LFF 2017: Brawl in Cell Block 99 Review
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Brawl in Cell Block 99 opens with a scene that perfectly captures its main character’s internal, all-consuming rage, Bradley (Vince Vaughn) smashing up a car with his bare hands like he’s playing a real-life bonus round of Street Fighter. What we don’t expect after this is for him to calmly walk into his small, badly-decorated house to open up to his wife (Jennifer Carpenter) about their problems. He’s just lost his job, she’s been cheating on him, and their life isn’t the most extravagant, but he vows from that moment on to make things right for both of them.
It’s an unusual opening, made all the more bizarre for this impulsive outburst of anger and destruction happening amongst the quiet suburban setting. Yet it’s something that basically encapsulates the whole essence of S. Craig Zahler’s film, which revels in these quiet moments before the storm. Like his previous film, Bone Tomahawk (2015), the writer-director creates a sickening tension that builds across scenes, waiting for just the right time to let it suddenly explode in the worst possible way. It is gripping to watch, and a method that also reflects the complicated man at the centre of the story – a towering 6 foot beast whose shaved head makes him look even more like a killing machine, but who is otherwise a gentle soul only looking out for his wife and unborn child. It is only when he falls into trouble with the law that he finds his rage is all he has to protect them.
While Bone Tomahawk merged Western and horror genres, Zahler here mixes shades of crime drama and revenge thriller to great and intriguing effect. He sets out the usual tropes, building them up and following the rules for the most part, yet also twists them in new and unusual ways. The result is a film that is utterly unpredictable and strangely mesmerising to watch, its slow pace and heavy dialogue-filled scenes only adding to the weird fascination of it all. This blend of genres is made even more unsettling by Zahler’s use of humour which seems out of place alongside the film’s dark subject matter – something he uses to lure us into a false sense of security about what is about to happen, and which adds to the almost grindhouse style of the overall film.
Yet it is particularly disturbing when the humour happens in moments of pure OTT violence, the nervous laughter that escapes you at total odds with what is onscreen. And boy, does he let rip in this department. Bones crack, blood spurts, heads are stomped and smashed – basically anything goes. It is impressively macabre and strangely engrossing, even as we are wincing in our seats. However, while Bone Tomahawk for the most part held back on the gore until the final, horrific scenes, Zahler relies too much on the shock of the violence to keep Brawl... going. While it is darkly thrilling to see him invent new ways for Bradley to dispatch with enemies, the overuse of it here means that it can often get tiring, particularly towards the final, bloody showdown. After all, once you’ve seen a few heads being smashed to mush, you’ve seen it all.
The brutality of Brawl... also loses its full impact at times because we don’t really care what happens to any of its main characters. Sure, Bradley is a gentle and loving man to his wife, but why should we invest in someone who makes a living from drug running, even if he does have a code of honour? While Vince Vaughn’s performance certainly makes the two conflicting sides of Bradley’s persona (the calmness and the rage) work, he doesn’t always sell the character as a realistic or compelling person. He impresses in the gory moments, yet the quieter, longer dialogues are often lost, especially when he’s playing against someone like the brilliantly loathsome Don Johnson. A speech Bradley gives his wife about how he never gets what he wants in life particularly falls flat, Vaughn unable to draw the poignancy the scene needs and leaving it sadly sounding sort of ridiculous. Yet a later moment that sees Bradley completely worn out by all he’s had to do to protect his family is surprisingly impressive, Vaughn uttering a barely audible “sorry” to heartbreaking effect – probably one of the few times we really do sympathise with him. Had his performance been more measured throughout, this could have been a mighty, engaging film, instead of something that often relies on the shock of seeing someone well-known for comedy roles playing against type.
There is still plenty to like about Brawl though, a film that is impressive alone for its determination to not be put in one single, easily definable category. The violence will be too much for some (it even made a seasoned gore-lover like me cover my eyes), yet it is beyond this that Zahler’s film really works – in the tight, punchy dialogue, the dark and uneasy humour, and the painful silences that he expertly pushes to breaking point. And as a continuation of Bone Tomahawk’s look at masculinity under threat, it is an intriguing film which leaves you questioning if there is ever any justification in violence.