Novelists-turned-filmmakers very rarely ever make two good movies in a row, especially if it’s their debut. A few choice names come to mind: Norman Mailer, for one. But hell, most of them rarely even make a second film: Look at Stephen King’s codification of cocaine psychosis, Maximum Overdrive, or Thomas McGuane’s only film, 92 in the Shade. Yet S. Craig Zahler seems dead-set on destroying all preconceptions about the skills of writers in the cinematic world.
His last film, the Kurt Russell-starring Horror-Western fusion Bone Tomahawk, melted faces at Fantastic Fest back when it premiered in 2015, and with good reason. That film was utterly horrific and lovely, a subversive tribute to the classic cowboy tales so many grew up with, though this one gave few fucks about its audiences’ abilities to handle what he was throwing at them. Sadly, it got kind of buried by a weird VOD rollout (though it is available to watch on Amazon Prime Video) and the release of Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, which starred Russell and roughly hit the streets at the same time. Now he’s back with a new feature, Brawl in Cell Block 99, which stars Vince Vaughn, and I can feel your eyebrows raising as I even type this sentence, but he’s fantastic in it. It is perhaps even more brutal and badass than his prior work, and may be the closest-to-the-truth exploitation film released since the end of the ’70s. It is, without a doubt, a fantastic fucking movie.
We open on what would appear to be the worst day of Bradley Thomas’s life. You see, Bradley (Vaughn) has just been fired from his job as a Repo Man, and has found out that his wife, Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter) has been cheating on him. He takes his aggression out on a car, of course, but instead of totally flying off the handle, he and his wife decide to give their marriage another go, and Bradley decides he needs to call on an old friend, Gil (Marc Blucas) for some work. Eighteen months later, the family’s living in a much nicer house, and Lauren’s pregnant, some 90 days away from her due date. All of this new domestic bliss is a direct effect of Bradley’s new job, drug running. His boss orders him to accompany a new business partner’s pair of hired goons to retrieve a shipment of meth, and, of course, every single thing that could go wrong goes wrong and the two men he’s paired with decide that they’d rather go out shooting. Bradley helps the cops take them out, but is booked and processed all the same. He’s sentenced to seven years in a minimum security prison, and frankly, it doesn’t seem that bad to him at first, aside from a pesky guard who wants him to join the prison’s boxing club. Zahler goes about the first act much in the same way that he did in his prior film — understated humor, a decent amount of empathy for his characters — though it’s focused on Vaughn in a way that wasn’t present in the ensemble-based Bone Tomahawk, and the actor’s most definitely up to the task of managing a lead role like this.
A day into his sentence, Bradley’s called to his case worker’s office and informed that his wife’s doctor is on his way to the prison to inform him about some complications involving her pregnancy. He’s shaken, and focused, but is ready for the worst, and Bradley’s shocked to discover that, instead of the doctor he’s familiar with, a tiny German fellow, only referred to in the credits as the Placid Man (a wonderfully creepy Udo Kier) is waiting for him. He’s a representative of the business parter, and he’s come to collect on the amount of potential profit lost on the deal, which numbers in the millions. It’s then that the Placid Man informs Bradley that his wife’s been kidnapped by the partner’s associates, and that they’ll do unspeakable things to her and his unborn child if he doesn’t comply with their orders. They want him to infiltrate another prison, this time a maximum security one, and murder an inmate that the man’s boss wants killed. He sits on Cell Block 99, and Bradley will have to go to hell and back in order to get there and save his wife.
Vaughn is fierce and oddly familiar here, cross tattooed on the back of his cue-ball head, and his performance evokes another Southern savant with the luck to be at a certain place in a certain time: Forrest Gump. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing; he’s a steady and intimidating presence, and his bon mots occasionally come to be more silly than substantial, which vibes well with the programming on display here (Gump’s luck, of course, was significantly better than Bradley’s ever is). Still, he’s a weirdly courageous and compelling leading man, and I say that as a person who’s often enjoyed his work in comedies even if they were significantly beneath his pay grade, and he’s absolute dynamite here. His likability will, of course, depend on your willingness to roll with Bradley’s actions, and I know plenty of people will abandon him right after the opening scene.
His “man with a code” nonsense, again, is a tired trope, but Zahler’s intensity offsets it from being totally uncomplicated. We see him compromised over and over again, until all talk of codes and means and morals are abandoned near the end. That is to say that I didn’t pick up on the same “white rage” vibes that others felt when watching this movie, and given the film’s ending and its final setting, a prison run by a fascistic Don Johnson, implies the perpetual cruelties of white supremacy, even if it isn’t necessarily a text on the current-day prison industrial complex.
It’s a bit of a fool’s errand to assign comparison to modern politics and signifiers (its gender politics, especially, are all sorts of fucked up), even though some undoubtedly will, mainly because it’s such a throwback that, barring a few different modern conveniences, Brawl in Cell Block 99 feels timeless. Zahler’s direction rolls well with that, for the most part — each of the fights is filmed as plainly as humanly possible, often in one take or less, and the only thing truly separating them from something you would have seen on network television in the ’60s or ’70s is that bone-crunching bloody brutality. It’s become Zahler’s trademark since Bone Tomahawk, to the point that rote genre exercises that transform into an orgy of blood and guts, like Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge last year, are frequently compared to that film’s aggressive change in tone. There’s less of that here, as the violence always lingers at the edges of the frame, but when it hits, right when Vaughn snaps the arm of a prison guard so that it protrudes right through the bone, you know that this isn’t going to end well at all. Those sequences are just utterly, brilliantly shocking in their effectiveness, and they’re perpetually fascinating, engaging and just downright fucking shocking that it’s hard not to be completely enthralling. It’s about as hard-hitting and nihilistic as one can be, even dealing with these hyper-stylized environments, and Zahler does a great job ensuring that each and every locale in the film feels suited for its action, especially in the finale, which features a descent into the Earth much like that in his previous film.
At two-hours-and-12-minutes, it’d seem to most that Brawl in Cell Block 99 might test their patience, and I can tell you for a fact that it’s not the case. It remains fascinating and deeply stirring from its start, a fact only amplified by the cool notes of the O’Jays’ ’70s-era soul soundtrack, and if you can vibe with it enough to put up with the fact that the titular Cell Block 99 doesn’t even show up until well past the 90-minute mark, you’re in for a genre delight in a fashion not seen since the 1970s. It’s true much of its content would have been rightfully laid to rest with its steely cynicism and painful nihilism with the rest of that era’s exploitation opuses, but Christ help me if it isn’t one of the most intense and oddly delightful films that you’ll see this year. It more than equals Bone Tomahawk, and will have you picking up bits of your goddamn skull off of the ground with how hard this motherfucker comes at you. Just be warned: It is most definitely not for the squeamish, but it may very well be one of the most consummately entertaining films of the year.