With his first movie, Bone Tomahawk, director S. Craig Zahler made a name for himself, creating a compelling vision of the Old West before turning his True Grit-flavor abruptly into brutal and violent horror. It was a movie I liked a lot, even if at times I made the comment that it felt a little overlong and shaggy at times. And, to be sure, the comment could easily be made that the film feels intentionally disjointed and disconnected, but it still makes for an odd viewing experience.
But with his second film, Brawl in Cell Block 99, Zahler makes a huge step forward, creating something tonally unified, unfiltered, and absolutely effective. It’s unmistakably a 1970’s grindhouse revenge film tribute, but one that makes use of Zahler’s willingness to take his time in his films, letting the characters develop to make the payoffs all the more effective. And please trust me when I tell you that the payoffs here are effective – but they are also brutal. At times, this makes the violence of Bone Tomahawk seem like a dry run; it’s shocking, horrifying, and undeniably disturbing.
But that’s fitting for Brawl, which takes the form of a 1970’s revenge film, more or less. It’s the tale of Bradley (Vince Vaughn), a man trying to get his life on track, but struggling to stay employed. Through a complicated set of circumstances, Bradley finds himself going to a minimum security prison, when something happens that changes his whole plan. (If it sounds like I’m being vague, that’s intentional; while this isn’t a plot heavy film, it’s best enjoyed relatively cold, to savor Zahler’s brutal and unexpected machinations.) That, of course, leads to the titular brawl…which lives up to expectations and then some.
But as much as the film’s violence is effective, jarring, and nightmarish, what lingers more than anything else is the mood of the film, which gives even the happiest scenes a feeling of dread and inevitability, and makes the film’s slow progression to its looming conclusion all the more intense. From the blue-tinted lens work to the lived-in feel of the dialogue, it’s not hard to feel that Zahler’s work has stepped up another notch from his already outstanding work in Bone Tomahawk, creating something even more intense and gripping.
For all of that, there’s no way to talk about the film without talking about Vince Vaughn, who may have never been better in a film than he is here. Gone is Vaughn’s usual swagger and ironic charm; his Bradley is a hard man, shaped by a troubled past that we only get hints of and the vagaries of a difficult daily life. There’s none of Vaughn’s usual motormouth tendencies, none of his ability to talk his way out of situations. His Bradley is all physicality – tense, dangerous, coiled. (It doesn’t hurt that Vaughn bulked up so much for the role; he’s big enough to seem like a threat that’s ready to pop at any moment.) And yet, we get glimpses of the man underneath it all; even as he’s doing horrifying things, there’s no joy in it, no savage delight – it’s just survival. That’s especially relevant, given how much Zahler turns the plot on Bradley’s need to protect his family; for all of Bradley’s physicality and violence, he’s a deeply loving man whose only priority is to provide for those he loves.
There are other great performances here – Don Johnson makes the best of a small role as a prison warden, turning a role that could easily turn into camp into something more threatening and hard – but truly, Brawl works so well due largely to Vaughn’s incredible performance here, one in which he fully commits to the part. That he’s matched – or forced into stepping up his game – by Zahler’s outstanding direction…well, that combo makes Brawl as good as it is, turning pulpy revenge into something more gripping, effective, and tense than it might be on paper. It’s not for the faint of heart, but for those up for it, Brawl is an absolute knockout of tension, mood, and performance. Just be prepared for what you’re getting into.