31 October 2017

Brawl in Cell Block 99 review

From the very opening scene of writer/director S. Craig Zahler's Brawl in Cell Block 99, we understand that main character Bradley Thomas is a man of barely tempered rage. A slab of meat 6'5" tall, he seems to be just one annoyance too many away from seriously messing somebody up, and while he's clearly self-aware enough to try to keep his temper under control, it's a silent, ever-present threat whenever he's on-screen. He's effectively a ticking time bomb - how long can it possibly be before he explodes? And which of these people is going to be the one that finally pushes him over the edge?

It's these questions and the sense of anticipation they create that keeps Brawl in Cell Block 99 engaging throughout, which (as with last year's Bone Tomahawk) Zahler is completely uninterested in rushing. It takes a long time before Bradley reaches the titular Cell Block 99 - the rest of the film (by which I mean the vast majority of it) is spent following Bradley as he moves from car mechanic to drug mule to convict, allowing us plenty of time to become well-acquainted with Bradley and see that he isn't just the intimidating, rage-fuelled psychopath he first appears to be but a flawed, caring human being who is aware of his shortcomings and trying his hardest to make up for them. It may be a gritty, grimy exploitation flick at heart, but it also quite clearly has an interest in its characters beyond just how much misery it can put them through, and that helps elevate Brawl in Cell Block 99 above films of a similar nature without forcing it to pull its punches later on.

Which is a good job too, because after two movies it's clear that it just wouldn't be a Zahler film if a single punch was even slightly pulled. Despite its evocative title, there isn't actually all that much action in Brawl in Cell Block 99 - but what little we do get is so uncompromisingly brutal that it ends up dominating the rest of the film entirely. While there isn't anything that comes close to being quite as harrowing as that particular scene in Bone Tomahawk, it's still quite easily the most viscerally uncomfortable film you're going to see this year - there are shots and maybe more importantly sounds in Brawl in Cell Block 99 that I fear I may never be able to forget, the kind of stuff that randomly pops back into your head and makes you feel nauseous days later.

That none of this extremely gruesome and gritty film seems at odds with the fact that Vince Vaughn of all people is playing Bradley Thomas is itself a testament to how good his performance actually is. While he never quite manages to fully shed the mid-to-late 00's comedy/rom-com persona that I most associate him with (come the end of the film, I was still very aware that I was watching the guy from DodgeBall: A True Underdog Story beat people to death), it still offers more than enough proof that he can really act when given the chance, as well as being able to genuinely sell some pretty physically involving fight scenes. The one bone I have to pick with his performance is that other than one scene near the start of the film, we never really see him lose his cool - even at the very end of Brawl in Cell Block 99 when he's fighting quite literally for his life, he seems calm and collected in a way that I can't help but feel is at odds with where his character should have been in the story at that point. It's ironic, really - the subtle, understated, quiet nature of his performance is what make it great, but the film itself would at points have benefited from something a little broader, a little more obvious.

But that's a small complaint, one that's hard to hold against the film too much. The only real problem I have with Brawl in Cell Block 99 is that when all is said and done, I can't help but compare it to Bone Tomahawk, and the result does Zahler's latest no favours - I'd wager that if someone watched both of his films for the first time without knowing much about them beyond that they share a director, they'd leave under the impression that it is Brawl in Cell Block 99, not Bone Tomahawk, that was his directorial debut. Brawl in Cell Block 99 simply feels like a more amateur production in almost every respect, whether that be in the direction, the cinematography, the production values or even, disappointingly, the quality of the writing - which isn't to say that any of these things are outright bad in Brawl in Cell Block 99, but merely that they're each definitely a step down from that in Bone Tomahawk, which makes for a less well-refined experience overall. What I wanted from Brawl in Cell Block 99 was Zahler's Pulp Fiction, a film that expands upon the unique sensibilities and styling of his previous work while making huge leaps and bounds in his actual ability - instead it's his Snatch, a film so similar to his debut that you have to wonder just how much else he has to offer.

And while that's a touch disappointing (especially as someone who was watching Zahler with a great amount of interest after Bone Tomahawk), it ultimately does little to stop Brawl in Cell Block 99 from being an engaging, interesting movie, one that I'd recommend to anyone who thinks they've got both the patience and the stomach for it. It's too small, too atypical, too different from what people expect from films in general to ever find a large audience - but like Bone Tomahawk, it's almost destined for cult classic status, and as long as that's enough for Zahler to keep making more movies, then I can't complain.

4 stars

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