The Brilliant Violence of “Brawl in Cell Block 99”

I had been meaning to watch Brawl in Cell Block 99 for awhile. Once I knew that it was from the director of Bone Tomahawk, I knew I had to see it.

I knew it would likely push my limits of what I could tolerate for onscreen violence. Like Tarantino following up Reservoir Dogs with Pulp Fiction, I knew the director had no choice but to prove the first film was no fluke.

Still, I was trepidatious about it. Something as memorable as Bone Tomahawk is hard to follow. The jarringly horrific as its ending makes one nervous to re-enter the thought process of the person who created it.

Regardless, once it appeared on Amazon Prime, I had to take the plunge. S. Craig Zahler had earned the opportunity to impress me again.

Time being a precious commodity, I decided I’d watch an hour of it then finish the rest the next night. Instead I wound up compelled to sacrifice sleep and finish the film. I know that sounds like an odd compliment, and it is. It’s a testament, though, to how entrancing I found this work.

Like Jazz

The entire film operates like jazz. What isn’t said is as important as what is spoken.

Zahler knows when to let a character speak with physicality and when to give them voice. He doesn’t force cool monologues where they don’t belong and, when a character makes a declaration, the words have great impact. Long takes allow you to study the character and imbue things with a realism that is missing from so many films that attempt to construct reality.

This gets to the true beauty of this work. Vince Vaughn’s performance as Bradley Thomas is an amazing testament to restraint and what happens when an actor physically inhabits their role completely. This is the same space as Charlize Theron’s performance as Aileen Wuornos in Monster. I lost Vince Vaughn in his portrayal and never saw anyone but Bradley.

It’s what makes the violence in this film truly jarring. Bradley’s restraint gives an intent to the violence. It’s executed with the unnerving dispassion of Hannibal Lecter as he was written in Thomas Harris’ books, or as Brian Cox displayed him in Manhunter. This is why these moments make you recoil in horror; you believe in them.

We see a violence that was was always within this man. His few words and stoic demeanor highlight his dedication to control; it’s counterbalanced with an earlier outburst that shows what an unrestrained Bradley could do.

As a result, the violence has an intent seriousness that elevate it past stylized cool. This is no John Wick with energetic takes of vengeful, audience-pleasing brutality. This is the violence of a film like Taxi Driver. It’s shocking partly because it’s not glamorous. It has the smack of horrific inevitability.

This stoic nature also makes the unguarded moments with his wife that much more resonant. When he has his stolen moments of happiness, we see someone who wants to hold onto them with everything he can. When those he loves are threatened, we understand he is channeling a lifetime of simmering resentment at a life that didn’t work out the way that, by the law of averages, should have had more happiness in it.

Who betrayed Bradley? Life? The American Dream? Himself? We’re left to debate the nature of the man in the wake of his decisions.

Vince Vaughn Jennifer Carpenter Brawl in Cell Block 99 Craigula.
The stoicism and violence underscore the desperation of a man who wants to hold onto the little happiness he finds.

The Right Way to Subvert Expectations

The film also plays with your expectations, and subverts them in intelligent ways. These are conventions broken with a purpose. The unexpected mercy he shows early in the film, when you expect his rage to overtake him is gut-wrenching and establishes so much later in the film. It would have been so easy to bring to life someone less human than Bradley Thomas.

There’s the feint of the expected prison-buddy dynamic as Bradley meets different characters on his journey. This entire story gear-shifts from domestic drama, to prison story, to brutal grindhouse fare effortlessly.

Udo Kier, Don Johnson, Dion Mucciacito, and Jennifer Carpenter give performances that thrill and captivate you. There’s not a wasted beat nor missed opportunity. The entire cast, even those I’m not naming, bring the story to life.

Yes, there’s still an appeal to the cinephile in search of a new sensation that will disturb and disrupt their thinking. But there’s a depth to the material that elevates and enhances it. This is a film that will stay with you, and you will think about it for days afterward.

I’ll leave you with this one warning. If you have a weak stomach or an aversion to realistic onscreen violence, then bring a pillow, a jacket, or a blindfold to cover your eyes at the right parts. The masterful sound design will still get to you, but you can at least choose whether you want the accompanying image.

As always, you can check out other movie reviews of mine at Letterboxd any time you like. You can even hear me babble about movies on one of the podcasts I do. Just look for “kesseljunkie” and you’ll find me!