Brawl in Cell Block 99 Screen 14 articles

Brawl in Cell Block 99


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  • The picture really moves into another dimension, one of spectacular violence among other things, when Udo Kier shows up. Those of you who know the German actor know he’s not the kind of guy who generally shows up in a Vince Vaughn movie. It’s weird. On purpose. Like “The Bad Batch,” which played at Venice last year, this is an American film that’s daring in potentially alienating ways. I was not alienated myself but rather disturbed and delighted, and rather in awe of many of its features.

  • Brawl is lighter on overall dialogue than Tomahawk, but what’s there is still a pleasure to process... The film’s delight in its face-crushing makes any over-serious considerations pretty unproductive-seeming: the unrepentantly pulpy throw-downs, in keeping with the unpretentious promise of its title, do not particularly interested in the demographic politics of those involved.

  • Was Vince Vaughn the Owen Wilson to Jon Favreau’s Wes Anderson? As woebegone drug runner Bradley Thomas, Vaughn delivers a rock-solid command lead in S. Craig Zahler’s Brawl in Cell Block 99 that carries the raggedy mantle of Nolte, Kristofferson, Bronson, McQueen, etc. It’s a film that makes it easy to remember why Vaughn was a major talent... For all the success of this execution, Brawl can’t help but resemble too many older and better movies.

  • In taking Bradley from driving a tow truck to crushing skulls in an off-the-books torture chamber, Zahler paces each stage with the precision of Matthew Barney scaling the Guggenheim in Cremaster 3. But this film is really about the writing, and unlike a certain postmodern genre-hustler (we'll call him Fenton Blarantino), who can't resist making every single character a hyper-articulate wiseass, Zahler keeps his bon mots almost exclusively in Bradley's mouth.

  • Zahler commits to the nasty material, and by the time bodies and spirits are broken, the carnage and nihilism feels inevitable, rather than gimcrack or forced—a rancorous culmination brought on by unfortunate events and dire circumstances. As a piece of exploitation trash, the film is something to behold—and to flinch away from.

  • The opening act isn't especially evocative for me, but praises to the rest. From the start, it's clear Zahler has a knack for picking the perfect corner of a room to perch his camera, with brightly nihilistic streams of light raging through his moody interiors to match. But the writing doesn't live up to the images, and the set-up feels a little too fussed-over for a dilemma that I think we'd implicitly understand given the genre.

  • A far less nuanced prison drama comes in the form of S. Craig Zahler’s mean-spirited Brawl in Cell Block 99 – a pure genre exercise that touts little external meaning. Its bone-crunching, skull-bashing violence is likely to provoke a love/hate reaction, as was the case with Zahler’s previous film, horror-western Bone Tomahawk... It’s incredibly good fun – and sure to make a few hand-wringers uncomfortable.

  • The smooshed faces, exposed bone and constant one-gruesome-shot-more-than-we-were-expecting brutality of these moments are what will bring all the boys to the prison yard, and they do not disappoint. But it’s Vaughn’s caged-beast charisma (that bounces off the screen long before he is actually caged) and way with a wink or a pithy putdown that keeps us riveted through the substantial sections of the film where heads remain, for the time being, unstomped.

  • Eschewing the fast cutting and jittery visuals in vogue among Hollywood action-directors, Zahler and cinematographer Greg D’Auria instead prefer to present their numerous instances of bone-crunching, skull-stomping action via fixed-camera, widescreen tableaux – all the better to showcase the wince-inducing verisimilitude of fight-arranger Drew Leary’s lethal choreography.

  • In terms of composition and choreography, Brawl is masterful, and it’s also got some sharp, edgy ideas concealed underneath its pitilessly hard surfaces. Not only does Zahler take pains to dramatize the socioeconomic roots of Bradley’s anger, he also gets in a few well-placed digs at the American military-industrial complex, albeit in a way that evacuates the topic of race in favor of a more general attack on institutionalized brutality.

  • It seems perverse to place the barbarous pulp of Brawl in Cell Block 99 alongside the grave contemplation of First Reformed and Zama, yet S. Craig Zahler’s follow-up to his western-horror Bone Tomahawk displays a no less lucid and rigorous vision of hell than those films... It’s a clenched-fist apocalypse, but it earns its blunt shocks with a patient buildup brimming with scrupulous detail and, bizarrely, poignancy.

  • Like Aronofsky but on a far smaller scale, Zahler maintains an unexpected formal control that pushes ludicrous material into the realm of pleasing cinematic frenzy (aside, of course, from the sleep-walking runtime [a midnight screening].

  • The title is pure grindhouse, but “Brawl in Cell Block 99” reaches some distance beyond simple prison-movie exploitation. For one thing, the buildup is so grippingly patient that we’re more than halfway through before the titular battleground is reached. And for another, this painstakingly paced thriller displays an intensity of purpose that makes it impossible to dismiss as well-executed trash.

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    Film Comment: Giulia D'Agnolo Vallan
    January 03, 2018 | January/February 2018 Issue (p. 75)

    A study in stylistic purity and stoic love disguised as a grindhouse jail melodrama, with heads crushed like cockroaches and Don Johnson's prison warden in charge of the last circle of hell, Brawl in Cell Block 99 proves that writer-director S. Craig Zahler is one of the most original talents around. A self-professed metalhead, whose artistic output also includes some good novels, Zahler handles gore and the dramatic arc of his characters with the pace of a classisist—dry, slow, and precise.

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