Brawl in Cell Block 99 Dec 7, 2017 21:28:44 GMT -5 via mobile
Post by StevePulaski on Dec 7, 2017 21:28:44 GMT -5
Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2017)
Directed by: S. Craig Zahler
Directed by: S. Craig Zahler
Vince Vaughn in Brawl in Cell Block 99.
Every so often, I get tired of writing conventional reviews and spice my routine up with one that is structured a bit differently. For S. Craig Zahler's Brawl in Cell Block 99, which is making quite a push for accolades this awards season in a move few could've initially seen coming, I decided to give you nine reasons why you should make time for this cold-cock of a movie.
Reasons listed in order they came to me when taking notes on the film:
1. Vince Vaughn: For years, Vince Vaughn has been the unremarkable leading man in throwaway, Lifetime-fare like Four Christmases and The Dilemma, with no real identity outside of being a go-to straight-man actor. Ever since he took the headlining role in Peter Billingsley's potboiler Term Life — sporting a Moe Howard haircut still not erased from my memory — him and his career have been on a different trajectory, one that includes more impacting performances (he followed it up with a great supporting performance in Hacksaw Ridge). In Brawl in Cell Block 99, he plays Bradley Thomas, a tow-truck driver who loses his job in the opening scene of the film and comes home to catch his wife (Jennifer Carpenter) moments away from driving off and leaving him. Eighteen months later, he's still together with her and expecting a child, but he's gone back to an old habit of drug-dealing and two-timing that he gave up years ago. When a deal goes awry, he lands in a rough prison with an unforgivable ultimatum that will result in irreversible consequences for him and his wife if he doesn't carry out the non-negotiable order.
Vaughn is tremendous as a muscle-bound brute with little patience and a moral compass that points north of family. He carries himself in a particularly caustic manner that contradicts all preconceived notions about the 47-year-old actor and his affinity for roles that require little effort. He throws himself into a performance that requires more than the run-of-the-mill fisticuffs the lackluster efforts in this genre favor, and it's one that will surely earn a place in the highlight-reel of his career. As of now, it's the best performance I've seen in him after sitting through over a dozen of his films.
2. The camera angles: Zahler (Bone Tomahawk) and cinematographer Benji Bakshi craft the most spaciously claustrophobic film I can think of with Brawl in Cell Block 99. The two employ medium and bust-shots as infrequently as they can, and after several are shown in succession, the two men back away from the characters for full-shots with the respective characters a tad off-center. Even when full-shots make up the bulk of a sequence, Zahler uses them to highlight the details of the scene's environment.
Consider prison-cells, which since the dawn of film have been portrayed as tight, enclosed areas with little room to maneuver. Zahler subverts this convention by showing Bradley in these surroundings with almost everything that's around him in one single-frame, including barred windows to impose some terrific natural lighting. Minute inclusions that add to the grime of a particular atmosphere, like shards of broken glass on the ground, or blood on the walls, intensify the setting. All of this goes to show that one does not need to capture prison as a smothering location in order to make it truly terrifying; all one must do is show what it's like.
3. The violence: For some, this will be the deal-breaker and prevent them from seeing the film, to which I cannot blame them. The violence in Brawl in Cell Block 99 is ghastly and gruesome, comparable in some ways to this year's masterpiece The Belko Experiment, but not without merit for its frankness. It's not the hyper-stylized Tarantino bloodbath you might be expecting, where every kill or shot is accompanied with a maniacal laugh nor is it martial arts-infused repetition as seen in something like The Raid: Redemption. Noses are broken, knuckles are bloodied, faces are scraped off, jaws are snapped with the help of the floor, electric shocks are carried out, necks are snapped, and bullets fly for a good third of the film's 132 minute runtime (appropriately long, I might add). It's unnerving and regrettably satisfying, and thanks to Zahler artfully employing full-shots, we get to see all the combat unfold and never feel lost as a result.
4. The gritty look at prison: Zahler has made a film that shows prison like a descent into a realized hellhole. From medium-security to maximum-security to a "prison within a prison" that looks like Guantanamo Bay crossed with the dungeons of Henry VIII, every interior location in the film carries the appropriate amount of weight. Thankfully, we spend the entire first act on the outside because the film soon takes us places that, like our main character, make us wish we never went there in the first place.
5. The deafening and frequent absence of music: I don't recall much, if any, music being played during the final hour of the film, but my ears could deceive me. Brawl in Cell Block 99's soundtrack is largely comprised of dialog that echoes off the confined walls of rooms that trap its characters (be them prisons or even a home victim to an ostensibly imminent divorce) and silence. It creates an uncomfortable environment made worse by the ubiquity of dastardly characters with evil motives and waning evidence of decency.
6. The cinematography: It only took me so long to make note of Bakshi's visuals as a singular creation because I was so compelled by observing the camera angles. Brawl in Cell Block 99 has a look of hyper-saturation, with contrast that makes for inky blues, blacks, and purples (which makes the bruises look that much more attractive). It's a color palette that provides clarity and contrast, and even remains well-lit when we're in subterranean locations or locations that might as well be another country in another, less democratic time-period.
7. It's the closest thing to a vigilante movie in years: Don't give me the (now delayed) Death Wish remake with Bruce Willis. Brawl in Cell Block 99 is exactly what I didn't know I wanted when I suggested in my review of the Robert Ginty film The Exterminator that the vigilante genre could be poised to make a comeback if it were confident enough to let old habits die-hard in an attempt to take off in a new direction. Thankfully, Zahler's film doesn't find itself hung up on tradition and permits its grotesque premise to do what most vigilante films of the 1970s and 1980s didn't have the stones to do.
8. The sardonic tone: You can chalk up the successfully implemented miserable tone to Zahler, who gives his screenplay subtle jabs at the hypocrisies and injustices of America. There have been accusations that Vaughn's Bradley is a racist or even a white nationalist, with argument coming from more than the presence of an ominous cross tattoo on his bald skull. The Spanish-speaking minorities and the admittedly needless Asian abortionist loan themselves to these criticisms until you monitor the mannerisms of Bradley that Zahler has without question taken into consideration (in one scene, Bradley shuts down one Caucasian individual's use of dreadful epitaph that begins with an "n"). Zahler appears more concerned with evoking a landscape that's varying shades of grim whether you're on the outside looking in or in the inside helplessly looking out.
9. You deserve to see a good movie.
Starring: Vince Vaughn, Jennifer Carpenter, Don Johnson, Udo Kier, Marc Blucas, and Tom Guiry. Directed by: S. Craig Zahler.