Venice 2017: 'Brawl in Cell Block 99' is Brutal, Slow Burn Satisfaction
by Alex Billington
September 2, 2017
This is not an action movie. Even though it has some very gritty, brutal action scenes, it is more of a thriller (or drama) than anything. That said, action fans should take an interest in this one anyway. Brawl in Cell Block 99 is the latest film from director S. Craig Zahler, of Bone Tomahawk previously, and he once again proves his prowess at delivering totally gnarly moments of violence. Zahler's Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a slow burn drama about a man and his wife, and the lengths he goes to protect her and raise a family safely in a nice house. It's kind of, sort of criticizing the American dream in a subtle way, but also glorifying a hero made of muscles who only says exactly what is necessary and never anything else. He is so fucking badass.
This stars Vince Vaughn as Bradley Thomas, a man with a sordid alcoholic past who has come clean. His wife is Lauren, played by Jennifer Carpenter, and when he loses his job towing trucks, he decides to go back to working as a drug runner. Everything is fine until one day he escorts two other thugs to a pickup for a new source of drugs. The cops show up, the deal goes bad, and he ends up in prison. Things get even worse when the cartel man behind it threatens his wife and kid - unless he hunts down and kills a man inside of cell block 99 in a maximum security prison. So, he takes on the challenge, beating up anyone and everyone to get deeper into the depths of the prison system so he can end this and save his family. Vaughn gives one of his best performances yet, understated yet powerful, unlike anything he has done before (in a good way).
Zahler is incredibly proficient at establishing a very slow, deliberate pace in Brawl in Cell Block 99 which might be annoying for those who just want the action (reminder: this is not an action movie) but is efficient for those who enjoy slow burn storytelling. It's that pacing that allows us to appreciate the small moments, the slow build up, and finally the pay off, where it all leads when he gets deep down to the bottom of it all. It's one of the most satisfying conclusions you'll see this year, but it wouldn't be that satisfying if it didn't allow us to soak up Vaughn's hulking presence and sparse dialogue. He's deliberate about what he says and does, using just as many punches and kicks as needed to take down a foe. This is what makes him so scary.
Pretty much the only noticeable "plot hole" problem in the film involves a cell phone being used deep down in the dingy depths of a prison. There's no way in hell it would have reception, yet it's used to make/receive calls like it's nothing. And yet, this never really bothered me, one tiny little moment that I could shrug off amidst the bigger picture story of a man who won't let anyone stop him from doing what he needs to do to save his family. He doesn't want to do anything he is doing, and really he wouldn't harm anyone if he didn't have to, but he has to - and that's one of the most important lessons in this film. It's a very simple, very pure film without much going on in the plot. Some viewers will probably find it boring, but others will be engaged by the over-saturated purity of this story of brutality. Vaughn's badass-ness is easily what hits the hardest.
Alex's Venice 2017 Rating: 8 out of 10
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