“You just lost your minimum freedom.”
If you didn’t think things could be worse than American History X’s curb stomp, I suggest turning back right now. Merely reading about S. Craig Zahler’s latest film will give you contact sickness. Brawl in Cell Block 99 will be remembered as one of the century’s most brutal films and violent films. It doesn’t work its way up to 11, it starts there and finds a new level exploitation films will aspire to.
Just don’t mistake Brawl as an exploitation film itself. Ultra-violence has a clear presence but its hardly the driving force, that starts and ends with Bradley Thomas (Vince Vaughn), a man of the utmost conviction and abides by a strict code of honor to protect his family.
That often involves breaking someone’s arm or dragging their face along the concrete (fittingly, Vaughn and Zahler just finished filming Dragged Across Concrete for 2018). They’re questionable actions for any sane audience but there’s a certain respect in Zahler’s world for a man that’s willing to battle hell to create a better life for his wife and daughter starting with taking a job with a drug dealer after losing his job at a car shop.
Most other writers and directors would take this plot point as a study of a struggling lower-middle class but Zahler makes it clear, Bradley doesn’t care about the economy. That’s the end of any commentary about American economics, the only important thing is moving on even after Bradley learns his wife Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter) has had an affair for three months.
Despite the infidelity, the two calmly reconcile and decide to have a baby again after a first having a miscarriage. Of course, that comes after Bradley rips apart Lauren’s car piece by piece, the first sign of his incredible strength and focused rage. But without a secure job for either, Bradley decides a job driving for his drug lord friend Gil (Marc Blucas) is the only course of action to be a proper provider.
He has a strict code he follows with any job, leaving guns and any chance at violence out of the picture, something his partners from a new cartel enthusiastically disobey once the police show up. Bradley could flee the scene scot free but rather than let any police die in a shootout, kills his partners, subsequently ending the deal.
Costing the ringleader Eleazar $3.2 million and spending seven years in prison after refusing to snitch, he’s given an ultimatum: Kill an inmate for Eleazar or else an abortionist will amputate Bradley’s unborn daughter’s limbs while still in the womb. Already knowing Bradley’s strong convictions to protect his family, he agrees without hesitation knowing he’ll have to go to the figurative hell known as Red Leaf prison and its hell within hell, Cell Block 99 where only pedophiles and rapists are held.
The only way to get there is to convince the wardens he’s psychotic. Solution? Kill or maim everyone around him to willingly work his way to Cell Block 99 run by the ruthless Warden Tuggs (Don Johnson).
For all its violence along the way, Cell Block is also devilishly funny just as it is brutal thanks to a fully committed cast. After receiving mixed reviews for his dramatic turn in True Detective, Vaughn is given a platform that sends him to a once in a lifetime performance. His comedic background makes for some brilliant moments with hard-hitting one-liners but still maintains an intimidation factor. He’s brilliantly cast as the not so gentle giant as is Johnson as the only character close to bringing Bradly down to size.
With a cast as strong as this, including a sinister Udo Kier as the devil’s messenger offering up one of evilest lines in film as placid as possible, it’s easy to let one of the most seen characters go unnoticed: The setting.
Cell Block could just as well be called Eiffel 65. It’s one of the bluest films ever made. Every frame is filled with shades of blue until Bradley’s transfer to the titular cell block which takes on an orange, hellish landscape opposed to the ethereal reality Bradley owns until that point. The production design is a true reflection and embodiment of the film itself, a tale of two opposing forces and right and wrong.
Some may find Zahler’s style to be a remix of Tarantino but he’s truly found his own voice QT should be jealous of.