Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2017)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Writer-director S. Craig Zahler has helmed yet another project so worthy of being seen due to its high entertainment value while telling a seemingly straightforward story of a six-foot-five former boxer (Vince Vaughn) recently laid off from his job as an auto-repairman who then makes the decision to become a drug runner in order to provide a better life for his wife (Jennifer Carpenter). Equipped with a wonderful ear for dialogue as it expertly employs pauses and extended silences to amp up the suspense, what results is a razor-sharp action-thriller that is certain to gain a cult following over the years.
I have never seen Vaughn deliver a performance in which he disappears into his character completely, not even in his prior dramatic roles. He plays a criminal named Bradley Thomas, but what makes the subject interesting is that he comes with a set of principles. And because we are given a chance to understand the reasons behind his actions, we become empathetic to his plight despite the fact that his business involves drugs. Bradley may come from the South, accent and all, and so it is easy to assume he is not intelligent, especially given the archetypes of action films. On the contrary, Bradley is smart, more than capable of thinking on his feet, and makes careful decisions when it really counts.
The skull-crunching, limb-bending, thumbs-pushed-inside-eye-sockets violence is ugly, beautiful, and satisfying. Those less experienced with watching extremely violent pictures are certain to flinch or look away for some seconds. The camera is not afraid to show how it is really like to break an arm or stomp on a head against a concrete floor. At times it goes for the gross close-up. Yet despite the level of brutality, it is beautiful because these moments are earned. We find satisfaction in them because the violence serves as catharsis rather than simply something that must occur for the sake of spraying blood or hearing screams of pain. In addition, from a technical standpoint, the fight scenes are impressive because they do not look stylized in any way. It adds to the gritty realism of the material.
The look of the picture commands attention because images are drenched in hues of dark blue. This is particularly effective during scenes between Bradley and his pregnant wife walking around their home after some financial success. Although it is supposed to be a happy time for them, we absorb the picture through a fog of blue. It creates a dead-cold feeling, creating a sense of foreboding that this story may not end the way we think. To establish excitement, a freshness, using such a color palette is impressive because such a strategy is often employed in thrillers by which filmmakers hope to put a filter between material and audience, occasionally a way to numb us from the experience. I enjoyed that Zahler is able to find a different way to use the technique.
“Brawl in Cell Block 99” offers an unrelenting sensory experience. The main character speaks only when necessary and when he does express his thoughts, he has a habit of generalizing, not because he is incapable but because time is valuable. He is a walking curiosity and we care for him to stick around so we can learn more about him. And so when injustice is done to him and those he cares about, we demand that it be corrected with utmost urgency. I admired this work’s wild and uncompromising approach.