Brawl in Cell Block 99 – 2017

Written and Directed by S. Craig Zahler
Starring Vince Vaughn, Jennifer Carpenter, Don Johnson, Udo Kier, Marc Blucas, Tom Guiry

I am such a fan of Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk that I bought this film off of VUDU as it was released. While it’s not quite the epic that his first directing effort was, it will no doubt satisfy those who thoroughly enjoyed its carnage. While the first film brought several characters along for a doomed ride, this one travels light and carries a heavy punch.

Vaughn is Bradley Thomas, whose life took a turn that is just “north of cancer.” He brings bad news home, just to find that his wife has been seeing someone. After he tells her to go inside, he performs a thoroughly shocking devastation on an inanimate object. He then goes in and has a calm, yet life changing conversation.

A year later, he’s driving nicer cars and living in a much better house. His wife is late in her term on their second attempt at a child. This one’s going to take. The reason for his turn of fortune is about to take its pound of flesh, however.

He ends up in prison and where it goes from there I will leave for you to discover. Needless to say, his luck never turns warm, much less hot. On the other hand, where he’s going, he doesn’t rely on luck.

The brutality of this film almost demands that it be seen with friends who enjoy being shocked. There has not been this kind of mutilation in a film with this kind of acting in my life of watching film. The real prize is Vaughn, who shows complete trust in the words and storytelling of the writer and director.

The gifts of Zahler is in his ability to write words that real people speak while making a story move along to places that we want to follow. While his path here is not quite as eloquent as Bone Tomahawk’s journey, it is no less deliberate and unforgiving.

The acting of the husband and wife (Carpenter) are at once primal and incredibly tender. His feelings for her and their unborn child are unquestionable. And she understands her man at least as well as he knows himself.

In an age where abuses are becoming more public, there is a temptation to over dramatize the fear that a brutal man could instill. Carpenter and Vaughn show us a couple that, while nowhere near perfect, have perceptive abilities that remind us of their humanity.

The acting in the prison(s) vary from person to person. There are some good performances mixed in with the bad. Anyone who thinks Don Johnson adds to the mix will find it hard not to laugh when comparing his abilities to Vaughn. It’s almost like Johnson didn’t know how to translate A level writing talent. To be fair, it’s not the usual writing one might expect for Grindhouse.

That this is not a great film is mainly due to the fact that I don’t think Zahler intends it to be. He needs to get from Point A to Point E and he doesn’t bother shading in the lines beyond those that our leads provide. All he wants is to show Bradley Thomas is a good man who owns up to his bad decisions. While doing so, he mercilessly moves from station to station, adding nuance that the story almost doesn’t deserve.

If you are expecting blood, gore and crunch, you will get this with Brawl in Cell Block 99. The powerfully great performance by Vaughn is a bonus.

(***1/2 out of *****)

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