Brawl In Cell Block 99 first published by Sight & Sound, January 2018
Review: “I’m not really interested in the economy,” says Bradley Thomas (Vince Vaughn) at the beginning of Brawl In Cell Block 99. Intercepted by his boss Dean in front of the car shop where he works, Bradley – who will come to be defined by his stoic resignation to harsh realities – is cutting short Dean’s excuses for laying him off, even if America’s downsized economy is, in a way, this film’s principal subtext, much as it was in David McKenzie’s neo-western Hell Or High Water (2016). Bradley, who has a poetic turn of phrase to match his brute strength, arrives home to discover that his wife Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter), still not over the trauma that a recent miscarriage has wrought on their marriage, has been having an affair. In a rage, he proceeds to take apart Lauren’s car with his bare, bleeding fists, before calmly entering their low-rent house (festooned with US flags) and announcing that they “should start again, try to have another baby”, and declaring that he is going to commence working again as bagman for drug dealer Gil (Marc Blucas) until they are back on their feet.
If this sequence shows Bradley at what we imagine is rock bottom, trying to claw his way out of a cyclical trap of addiction (both the Thomases are recovering alcoholics), exclusion and financial straits, the next time we see him, 18 months later, all his efforts working for Gil appear to have paid off. He is now living with Lauren in a much bigger home, she is pregnant again, and they are happy together just waiting for their child to arrive and their American dream of family and comfort to be fully realised. Yet the film’s title promises a certain prison-bound trajectory, and when Gil orders Bradley to work with two men in the employ of Gil’s new Mexican meth supplier Eleazar (Dion Mucciacito), he is soon in trouble with the law, and headed for a relatively brief stint (but long enough to ruin his relationship with his new daughter) in, well, not Cell Block 99, but a modern Medium Security Detention Centre. Eleazar’s reach is long, however, and when Lauren and their unborn baby come under serious threat, Bradley – undeniably a criminal, but also essentially a decent man with a “moral compass” – finds himself racing once more to the bottom, in a new hellhole where he must rely as much on the sheer physical violence that he has long since been suppressing as on his native wits.
Brawl in Cell Block 99 is the second feature to have been written and directed by S. Craig Zahler, and those who recall the grotesque body horror in the third act of his ‘weird western’ Bone Tomahawk (2015) will be expecting that this latest feature will somehow end not only in the titular Cell Block, but also in an explosion of visceral carnage. Zahler certainly does not disappoint, or hold back. For if Bradley has a crucifix prominently tattooed on the back of his shaven head, and enters prison with pierced hands and feet, then the way that he will eventually perform his ritual acts of worship – in what is a sort-of Christian parable of fall and redemptive self-sacrifice – is through the backs of other men’s skulls. The build-up to this transition is slow and deliberate. The film begins in a place of pure social realism, and then shifts to a contemporary prison setting that is no less realistic – but by the time Bradley has violently manipulated his way into Cell Block 99 of a different, maximum security/’minimum freedom’ facility, the film has crossed over to the realms of pure genre, complete with a sadistic warden (Don Johnson), a fixer played by king of Euro-exploitation Udo Kier, a kung fu-fighting goon (Jonathan Lee), an underground Korean abortionist (Tobee Paik), and ultra-gory slayings in a hidden “prison within the prison” that is also a torture chamber. Yet this entirely artificial, almost cartoonish world, recognisable only from other genre movies, is also a generic repetition of the same traps that have afflicted Bradley since the film’s beginning, right down to conspicuous verbatim iterations of several lines of dialogue. It is almost as though, no matter in which filmic vocabulary Bradley’s American nightmare is written, he can never escape the reality of the underlying economics, and his different, mostly downwardly-mobile misadventures are always just variations on the same themes of abandonment, hopelessness and resiliently rugged individualism.
Synopsis: New York. Bradley Thomas is downsized, and on the same day discovers his wife Lauren has been straying – a response to their deteriorating relationship in the aftermath of a miscarriage. Though angry, Bradley tells Lauren he wants to try again to make a family with her in a bigger house – but to do so he will have to return to being drug dealer Gil’s bagman.
18 months later, Bradley has achieved all this, and Lauren is pregnant. Gil has a new business partner Eleazar, and Bradley is required, reluctantly, to work alongside Eleazar’s hot-headed henchmen. When a drugs pick-up is raided, Bradley stops the henchmen killing policemen. Bradley’s refusal to name his associates earns him seven years at the Franklin R. James Detention Centre. A visiting ‘Placid Man’ informs Bradley he must kill one ‘Christopher Bridge’ in Cell Block 99 of the Redleaf maximum security prison, or the abducted Lauren and her unborn baby will be harmed. After hospitalising two guards, Bradley is transferred to Cell Block 12 of Redleaf, where his instigation of a yard brawl sees him moved to Cell Block 99. Brutalised there, he realises there is no Christopher Bridge, but only privileged inmate Eleazar, from the inside manipulating revenge for his financial loss and incarceration. Bradley overcomes his guards, kills Eleazar’s three henchmen and forces Eleazar to call the ‘Placid Man’ and have him release Lauren to Gil. Bradley kills Eleazar, and waits with resignation to be executed himself by the warden Tuggs.
© Anton Bitel