Brawl In Cell Block 99 (2017). Directed by S. Craig Zahler. Starring Vince Vaughn, Jennifer Carpenter, Udo Kier and Don Johnson.
S. Craig Zahler follows up his cracking horror-western Bone Tomahawk with a morally dingy, uber-violent dive into the grindhouse neo-noir prison flick in Brawl In Cell Block 99.
Sticking with the same genre-collision formula and slowly studied pacing interspersed with brief bouts of bone crushing, stomach-sickening violence as his debut flick this is less impactful and feels much more time consuming but still provides just about enough thrills to make it worthwhile.
The continuously rolling snowball of bad moral decisions being made by Bradley in his desire to keep his family together and to give them the kind of life he would wish to see them live brings to life the thematic suggestion that morality and success in the USA don’t necessarily go hand in hand. Everyone treads a morally murky path.
Stylistically, Zahler and DP Benji Bakshi have taken a healthy dose of inspiration from Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant remake – appropriating the notion of filming a noir-esque tale with retina-scarring brightness- the contrast turned way up to 11 once he gets to the dingiest of blocks in the dingiest of penitentiaries.
This creates a level of intensity which matches the bristling inner world of Thomas – although always calm and somewhat expressionless on his placid exterior you sense that he a is a maelstrom of destructive emotions on the inside which he must suppress to function.
Long, slow-paced passages create atmosphere and build character – it is as a character study that the film itself has most success, evocatively exploring the personal moral code which could drive someone to do unspeakably terrible things.
While brutal, some of the more violent sequences have a lumbering quality to them and lack a little bit of imagination – there are only so many variations on filming an arm break before it becomes boring. Even the supposed brawl in the titular cell block is far more low key than you might find yourself expecting although it certainly pays off on the imaginatively realised deaths – brutal decapitations and exposed facial frameworks being the order of the day.