Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2017)

S. Craig Zahler’s 2015 debut Bone Tomahawk was a true attention-getter. An overlong but still extremely impressive blending of full-blooded pulp yarn impulses with intimate, chatty drama that evoked the contemporary independent film scene’s discursive aesthetics as much as genre cinema’s flinty imperatives, Bone Tomahawk melded the western with its perpetual aura of noble squareness to a Tobe Hooper-esque sense of savage degeneration and dire straits, and mediated it through its characters’ shambling, ornery peculiarities and tattered sense of mutual obligation. Brawl in Cell Block 99, his follow-up, sees Zahler’s credo hardening into a definite form. Where Bone Tomahawk was an ensemble piece, Brawl in Cell Block 99 is more thoroughly tied to the travails of his antihero, Bradley Thomas (Vince Vaughan), introduced being laid off from his job as a motor mechanic and finding his wife Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter) has been having an affair in the malaise that’s gripped them since she suffered a miscarriage some time before. After pulverising her car in a pent-up rage, Bradley sits down and calmly decides on a course of action, electing to save their marriage and take a risky but potentially profitable step of becoming a courier for a drug-dealing acquaintance, Gil (Mark Blucas).

Eighteen months later, Bradley and Lauren’s circumstances have changed radically. Now ensconced in a large house, prosperous and with a baby on the way, Bradley performs his illegal duties with scrupulous diligence and avoidance of attention. His momentarily idyllic new situation however takes a quick and calamitous slide towards a reckoning when Gil tries to go into partnership with a big-time cartel figure, Eleazar (Dion Mucciacito), and has Bradley join two of the kingpin’s goons in picking up a shipment. Bradley disdains the company of the two hoods as he pegs them as creeps and possible livewire junkies, and when police ambush them after an altercation on their way home, he makes a conscious decision not to simply flee but helps the cops take the thugs down. Bradley then elects to take his lumps, refusing to testify as to whose dope they were running and pleading no contest to the charges he faces. But his naiveté is soon goaded when he finds himself sent down for seven years by unforgiving representatives of the state. After running a gauntlet of sarcastic and pernickety guards, Bradley settles down for his stretch of hard time. This however seems like paradise compared to what comes next. A representative of Eleazar (Udo Kier) visits Bradley in prison and tells him that because he now owes a great debt to the kingpin, Lauren has been kidnapped. The representative warns Bradley that his baby will be surgically disfigured in the womb by eagerly sadistic specialist unless he contrives to get himself transferred to a far worse prison, Redleaf, and kill an inmate there.

The title’s urgent, retro-flavoured declaration of intent and echoing of Riot of Cell Block 11 (1956) drops hints Zahler has the filmographies of old-school genre filmmakers directors like Don Siegel on his mind, those igneous tales of ordinary men driven to the wall by circumstance and brute narratives of revenge and necessity. Zahler’s contemporaneity is signalled through his love of deploying characters with ironically disparate qualities, his notably intelligent and complex female characters and ironic portrayals of macho men with intellectual streaks and sensitive everymen with covert iron backbones. Bone Tomahawk revolved around Patrick Wilson’s incarnation of the latter and Brawl on Cell Block 99 offers Vaughan a version of the former. Zahler characterises Bradley as a former boxer and genuinely tough man who nonetheless spends most of his trying not to be one, a Southerner many dismiss as a redneck but who pointedly refuses to have his name curtailed to Brad and who constantly hints his intelligence and poise with his use of unexpectedly big words and quips that make him a constant object of ire and suspicion for people who dismiss him as a dumb ox (it’s worth comparing Zahler’s intelligent touch in this regard to that exhibited by Steven Soderbergh in thematically similar but far jollier, and also far more stereotyped, Logan Lucky from this year). 

Zahler’s crisp, rigorously framed shots and rock-steady editing pace match his concerns hand in glove, communicating rigid hierarchies and hard facts in the very form of his filmmaking. When he does chance some fluid, daring camera mobility, as in his staging of the police raid, it’s when Bradley’s quick and dextrous physical wits are required to save his life. Although camped out in genre movie land, Zahler constantly hints he’s aiming for something higher, a slightly abstracted and deliberately surreal exaggeration lurking within his elemental drama, a quality that chases an almost Biblical sense of the weight inherent in such struggles of survival and straits of penitence: the huge crucifix tattooed on the back of Bradley’s bald crown signals this invocation a little too urgently. Zahler stages the home invasion in which Lauren is snatched as a horror movie-like scene, forces grim fate come knocking like malevolent, disembodied spirits. In Bone Tomahawk the heavy-duty machismo was mitigated by the eccentricity of his characters and their tetchy advance across the landscape. As in the previous film, Zahler traces a dedicated husband’s determination to enter a nihilistic zone anyone in their right mind would seem to want to avoid at all costs. Zahler links this to the all-too-believable straits that descend upon Bradley in the film’s opening third, in a movie that essentially posits Bradley as a modern-day equivalent to the brawny heroes of classic Italian peplum films, possessed of great strength he tries to use in service of performing his duty as husband and father, only to constantly fall victim to modern moral flux, a hero figure debilitated by human concerns but who finally uses great physical strength in service of a righteous cause against demons and witch-kings.

Kier’s appearance signals the film’s hard swerve towards gothic exaggeration, as Bradley is obliged to take a long and almost certainly one-way journey deep into Hades by starting fights with his jailers and fellow inmates. As required by his persecutors, he is plunged into the cruel clutches of Warden Tuggs (Don Johnson), who manages Redleaf as a spiralling set of Dante-esque levels with Cell Block 99 the lowest, a stygian dungeon and torture den where the most malignant criminals have been locked up. Bradley is hurled down there to be randomly shocked by remote control through a battery-powered girdle strapped to his body. And even that isn’t the end of his descent as soon learns the true motive for his journey. Zahler signals his admiration for John Carpenter with a music score he helped make highly reminiscent of Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), on top of a similar concern (and title) with ordinary people caught in the vice. Like Carpenter he’s attuned to the routines and rhythms of blue collar life, the small acts of faith that coalesce into community even in the big house. Zahler’s dark themes are mediated by his feel for the small interactions between ordinary people that offset the machinations of the powerful and cruel – with a co-worker at the auto repair joint who promises to Bradley he’ll alert him if his job returns, with a guard, Andre (Mustafa Shakir) who acts aggressively towards him but later admits to merely trying to get him riled enough to join his boxing team.

Even in the bowels of Cell Block 99, he encounters some frail fellow humans, including one wretch who’s been locked up for many years and whom Bradley gifts a taser in a moment salutary humanity. Zahler understands these sorts of vignettes are the stuff of life whilst he also employs them with a ruthless sense of meaning in the face of Bradley’s spiral into animalism, as he’s obliged to break the faith of everyday humanity, snapping Andre’s bones to gain his end, and steaming in to upset the fine balance of forces that keep Redleaf’s prison yard at least vaguely tolerable for its inmates. Johnson’s gleefully poised performance as the serpent-eyed, cheroot-puffing Tuggs offers both a lingering ghost of swaggering machismo past, and incarnation of right-wing fantasy as self-congratulating container and tormentor of la bête humaine. Where Bone Tomahawk deliberately reconfigured a classic western situation with devolved monstrosities for villains to detach itself from historical ramifications except in studying the anxiety of the white man before the landscape he’s invading, here Zahler seems intent delving into the American legal system as the most explicit example of the nation being unable to throw off its links to a punishing colonialist past, hence its fetishism of harsh punishment even whilst enabling crime through its lack of social safety nets and delight in the paraphernalia of violence. Bradley’s patriotism (when the prosecutor trying to lure him into turning witness he theorises Bradley has an American flag, and Bradley states he has two) is raised to manipulate him and then ruthlessly betrayed.

Zahler also has a malicious talent for conjuring moments of gruelling corporeal injury and slaughter, illustrated to stomach-churning effect in Bone Tomahawk, and eventually Brawl in Cell Block 99 he offers some gaudy eruptions of gobsmacking gore. This time it’s in punctuation of Bradley’s final, cheer-along rampage of revenge. It’s here, however, that I felt Zahler’s grip on the material loosen, as he goes for bloodthirsty catharsis but also swerves close to rendering his potent vision a touch cartoonish in the hyperbole. In his last film he used his violence to memorably illustrate the depths of evil his heroes had fallen into and generate memorably intense stakes for them. Here it feels a little like he’s trying to deflect accusation that in the end he’s simply made a slightly pretentious Jean Claude Van Damme movie with visions that test the mettle of the audience. And yet it’s impossible not to surrender to Zahler’s pulp-operatic enthusiasm as he offers the sight of Carpenter turning a high-powered rifle on her kidnappers, and Bradley taking a long last meditative pause to savour what he has gained and lost before turning to meet inevitable destiny. Brawl in Cell Block 99 is not a total success, but it is a smart, potent, thrilling little film.

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