S. Craig Zahler is an attention demanding director. The phenomenal 2015 genre mashup Bone Tomahawk marked his debut behind the camera, and with his newly released followup film, Brawl In Cell Block 99, Zahler has proven to be one of the most exciting filmmakers working today.
Brawl In Cell Block 99 stars Vince Vaughn, Jennifer Carpenter, Don Johnson and Tom Guiry, with Vaughn owning most of the screen time as Bradley (Not Brad) Thomas, a decent fella with an undercurrent of rage and violence. The film begins with Bradley being laid off from his towing job and taking on work as a drug dealer for a friend to make ends meet as he and his wife, Lauren (Carpenter), aim to resolve their troubled relationship and have a child together. Bradley works for 18 months, vastly improving the lives and financial situation of himself and a now pregnant Lauren. However, when a job goes south, he ends up with a seven year prison sentence. The plot developments that occur once he’s in prison, though, are not something I intend to spoil. Just know that you’re in for one hell of a stay.
Much like in Bone Tomahawk, Zahler takes his time telling Brawl In Cell Block 99‘s story. It’s a slow burn, but with the pieces constantly moving, it never once stalls. His direction is steady and assured, pulling no punches in the on-screen depiction of violence. I don’t want to sound as though brutality is all the film has to offer, as that would be a disservice to what Zahler has accomplished here. The story, atmosphere, and culmination of suppressed emotion among characters are all spectacular. These elements are not overshadowed by the shocking violence, but rather add an investing, fully-formed movie around what could have been a one-trick pony.
With that said, holy shit. Brawl In Cell Block 99 features some of the greatest moments of violence I’ve ever seen. In large part, the victims of that violence are deserving of it, so Zahler manages to make viewers, or at least me, cheer through genuine cringes. Bones snap, heads are smashed, and faces are blown off, but due to the career-best work of Vince Vaughn as the man dishing out the majority of that violence, it never feels gimmicky.
There are several great actors in Brawl In Cell Block 99, but Vince Vaughn is all you’ll be talking about. Bradley is a man with so much pent up pain and anger that he’s afraid of his own emotions and what allowing himself to feel could mean for everyone around him. He knows that he’s dangerous, so he suppresses every bit of that agony. He doesn’t want to hurt anyone, but when he’s forced to, the viewer gets the sense that the violence is therapeutic for Bradley. Vince Vaughn is a big guy, and though he’s always seemed lovable in films, he appears downright scary here, regardless of how well his intentions are. You believe that he’s capable of these things, and he sells each moment realistically, in regard to the violence itself AND the way that violence effects the character. There’s a particularly heartbreaking moment at the end of the film in which Bradley finally allows himself to feel and express emotion, and you buy so much into Vince Vaughn as this character that the moment of vulnerability couldn’t possibly be more powerful. This is a genre picture, so don’t expect awards, but Vaughn has turned in one of 2017’s greatest performances, and the best work of his entire career.
Brawl In Cell Block 99 is a brutally violent showcase for one of the greatest performances you’ll see this year. Vince Vaughn is surprisingly perfect playing against type, and S. Craig Zahler continues to be one of the freshest genre filmmakers working today. It’s one of the greatest films of 2017, and it absolutely shouldn’t be missed.