Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2017)

*. Can we say there’s a typical S. Craig Zahler movie? He does have a signature style, characterized mainly by a willingness to move at a deliberate pace and stick for long takes with particular compositions that catch his eye. More than that, however, there are thematic resemblances that tie major films like Bone Tomahawk, Brawl in Cell Block 99, and Dragged Across Concrete together.
*. At the core of every story we have the very violent Zahler hero, a powerful and morally ambiguous figure who has to take on a figure of unbelievable depravity and evil. He wins, in the sense that he kills the bad guy, but he also loses in that he dies. He’s a kind of sacrificial figure who must make the supreme sacrifice. Is there any special meaning behind Bradley’s bloody hands and feet in this film? I’m sure there is.
*. Why must the hero fight this battle? To defend, or at least provide for his woman/family. Zahler takes a pretty simplistic attitude toward these things. A man’s a man and what a man does is protect his family. I sometimes hear Zahler praised for his strong women, but they all just seem like ploys for the audience’s sympathy to me. Yes, Lauren Thomas gets to be a bad ass in the final minutes here, but she quickly relapses into being the expectant mother of Bradley’s child, jerking more tears.

*. Prison films aren’t my favourite genre. I think this one works pretty well not by upending conventions but by pushing them to an extreme. Brawl in Cell Block 99 is one of the most brutal movies I’ve ever seen. Vince Vaughn is a big guy and he uses his physical presence well. He even beats the shit out of a car to start things off, just to set the tone. The fights are impressive, and I say that as someone who isn’t easily impressed by movie fights. The movements are slow but weighty, and you can almost feel the impact at times. The broken bones (and there are many) are just the cherries on top.
*. Aside from the brutality there isn’t much else going on here. The plot is fanciful. I never felt Redleaf was a real prison. It’s a medieval dungeon, with the requisite black-clad guards and a sadistic warden (name of Tuggs, played by Don Johnson). I wasn’t sure what the drug kingpin was up to, or why he was bothering with such an elaborate and protracted revenge. But then I don’t think Zahler is interested much in plot beyond setting up the basic elements he needs to introduce his violent, lawless universe.
*. Simplicity, even when drawn out over two hours and taken to brutal extremes, can be effective. It’s hard to complain about details when a movie takes you by the throat. This is Zahler’s method and so far it’s worked. One gets the feeling, however, that like any creator who pushes the limits he may be bumping up against his ceiling. I like his stuff, and this film in particular I would rate his best work, but I also have the sense that he’s pretty much shown us all he’s got.

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