[NOTE: This is a repost of our review from TIFF; Brawl in Cell Block 99 will be released in limited theaters on October 6 and VOD October 13]
For a large chunk of Vince Vaughn’s career, I was critical of the actor for continuing to play the same character. While there were outliers like Domestic Disturbance and Psycho, more often than not he would play a variation on his role from Swingers—the fast-talking wise-ass who isn’t quite as savvy as he thinks he is. However, Vaughn has been branching out lately. He made a surprising turn in the second season of True Detective, but he’s taken his work to the next level with his lead role in S. Craig Zahler’s Brawl in Cell Block 99. The movie lives and dies with Vaughn, who gives a physical, brooding performance as a man who talks in a near-whisper, but whose true voice is violence.
After losing his job as a tow truck driver and discovering that his wife Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter) has been cheating on him, Bradley Thomas (Vaughn) decides to wipe the slate clean and start over. He forgives Lauren, they aim to start a family, and Bradley will support them by working as a drug runner. For eighteen months, the job goes smoothly, but then his boss Gil (Marc Blucas) makes a deal with a cartel head that had Bradley reluctantly teaming with the kingpin’s goons on a pickup. When the job goes bad, Bradley has to ditch the goods and ends up getting incarcerated in a medium security prison. His situation goes from bad to worse when Lauren is kidnapped by the kingpin and Bradley’s told he has to find a way to the Redleaf Maximum Security Prison and assassinate an inmate to pay off his debt or the fetus will be amputated upon by an abortionist (seriously). The story then becomes an inverse prison break story with Bradley trying to get himself thrown into Redleaf and get the inmate in Cell Block 99.
The plot of Brawl in Cell Block 99 has a grindhouse component (see the above mention of an “abortionist”), but the drama never feels cheap. If Zahler wanted to, he could have leapt straight to the action. Instead, he takes his time with the entire story, always pausing to show us Bradley’s moral compass and how every time he tries to do the right thing, it goes badly for him. He’s not a sociopath who seeks out violence, but violence is what he excels at. He’s a man who doesn’t seem to really feel physical pain (he doesn’t bat an eye at getting struck with a pole), but he doesn’t come off like a Terminator. Bradley is a guy who makes a decision and then doesn’t second-guess it. He doesn’t bargain, he doesn’t plead, and he doesn’t outwit. He picks a direction and then pummels anyone who gets in his way.
For Vaughn, his performance in Brawl in Cell Block 99 couldn’t be more different from his more famous roles. Bradley still has a sharp wit, but he speaks quietly and deliberately. Vaughn doesn’t need us to like Bradley, but he wants us to understand his decisions, which is a tougher task when he’s playing a character against type. Rather than relying on the dialogue, Vaughn gives a physical performance, using his size and stature to control the tempo of the scene. Bradley is a man that must be feared and respected, but Vaughn always goes for restraint, trusting that the audience doesn’t need him to give a speech or a grand gesture to establish his personality.
Where Bradley really “speaks” is in the violence. That’s the primal scream this character makes and where he becomes his truest self. The violence he inflicts is horrific, and Zahler walks the tightrope of showing how this violence is the best and worst thing about Bradley. His ability to lay the hurt on people is what led him down this path, but it’s also the only thing that can save Lauren and their unborn child. That being said, we’re usually meant to cheer for the violence as Zahler gets a visceral reaction from brutality so vivid that the film would need to be rated NC-17 if the MPAA ever issued a verdict. The film relishes every bloody moment to the point that it makes the violence in Zahler’s previous film, Bone Tomahawk, look tame by comparison.
Brawl in Cell Block 99 may not be the movie you expect, but it’s still a surprisingly rich and powerful film despite its grindhouse soul. Rather than go for the audience’s bloodlust from the start, the movie wants us to invest in Bradley and care about his decisions as much as we care about how badly he can beat people to a pulp. Thanks to Vaughn’s performance and Zahler’s direction, Brawl in Cell Block 99 is able to walk the line between a down-and-dirty picture and one that genuinely cares about its tragic protagonist.