The second feature from S. Craig Zahler, Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a grisly saga about a brick shithouse mechanic turned drugs courier fighting for the lives of his wife and unborn child. Sent down after a deal goes wrong, Bradley’s troubles are just beginning.
If 2015’s Bone Tomahawk, a Howard Hawks-type western spliced with a gore flick, was an ensemble piece, Zahler’s sophomore effort is a good old star vehicle. Yet the masterful storytelling, well-written characters, measured pacing and grotesque violence are very much carryovers, marking Zahler as one of those rare filmmakers whose artistry and vision has emerged on the screen fully-formed.
Brawl in Cell Block 99 begins as a realist tale depicting a working-class man in crisis and ends up an allegory about disenfranchisement. Frank Capra loved making pictures where the little guy triumphs against corrupt forces, whereas we all know in the real world they’re squashed like bugs. While Bradley (Vince Vaughan) is super-heroically impervious to pain, his economic status makes him vulnerable. With the American Dream having left him well and truly for dust, Bradley’s only option to provide the life he envisioned for himself and his wife (Jennifer Carpenter) is to sling dope for a cartel pal.
Over the course of two hours, the story slowly but surely meanders into thrilling pulp fiction waters. By the time we get to the brawl promised in the title, Zahler has pulled something of a miraculous magician’s trick. The world has shrunk considerably, the mood of claustrophobia like the perilous situation at the end of Bone Tomahawk. The film’s use of bleached out, desaturated colours – sea-sick greens, cobalt blues and phosphorus whites – is switched to sepulchral gloom, bordering on the Gothic.
Vaughn is outstanding as a human knuckleduster, and it’s a performance to match his sterling work as a gangster whose small-time empire crumbles before his eyes, in True Detective: Season Two. Bradley might be a walking-talking slab of granite who thinks nothing of scraping off a man’s face like he’s wiping shit off his boot heel, but he’s presented as a thoroughly moral chap in a world of absolute bastards. He’s the stock crime fiction figure (the dumb lug, usually a boxer, with a heart of gold, forced to take a dive so the gangster can get rich) reworked as a fella being robbed of his self-respect by powers who treat him with nothing but contempt. Big mistake.
In just two films, Zahler has announced himself as the heir to hombres such as Samuel Fuller, Don Siegel and Sam Peckinpah. These master craftsmen took generic material and made it their own, delivering pulpy goodness with a sense of poetry. Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a requiem for the workingman, brilliantly crafted and suitably savage.
Martyn Conterio | @Cinemartyn