When a Man Loves a Woman: "Brawl in Cell Block 99"

16 December 2017

A work of abominable linearity, 'Brawl in Cell Block 99' awakens swirling, primal energies.

Big bloke Bradley Thomas, beginning a seven-year stretch in prison for peddling drugs — a gig he took up after being laid off as a tow-trucker — receives bad news regarding his pregnant wife Lauren: ‘There have been some complications.’ Lauren’s obstetrician is on his way to relay the news himself. It’s the second time in the film that we've seen a pang of hurt register on Bradley’s face; the first came upon learning of Lauren’s affair after the miscarriage of the couple's previous child. With dogged, borderline demonic determination, Bradley sees out the remainder of the film without so much as a whimper: until, that is, he speaks again to his wife in dreadfully different circumstances.

The visiting obstetrician is in fact not a medical practitioner at all, but an associate of Elezear, the shady drugs runner whose underlings were part of the same botched assignment that sent Bradley down. Lauren, this associate tells Bradley, has been abducted — and a Korean abortionist (oh no!) is in town and on standby: should Bradley not do as he’s told, his unborn child will have its limbs removed. And worse.

Bradley does what he’s told. As an entry-level prisoner, he must get upgraded of his own accord — through, that is, his own terribly physical actions — to Cell Block 99, the offsite maximum-security unit where he must kill another prisoner in order to save his wife and child. Overly aware of his situation, he accepts his mission without a sniff.

I didn’t see S. Craig Zahler’s previous feature, Bone Tomahawk, though on the strength of both its title and this follow-up I can imagine it’s terrific. A work of abominable linearity, Brawl in Cell Block 99 awakens swirling, primal energies. It’s preposterous, and it’s awful, and it’s deeply compelling if you’re into just the kind of depiction of masculinity that this is.

The film seems to make a point of a few things, some of which are thematic signposts, some of which have a practical use plot-wise. On one level you have repeated appearances of the American flag, and even a discussion about it. And there’s something to do with domesticity, as both an idea(l) and an actual thing. Are the two connected? Zahler frames the various interiors in such a fashion that we might recognise them as part of the same system. We encounter — in a kind of each-one-bigger-than-the-last progression up the property chain — the homes, seeing what blood money buys: small inner-city home, larger suburban home, an even larger home out in the sticks (with both a pool room and a poolroom). Then come the prison cells, shot with the same wide-angled lenses as the homes. But these get smaller: as Bradley demonstrates his credentials as a psychotic prisoner, getting transferred from cell block to cell block, his rooms become filthier, more dangerous, more hell-like.

I don’t know if Zahler was deliberately going for a subtly ‘period look’ but the film resembles something that might have been made in the early 2000s. It pairs a blue filter (remember those?), the kind that a filmmaker like Joe Carnahan might have employed 15 years ago to denote urban grit, with what critics are now calling ‘precise framing’ — which I take to mean the kind of super-still low-angle establishing shot made popular by shows like Breaking Bad. It lends the film a steadiness, I think. There is confidence in its slow build.

Another thing, very much linked to those low angles and wide shots, is height. Zahler makes a point of Bradley’s, and his star Vince Vaughn’s — even showing us two prison wardens speculating about it at one point, and having another warden directing him to stand up by saying, ‘Get vertical.’ What’s crucial here is that Zahler is able to make a point of his character’s physical presence: Vaughn, at 6’5”, has a natural advantage in height over co-stars that allows a director a range of options when it comes to filming him. He is more massive in an ordinary way than the stars of violent action movies a generation ago (their actually average heights could be disguised by careful camerawork), and the degree to which this has dictated the strangeness of his career is arguable — from playing Jon Favreau’s lanky pal in Swingers to all those romantic comedies I was never interested in about ten years ago. Here, Vaughn is a more internalised version of the mob boss he played in the second season of True Detective. He is less showy about his forgotten boxing days. Is he a hardman? There’s a weird, idiosyncratic clumsiness to the way he tears apart his wife’s car at the beginning of the film. In the fight scenes in prison, he plays it like one of those lumbering giants who you just can’t get down, unless there’s about five or six of you to do it. And even then…

For Bradley’s nihilistic plunge from institutional cold-blue into the rust-brown hell of Cell Block 99 to work, we have to believe not only that he wants his wife and child to live more than anything else, but also that he believes he can pull it all off. The difficulty here is that he has limited time in which to build a trust with anyone — fellow inmates, wardens, officers — enough for him to verbalise his love or intentions or anything else. So Zahler and Vaughn go the other way: the urgency comes through not from rapid cuts and race-against-time sprints down the hall between cells, but from a takes-its-toll trudge, framed in long- and mid-shots, in which a man must fight other men with nothing but his feet and fists. It’s class.