With two films to his name it is very clear that S. Craig Zahler is making it his mission to push the bounds of filmic violence to the utter extreme. His directorial debut, 2015’s Bone Tomahawk, features a death so gruesome, so shocking and abnormal that it reaches a level of artistry in the craft that is untouched by other people working in the genre. Zahler may be pushing the limits of violence, but there is a lucidity to the gore. His work is punctuated by the violence, not built around it.
His sophomore effort is the exploitation film, Brawl in Cell Block 99. It is a bruising feast of depravity that has a core of hope to it. That core is buoyed by Vince Vaughn’s finest work to date as an actor. He plays Bradley Thomas, a down on his luck lower class worker that is pushed to enter a world of crime and drugs to provide his family the security they need.
Bradley operates by a code of ethics outside of his work. He is in his car a lot in the film and there is always a steady stream of gospel music. His wife Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter) is about halfway through her pregnancy when Bradley unwittingly takes a job with a group of men he doesn’t trust. This ends up with Bradley in jail for an extended amount of time.
Until now, the film is a pretty close to the bone examination of poverty and male emasculation. Here, the film splits into a world that could only exist in the movies. The second half of the film is Bradley’s journey to go farther and farther into a maximum security prison so that he can kill a drug czar.
The realism ends abruptly. Zahler’s script leads Bradley on a journey of the most detestable acts and people imaginable. Yet, at the heart of this depravity is Vaughn’s performance. Without it, the film becomes little more than an expertly executed display of wanton violence. It is clear that Zahler wants his film to be more than that, and he demands more than that. He may be working in meathead cinema, but his craft is unimpeachable. His skills are vivid from the very first moments.
A lot of grindhouse fare spends a long, dull time to get to the wild and violent ride at the end. Zahler’s film is a natural culmination of everything that has come before it. He earns the crushed heads and intricately tattered bodies.
Like Bone Tomahawk, Brawl in Cell Block 99 spends a good deal of the runtime disguising exactly what the film is up to. It isn’t until very late in both films that the audience sees where Zahler is taking you.
When Don Johnson shows up as a comically corrupt prison warden and forces Bradley into a belt that he must always were and can shock him at any time, then the audience sees the two halves of the film melding together.
The washed-out color palette matches the cold, ruthless violence that the film deals out with bone shattering swiftness. There is nothing glamorous about this world. Even when Bradley gets a nicer home, it lacks the comforts of wealth, and instead shows the emptiness of a family struggling to furnish the oversized rooms.
With two films Zahler has seized the mantle as the grindhouse director for today’s sensibility. Senseless action doesn’t have the same tantalizing thrill it once did. The violence here may be grotesque, but it is far from senseless. There is a structured rigidity to the choreography that gives the violence a tangible quality. Every punch makes a sound, not a movie sound, but a real curdling sound. When bones break, and they certainly do, there is no mistaking the lingering hum of the crack. Brawl in Cell Block 99 isn’t quite a midnight movie because it doesn’t really move like one, it opens itself up to a length of breathability, but it is the closest thing we have in the mainstream, and for that, Zahler seems to have a fruitful career of wildly inventive mechanisms to stage whatever masterful concoction of horror he can come up with.