Perhaps it’s the promise of a ‘brawl’ in the film’s title? Or maybe it’s the sheer, immediately iconic, presence of a head-shaven and cruciform-tattooed Vince Vaughn in the barren wastelands of suburban America? Whatever the root, there’s something about the opening to S. Craig Zahler”s latest work that brims with the tension of suppressed fury from the off. With this broiling tone established, a glacial pace proves the perfect foil to one deeply grisly plot in an exploitation feature of consistently surprising empathy.
Vaughn plays Bradley Thomas, a Willy Loman-esque everyman in thrall of the so-called American dream, wishing for better and attempting to leave his alcoholic, drug-dealing past behind a start a family with his wife, Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter): ‘This won’t be forever, I promise’. Zahler’s very-Steinbeck premise opens with Bradley being laid off from his job, only to return home and learn that Lauren has been having an affair. His day has, like the initial shot of a crumpled can being throughly crushed by a car tire, descended from bad to worse but he takes it rather well on the whole, even eloquently – he sums up his circumstance as: ’south of okay, north of cancer’.
Bradley does forgive Lauren, making to start again, but only after he thoroughly rips apart and destroys her car with his bare hands. As a spectacle, the sequence inspires awe. As a pacing device, it is perfection. Confirming suspicions of Bradley surviving only on the maintenance of his internal rage, the scene enables Zahler to satiate any early desire for action that might come with this almost grindhouse torture-fest, whilst allowing the Bone Tomahawk director opportunity to devote the next hour to neat dialogue, atmosphere and often intolerable build up.
Eighteen months later and, to make ends meet, Bradley has returned to drug trafficking, whilst Lauren cradles a baby bump. Things go wrong when Bradley gets caught by ‘the pigs’ on a dodgy job with some Mexican cartel and winds up incarcerated and accepting of his guilt. Guided by his moral compass, Bradley is caught only after saving police lives and losing his client $3.2m in the process. These misguided actions set in motion a hostage-revenge plot that sees Bradley go against all he believes to literally beat his way to the grotty dungeons of the US penitentiary system at the torturous ‘prison within a prison’ Red Leaf and cell block 99.
If the first half of the film is a meticulously paced gritty ‘realist’ affair, it is in the second that the rope snaps to horrifying degrees. It’s a small mercy there is no glee here; no Tarantino-ish pleasure in Zahler’s approach to violence, which would surely have tipped the film over into untenable territories. Yes, every bone that is broken comes with a tremendous crunch, with one infliction so terrible that it is hard to imagine any viewer not gaping in shock, but none of it ever feels gratuitous. Pulling his camera back from the fighting and doing away with clichéd fast cuts (looking at you Ritchie), Zahler treats his action with impressive restraint.
Equally, wholly engaging throughout is a career-best Vaughn. Imposing as he is, at well over six foot, it is the level of control the erstwhile comedy-nut is able to display that maintains the stability of any slides to silliness. Exploitation may be the main event but poignancy wins out, such is the emotional resonance brought to the job by Vaughn. He’s genuinely – incredibly – heartbreaking.
A tough watch, Brawl in Cell Block 99 is unfailingly assured in its conviction. Not since the assassination of John Wick’s beagle has revenge felt so impactful.