Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2017) is a violent tour de force from writer/director S. Craig Zahler. Starring Vince Vaughn, the film follows Bradley Thomas, a former boxer turned drug-runner. After a bad deal gets deadly, he finds himself in prison where his enemies force him to commit savage acts of violence that turn his life into a battleground. With a story structure that seems as psychotic as its characters, Brawl in Cell Block 99 is not for the faint of heart, or impatient.
The Midnight Madness programme has long been seen as TIFF’s home-base for horror, conjuring scares in the witching hour for nearly three decades. Previous year’s selections have included You’re Next (2011), Lords of Salem (2012), and Saw (2004). While the show’s new programmer, Peter Kuplowksy, acknowledges Midnight’s reputation for horror, he understands that the programme is meant to highlight bold film that defies genre. Brawl in Cell Block 99 certainly fits that description. And, in breaking a long-held tradition, the North American premiere of the film began early, at exactly 10:45pm. While some had balked at the decision, there is most definitely a method behind the madness.
Described by Kuplowsky as a ‘perfectly set watch‘, S Craig Zahler’s followup to Bone Tomahawk (2015) is a calculated story that moves forward moment by moment, each second bringing us closer to an inevitable climax. Very decisively two different films, Brawl in Cell Block 99 begins as a slow burn crime drama centered around Bradley Thomas (Vince Vaughn) and his drug running day-job. After losing his job in the wake of a failed pregnancy, Bradley decides to jump-start the American Dream that never came. But when plans goes south, Bradley quickly finds himself serving a 7-year sentence for his involvement in a shootout with police.
The beginning half of the film is very much a tension-driven exploration of a man determined to contain the rage that once dictated a violent life he left behind. But like a pot of calm water brought to a gradual boil, Bradley is forced to abandon his moral code and embrace a more brutal and vicious path.
As promised, the clock struck 12:00 with the introduction of Udo Kier’s character, known only as The Placid Man.He brings with him a proposition that truly makes the second-half of Brawl in Cell Block 99 a midnight release. With his pregnant wife in peril, Bradley is given a seemingly impossible task: Find and kill a specific prisoner, housed in a separate maximum security prison. As though a switch was flipped, both in the script and in Bradley, we descend into a savage showcase of broken limbs, bloodied skulls, and deranged violence.
The stoicism that Vince Vaughn displays in the film is a constant that remains through gentle caressing of his wife’s pregnant belly into the thundering brutality of hand-to-hand combat. While the audience sees Bradley as a not-so-gentle giant, he soon becomes a lumbering 6′ 5″ bottle of rage when faced with protecting his family. He is emotionless, deriving no pleasure in the pain he effortlessly dispenses. Expressionless in the mayhem, Bradley is the eye of the storm.
Fighting his way through every obstacle, unmatched in his vicious ambition, Bradley quickly finds himself housed in the eponymous Cell Block 99. Reserved for psychotics, rapists, and death-row inmates, Bradley is admitted by the sadistic Warden Tuggs (Don Johnson). The administrative processing of Cell Block 99 is in stark contrast to the darkly-humorous processing of the previous state-run facility. Lead into “a room that Amnesty International would frown upon” our protagonist is thrown down a flight of stairs before being fitted with a belt that delivers excruciating electric shocks. While Bradley moves from one nightmare into another, he recognizes each as awful moment as a landmark in the journey to his ultimate goal. Un-phased by the torture, he is committed to the task, striking down all that get in his way.
Contrary to previous programmer Colin Geddes’ belief that a film has to deliver within the first 15 minutes to keep the attention of a Midnight Madness audience, Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a film that rewards the patient viewer. With the front half of the film acting as an origin story to a bloodthirsty climax, our protagonist is slowly and purposefully established as an antihero driven by a strong personal code that can not be broken. Even under the threat of a jail sentence that will prevent him from seeing the birth of his child, Bradley Thomas remains resolute and virtuous. It’s as though S. Craig Zahler set out to create a modern American folk-hero. Vince Vaughn portrays a man of legendary stature whose morality is outmatched only by his muscle.
Set in a world that doesn’t reward violence but acknowledges the need for it when faced with no alternative, Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a tale-of-tales that lives in a heightened reality with characters larger than life. While the film is very deliberate in establishing the motivations of its characters, I found myself longing for the madness that would eventually come. Early sections of the film, though filled with a sense of inescapable doom, seem excessive and overindulgent. That said, Brawl is a wild ride, with a level of gore that will make even the most seasoned horror fan cringe while smiling from ear-to-ear. As in S Craig Zahler’s previous work, all special effects (face smashing and all) are practical and captured in-camera. An absolute must-see with a theater audience, Brawl in Cell Block 99 is easiest one of the most visceral film experiences of this year’s festival circuit.
Brawl in Cell Block 99 will see a limited beginning October 6th, with a digital HD and VOD release through RLJE Films October 16th. Screenings are also scheduled at both Fantastic Fest and Beyond Fest.