Brilliance emanates out of virtually every frame in S. Craig Zahler’s Brawl in Cell Block 99. That might sound silly, but I use the word advisedly. “Brilliance” might be the only appropriate descriptor for the directorial quality of this film; One Perfect Shot could easily fill the next six months exclusively tweeting still images from Zahler’s second feature. But it’s not just the gobsmacking visual direction and cinematography that here qualifies as brilliant direction. No, Vince Vaughn’s shocking knock-out of a performance must be attributed in large part to Zahler’s direction as well. Vaughn has long wanted to leave behind his Dodgeball days as an exclusively comedic actor, constantly positioning himself as the next comedy star to break out as a *cough cough* serious dramatic actor à la Steve Carell in Foxcatcher or BoJack Horseman in Secretariat. As of yet, it hasn’t stuck — his most high-profile dramatic role was in the second season of True Detective, a season of television that, as I understand it, has been pushed into extinction by popular demand. But Zahler — Zahler has managed to extract such a fantastic movie-star performance out of Vaughn; a performance which, if everything is right in the world, will open a heckuva lot of doors for Vaughn in the dramatic realm going forward. (Vaughn is actually starring in Zahler’s next picture, the delicately titled Dragged Across Concrete, which has me crossing my fingers for a long-lasting actor-director relationship to bring the world insane depictions of troubled men seeking revenge in horrific circumstances for years to come.)
Brawl in Cell Block 99 centers on Bradley Thomas (Vaughn), a hulking brute of a man with a heart of gold. In what is ultimately just a prelude, Bradley discovers that his wife has been unfaithful. Here, we get to witness Bradley’s wrath at the height of his anger, as he tears his wife’s car apart with his bare hands. But when he confronts his wife in person, his anger is neatly bottled up; all he wants to do is calmly discuss the state of their relationship. The only evidence of his tumultuous, emotional state is the bloody mess he’s made of his hands by taking his frustration out on that car. This is a man with dangerous anger issues, but one who has taken responsibility and genuinely learned how to control his worst impulses.
In the process of making up with his wife (played compellingly by Dexter’s Jennifer Carpenter), Bradley gets her pregnant. Months later, he decides to run drugs for an old boss of his, so as to save up some cash for the birth of his daughter. Needless to say, things go south, and Bradley endsup in jail.
Here endeth all spoilers for Brawl in Cell Block 99. I don’t want to ruin a second more of the viewing experience than absolutely necessary — you should really, really really really, experience it for yourself.
What follows is an action-revenge tale so bloody and emotionally draining that it reminded me primarily of Oldboy, with a touch of Kill Bill thrown in for decorative purposes. It’s incredibly stylish; the images that Zahler manages to create with minimal lighting and what I imagine to be a tiny budget are astounding. There’s a shot in which Bradley is sitting up in his dark cell, in the middle of the night, eating a candy bar, while the ambient sounds of the prison at night reverberate around him. It took my breath away. You’ve got to see it for yourself.
The real action-movie element of Brawl in Cell Block 99 kicks in about halfway through the film, and from that point on Vaughn demonstrates a sheer brutality that would seem unimaginable coming from him, to any fan who had not yet seen his performance in this movie. And it’s not Taken, either, Zahler doesn’t edit the shit out of the hand-to-hand combat scenes, he lets the camera linger as Bradley brutalizes guard after guard and inmate after inmate.
I won’t spoil exactly what it is that motivates Bradley to walk the deadly path of revenge, but suffice it to say that it is daunting, draining, horrifying. The things he is threatened with in this film are things that I have never heard a movie villain so much as hint at before. It’s not an easy film to watch (and that’s possibly the most egregious understatement I have ever written into a film review) but it is rewarding, engaging, and ultimately, entirely cathartic.