At the end of Brawl in Cell Block 99, Vince Vaughn fights a bunch of guards and inmates.
I know what you’re thinking. The movie’s called Brawl in Cell Block 99, right? What else could happen in it?
Not much, frankly. But about an hour into the movie, you might be wondering if the title is ironic.
As with his previous film, the Western Bone Tomahawk, writer/director S. Craig Zahler tells a genre story that focuses more on the spaces between conventional beats than on the beats themselves. Favoring long takes of actors in medium shots, with no score and very little dialogue, Zahler makes the absurd mundane, thus heightening the brutality of those exploitation standards. He never allows Brawl to transcend the genre – it is, unapologetically, a viscerally disturbing prison picture – but he does tell it with more nuance than other entries in the set.
Most of this nuance comes in the shading Zahler and Vaughn give protagonist Bradley Thomas. In nearly every way, Thomas is like any other hero in a prison movie : a fundamentally decent blue collar white man, whose bad luck and bad choices land him in jail, possessing tremendous strength but reluctant to use it. However, Zahler and Vaughn add depth to Thomas by visually demonstrating not only his barbarism and decency, but the thin line between those qualities.
These attributes appear in the first important scene of the film, when Thomas returns home from being laid off from work and harassed by street punks to learn that his wife (Jennifer Carpenter) has been unfaithful. Already, we know Thomas to be a man with tolerance for neither bs nor wasted words, communicating solely in declarations Vaughn barks in a surprisingly accurate Southern accent.
As Thomas processes the confession, Zahler switches to a handheld camera that stalks in low angles around Vaughn’s body, looking up at the creases on his forehead or the cross tattooed on the back of his bald head. With no hints of the chummy bros he usually plays, Vaughn’s side eye glances and hulking body work with the camera to communicate Thomas’s pent up power and rage, making us fear that his path to the titular cell block begins with his battered wife. Instead, Zahler gives us a long unbroken take of Thomas punching and dismantling his wife’s car, illustrating the strength in his hands and his principles.
The car punching scene allows Zahler to avoid the misogyny so common to exploitation stories, replacing it instead with something satisfyingly crude and comical. It’s all the more disappointing, then, when the main plot relies on usual imperiled wife tropes, justifying the violence Thomas visits on others by threatening an innocent woman. The movie does try to mitigate the misogyny by swapping the standard plot point with something more absurd – it’s not so much Thomas’s wife who’s threatened as it is the limbs of the unborn daughter she carries. But what we see on screen isn’t an endangered baby, it’s a woman bound and gagged.
This shortcoming is all the more disappointing because of how well Zahler pulls off the rest of the movie. He fills it with genre mainstays – including Udo Kier as a menacing gang operative, Don Johnson as a slimy warden, and Rob Morgan as a virtuous guard – and plenty of wince-inducing violence, and films it all with steady dispassion.
We get everything we’d expect from a movie called Brawl in Cell Block 99, including Vince Vaughn fighting guards and inmates, but none of it comes in a package we recognize.