Review: Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2018) – The Strong Silent Type

Vince Vaughn in Brawl in Cell Block 99

Coming off a strong opening picture, Director S Craig Zahler follows up Bone Tomahawk with a less talkative picture but one equally as concerned with the human condition and how far people can be pushed before we push back, and push hard. While Tomahawk used ultra-violence to remind us of the differences between people, the wild and the civilised, here Zahler has crafted a story around morality and the violence here shows that and then some.

Telling the story of career criminal Bradley (Vince Vaughn), who after facing the possibility of losing his wife and the love he has for her decides to return to his life running drugs. When a job goes sideways and he ends up serving time he must decide between his own morality, his family and his own future when he is pushed to the edge and asked to find a way to Cell Block 99 and kill a man he has never met.

While containing some similar artistic quirks as Tomahawk, Brawl proves to be a different beast entirely. While it has a similar tone and a familiar cadence the dialogue lacks any lasting effect. Zahler still has a unique and floral writing style but here the dialogue is more ephemeral, it doesn’t last or add much meaning to these characters lives. While Tomahawk built its characters up in how they spoke, how they put across their differing ideas of masculinity, here Bradley and co don’t have very much to say despite saying a lot. Their lines build atmosphere, not fleshed out people.

If anything, Brawl is far more effective at building character through its use of bone chilling excess. A film that discusses the similarities between love and hate and how the rage that comes from these two emotions can be remarkably similar, every snapping bone or gush of blood signifies an act of pure loathing or a passionate declaration. The desensitised nature of the acts we are shown gives us insight into the compartmentalised personality of Bradley and it all comes to glorious light, thanks to a killer performance by Vince Vaughn.

Despite being stuck with an overly excessive number of lumbering monologues, Vaughn makes Bradley’s struggles feel like the odyssey of a man finding his soul, his emotions through the passion of the horrible actions he takes. Bristling with tension and unstated anger this might seem like a film about losing yourself to an increasingly unimpressed and unsympathetic world but in Zahler and Vaughn’s hands it is a quintessential love story. It has a strong pumping romantic heart if you can make it past Bradley’s closed off defences you are witness to an old soul, one that is constantly in his own head but always thinking of those around him.

A slow, sombre first act brews into a dark and lively, carnage filled finale where the rules of Bradley’s world go out the window and a new normal develops, one of B movie murder and destruction, where nothing really makes sense unless you make it. It is in these contradictory spaces that Vaughn does his best work. The middle chapter although trying to say something about prison life and the reform it so desperately needs doesn’t really settle on what that change is or what it wants to say. In the end it says very little and damages the tempo of a film that seems intent on building tension but throws it away due to a listless middle.

Zahler has crafted a film that peaks and troughs in equal measure but he crafts a story that understands that the world his characters, and us by extension, live in a world that isn’t fair. We arent owed anything from it and at times its out to get us. Bradley has a morality that at times doesn’t mesh with the world he is thrown into and while hatred and pure evil tries to change him he pushes against it. While this is a love story it is in equal measure, a morality play and a damn good one at that,

While it might meander and say a little less than his opening salvo, Zahler has become one of the most original filmmakers around today and Brawl is no different. It might not be real, it might lack the same shock factor that made Bone Tomahawk so surprising but in a way it has so much more to say, it just struggles to find a language in which to say it.


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