded focus on one male character, with minimal backstory reveals, and a quiet, almost subliminal build of atmosphere. Should we be surprised that a movie about a closeted gay black man might touch similar ground as a movie about a very straight, very traditional white man? Maybe; maybe not. A human story is a human story, and both films deal with simple working class men forced by circumstance into lives they didn’t necessarily want, all the while trying to keep their true nature hidden from the world. It’s just that in this case, the protagonist’s hidden inner self is a bottomless well of burning rage. Another notable difference is that Brawl in Cell Block 99 would seem very unlikely to go down well with Oscar voters, given its bleak tone, very harsh scenes of violence, and – perhaps most pertinently – its right-leaning politic overtones.
This, again, is where Brawl in Cell Block 99 would seem most likely to divide audiences. Yes, Vaughn’s Bradley Thomas is a working class white male from the deep south who proudly flies the American flag on his doorstep, and literally wears his religious faith out there for all to see: in other words, all that’s missing is a Make America Great Again cap. It’s inconceivable that a 2017 film could centre on such a protagonist without it being in some way intended to make a statement; but I can’t deny I’m struggling to pin down exactly what it is that the film is trying to say. However, given that Vaughn – himself an outspoken conservative* (though I know nothing of Zahler’s political leanings) – has taken on the role and clearly put so much heart into it, I’m left with the impression that this is an entirely sincere celebration of that value system. Moreso, the film goes to some effort to dismiss certain preconceptions about southern white conservatism: Bradley listens to soul music, gently chastises his employer for use of homophobic and racist slurs, and goes out of his way to approach everyone with politeness, in the first instance at least. Even so, we can’t overlook that those who cross Bradley tend to be those who don’t mirror his ethnicity: Hispanic and Asian convicts, a black guard, and of course Udo Kier. When the shit hits the fan and Bradley takes out his rage on these people (though it should be noted his fists meet a few white guys too), it’s not hard to see racist viewers feeling validated, and whooping and cheering unironically the way so many of them did at American Sniper. And I can’t say with any certainty that this is not the desired effect.
Still, if we can hold such political concerns at arm’s length – and God knows, innumerable action/exploitation films from years gone by have necessitated this – then there’s no denying Brawl in Cell Block 99 delivers some serious visceral entertainment. The slow burn approach means we’re absolutely raring for the violence to start once Bradley first throws down, and the ensuing fight scenes are truly brutal. Don’t go in expecting anything like The Raid: much as Vaughn has built up bulk and practical muscle, rather than getting all ripped the way Hollywood action stars are usually expected to, the fight scenes here are very grounded, shot with minimal editing, showcasing simple kicks and punches with brute strength rather than anything flashy. Of course, Bone Tomahawk already demonstrated Zahler’s proclivity towards extremely graphic finishing moves designed to make the audience squirm, and Brawl in Cell Block 99 packs in plenty of these; you’d swear some of these people have bodies made out of watermelon.
At two and a quarter hours in length, I definitely feel that Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a little more drawn-out and pondersome than it really needs to be, considering what a simple story it tells; and, again, I was left very uncomfortable by its political overtones. Even so, I acknowledge that a film making its audience uncomfortable isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and it may well be that Zahler’s film carries deeper messages which I’ve been unable to identify as of yet. Either way, there’s no denying that it’s a compelling, very well-made thriller with a truly commanding central performance from Vaughn, and it’s certain to leave audiences with a great deal to talk about – even if we don’t all like the conclusions we come to.
*Edit: Vaughn has publicly declared himself a Libertarian.
Brawl in Cell Block 99 is out on DVD, Blu-ray and digital download on 26th December, from Universal.