Brawl in Cell Block 99
Brawl in Cell Block 99 is most definitely cut from the same cloth as writer-director-co-composer Craig S Zahler’s previous flick Bone Tomahawk: an inexorable, slow-burn suspenser that works equally well as a character drama. That is, when it isn’t revelling in sporadic bursts of ultraviolence, including a finale in a close-quartered pit of hell. If there’s nothing quite as repellent as that scene in Bone Tomahawk, it’s never less than evident that this self-professed “child of Fangoria” loves his grue. He also appears to have a predilection for, to use his own phraseology, less politically correct content.
With Bone Tomahawk, one might have charitably put Zahler’s choices down to making a monster movie that incidentally, albeit insensitively, incorporated Native American cannibal killer antagonists with a particularly savage modus operandi for treating their house guests. But pile on Brawl in Cell Block 99, and then that Zahler’s forthcoming Dragged Across Concrete co-stars Mel Gibson (and reteams with Vince Vaughn), and you begin to suspect he’s either actively courting controversy (although he doesn’t seem particularly keen on broaching the subject in interviews) or brandishes certain latent, unsavoury tendencies.
In Brawl in Cell Block 99, Vaughn’s (presumably) former-white-supremacist Bradley Thomas is running drugs for buddy Gil (Marc Blucas), a conscious decision designed to improve his and pregnant girlfriend Lauren’s (Jennifer Carpenter) quality of life. When a pickup turns sour and he’s sent to the slammer, Bradley finds himself squaring up against a string of minorities (or just plain old foreigners, when it comes to Udo Keir’s Placid Man intermediary). Most particularly in the form of a Latino drug gang who are both incompetent (its foot soldiers) and so thoroughly, horrendously evil (its leader) that they whistle up a horrifying method – courtesy of Zahler’s festering imagination – of punishing Bradley and his wife if he doesn’t do exactly what they say. Which is ostensibly to kill one Christopher Bridge, ensconced in Cell Block 99 of a maximum-security prison.
One might simply see Bradley’s “Don’t call me a foreigner. Last time I checked, the colours of the flag weren’t red, white and burrito” as a means to start a fight, which it is (his ascent – or descent, depending how you look at it – to his chosen destination, having started in an entirely different, relatively amenable prison, is remarkably smooth and efficient). But it comes after an earlier slight to his African-American guard (“Pretend you’re talking to God”: “He doesn’t smell like nachos”) and the establishing of buddy Gil’s prejudice (he’s partial to using the n-word: “Don’t think someone like you can say that word anyway polite” observes Bradley). He’s clearly coded as a good guy (he blows away Kier at the end, while Lauren, who has been the damsel in distress up to this point, is allowed the token gesture of taking out the evil Korean abortionist), and there’s an emphasis on his patriotism (it’s the act of a patriot to save good, decent, patriotic cops from a couple of crazed, trigger-happy Mexicans).
At very least, Zahler’s choices seem to be those of one wilfully, brazenly wading through a minefield (even to the extent of the first scene, in which Zahler’s at pains to emphasise Bradley’s good relationship with a black co-worker, evidently coded to pre-empt later accusations of racism, the kind of choice the director was saying he wasn’t making).
But then, provoking seems to be his thing. Zahler takes the time to map out Bradley’s inner rage and turmoil. It’s 45 minutes before he’s locked up, but one of the strongest scenes comes right at the start, as discovering his wife’s infidelity, he takes out his rage on her car before proceeding into the house and composedly – but tensely – discussing with her where they go from there (given the manner in which he essentially controls her, right through her pregnancy, it’s a wonder she didn’t take the opportunity to make a run for it, but perhaps she’s too cowed into emotional dependency by that point; it’s hard to tell, as Zahler offers her little autonomy).
The scene informs Bradley’s behaviour from there on, taking his anger out on inanimate objects while being contained and restrained when necessary (most notably when he first receives a visit from gang rep the Placid Man).
The slow-but-sure unfolding comes into play with just about everything from the induction processes to prison tours. We acclimatise to each new environment with Bradley, and the sudden contrasts of action are thus all the more effective. Zahler refers to the violence in Brawl in Cell Block 99 as cathartic; while I can recognise that response, his particular brand of excess is much too grisly to lose oneself in.
Call it grindhouse, or exploitation; there’s a gleefulness to the cartoonish bone-snapping, skull-stamping, eye-gouging mayhem that doesn’t really do it for me. Zahler’s movies are exercises in overkill in this respect, long fuses building to periodic splintering and splattering and eviscerating.
Having said that, Zahler’s evidently an expert when it comes to structure and pacing and tone, and he reels you in as ominously and inexorably as he did with Bone Tomahawk. He’s ably supported by Vaughn, who may have entirely failed to carry off his sergeant in Hacksaw Ridge but entirely convinces as stomping, punching, kicking, pulverising unstoppable force.
Carpenter’s strong in a part whose backend is rather thankless, while Don Johnson’s Warden Tuggs may not be as great a genre comeback as Jim Bob in Cold in July, but gives him an opportunity to flex the flinty authoritarian muscles. The score is first rate too, the retro electronica adding to the sense of a late ‘70s Carpenter movie (not that Carpenter really went in for this kind of gore, though).
Zahler’s evidently a highly talented writer and director and musician, but I wonder at what point his less refined sensibilities – if that’s all they are – will bite him in his red, white and backside.