Brawl in Cell Block 99
Directed by: S. Craig Zahler
Written by: S. Craig Zahler
Starring: Vince Vaughn, Jennifer Carpenter, Don Johnson, Udo Kier, Marc Blucas, Dion Mucciacito, Geno Segers, Victor Almanzar
Reviewed by: Brad Williamson
Genre: Thriller / Drama
I knew nothing about this movie going into it other than that a few people whose opinions I trust had claimed it was a good film. I’m going to up that ante and label it as great. Here’s why:
Vince Vaughn provides the performance of his career, Don Johnson is the coolest he’s been in 20 years, and the supporting characters all deliver. The acting throughout this movie is perfect and even if everything else had failed would have been watchable simply because of the brilliant cast.
But it’s not just the actors and actresses; S. Craig Zahler gives them great lines and an even better all-around script. This shouldn’t be surprising coming from the multi-talented musician, author, and director, but what is surprising is just how well-rounded everything in the film is. The acting, writing, and direction all work together brilliantly and nearly every scene is a joy to watch.
The story is also interesting, powerful, and, most importantly, fresh. I’ve seen jailhouse films, revenge flicks, hostage movies, and ultra-violent fare, but I’ve never seen a production quite like Brawl. It’s not that it delivers all its tropes better than other movies; it’s how it seems to be creating tropes of its own even as the projector is still running.
It is undeniably a violent film, but the violence all makes a point. It also grows in tune with the story. It’s not there to shock or wow. As the climax of the plot and characters’ lives unfolds, so too does the brutality escalate, functioning not as a mere fetish but actually elevating the themes of savagery and sacrifice inherent throughout the film. You see bits and pieces of these motifs from the very beginning, but they’re fed to you slowly, so that by the end when the gore arrives, it’s satisfying not because you want to see the blood and broken bones but because those things are necessary for this story to be told. In this way Zahler is able to use some very overt, graphic scenes to convey unbelievably subtle messages that attentive viewers can only fully appreciate in juxtaposition with each other.
Brawl even has time to throw in a couple small mysteries and plot twists. Although they’re small, they add to the style and flow of the film without diverting attention. The movie becomes more complex following these additions, which lead to a spectacular ending. Though the final scene is good in its own right, the conclusion is so great because it’s more about how the story arrives where it does instead of merely where it ultimately arrives.