I put S. Craig Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk near the top of my list for the best movies of 2015, which was already the best year for twenty-first century movies. If I were to go back and revise that list, I suspect the film would rank a little higher. As if to prove he’s no fluke, Zahler has made Brawl in Cell Block 99, a movie which I enjoyed even more than Tomahawk.
Brawl in Cell Block 99 is pure, unabashed pulp, the furthest you can get from the increasingly predictable Oscar bait that’s been plaguing awards seasons since time immemorial. In the opening scene we see Vince Vaughn’s towering figure rise from the cab of a tow truck, the back of his bare head adorned with a crucifix tattoo. His character’s name is Bradley, never Brad, and anger undulates beneath the surface of his skin—we can see him struggling not to explode every second he’s on the screen. He’s a surprisingly smart and moral guy for his criminal underpinnings, but the world seems like it’s out to get him. He does the best he can do with shit situations which ambush him on a daily basis.
The same day the recovering alcoholic loses his job, he discovers his wife (Jennifer Carpenter) has been having an affair. He calmly waits for her to leave the scene and proceeds to dismantle her car with his bare hands. A man who shoves his fist through the headlight of a vehicle to rip its wiring out like the guts of a fish is a man who is possessed. Vaughn is 100% believable in the role, so much so it’s hard to believe this is the same guy from Swingers.
Once he has thoroughly murdered the car, Bradley walks inside and politely tells his wife he’s getting back into the drug dealing business. And that’s what ultimately leads to his incarceration, which will have him behind bars during his daughter’s birth. Bradley takes his medicine without complaint, but the people he’s pissed off are about to concoct one of the most heinous revenge plots ever seen.
Brawl in Cell Block 99 is not for the faint of heart. No single thing which happens in it is quite as gory or gruesome as that infamous scene in Bone Tomahawk, but as a whole the movie might just be a bit more shocking. I can think of no other film I want to see more than the director’s next one, which will take a portion of this cast and add Mel Gibson to the mix. The name of that film is allegedly Dragged Across Concrete, which is fitting if it’s anything like this.
Goddamn, what a breath of fresh air.