'Brawl in Cell Block 99'
‘Brawl in Cell Block 99’ is a mean and nasty movie that sneaks up on audiences. It’s not immediately clear where this dark odyssey is headed or how bleak and violent it will get. Writer/director S. Craig Zahler confirms that his debut ‘Bone Tomahawk’ was no fluke. He’s clearly a special filmmaker for those who enjoy the dark and disturbing side of cinema, and he’s only getting better at what he does.
Of all people, Vince Vaughn stars in this thoroughly rough and disturbing tale. He’s not in fast-talking Vaughn mode, here playing a down on his luck Southerner (though he does dole out plenty of deadpan comedy). After several unfortunate setbacks in the same day, Bradley Thomas (Vaughn) decides to take a job from his drug lord friend to support himself and his pregnant wife (Jennifer Carpenter). Flash-forward 18 months and they’re doing damn well financially. Bradley is one of the most trusted associates and his boss appreciates him so much that he’s assigned to supervise a big dropoff that could expand the business. Of course, it all goes wrong and Bradley finds himself in jail. Then, on the first day of his incarceration, he’s called down for a meeting with someone who presents himself as his wife’s doctor. It’s actually Udo Kier, whose mere presence guarantees that this story is off to dark places.
Much like ‘Bone Tomahawk’, Zahler takes his time to establish a world just slightly outside reality. It feels like our own world, but everything is slightly off. We’re endeared to the characters and care about their plight. Then everything goes to hell. It would be unfair to give anything away about ‘Brawl in Cell Block 99’ because of how exquisitely and unpredictably it falls into darkness, but this movie goes to wild places. It feels like a decent into hell, each scene growing darker and bending reality slightly. It’s never fully surrealist, but it certainly plays like a nightmare. Casting is generally against type and it works. It’s tough to look at either Vince Vaughn or Don Johnson the same way by the time the credits roll, though both prove that they’re damn fine actors nonetheless.
Viewers who fall in love with the strange rhythms of the first 2/3s of the movie might be the least prepared for where the filmmaker is taking them, while many gorehounds will feel their patience strained while waiting for the good stuff. It’s an art house exploitation movie, more streamlined than ‘Bone Tomahawk’ yet equally vicious. Zahler is an exciting new voice who will speak well to the cinematically depraved. Buckle up for this one if you fall into that group. You’re in for a rough ride.