By Shane Cudney
Craig Zahler’s latest film, Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2017), is, among other things, a testosterone infused middle finger of defiance raised to an estrogen dominant, politically correct cultural sensibility hell-bent on managing masculinity. Indeed, from legally enforced “anger management” programs and politically sanctioned “sensitivity” training, to state sponsored drug therapy regimens for school aged boys, an entire system is fixated on men’s behaviour as if it were a disease in need of a cure. Add to that the mushroom cloud of male scrutiny rising as a result of the Weinstein debacle, and you have a hellishly hot and toxic climate facing men in the early dog days of the 21st century. Men everywhere are under fire, and along with them the moral codes and religious creeds Western culture was built on. Namely Christianity.
In the face of this onslaught, you could rightly say that Brawl is an unapologetic display of rawboned masculinity. More accurately, however, it’s a muscular response to a morally weakened culture, one that revisions the Christian myth central to Western history. To be sure, good art is always responsive, employing as it does a particular frame used to reimagine universal truths for critical purposes. Zahler’s reimagined world is a merciless place of grays and blues, not far from our own, where one needs convictions and a moral code to live by, otherwise animal instinct and desire rule the day. But make no mistake, the mythic Christianity on display here is not the contemporary weak-kneed variety. It’s more like your great-grandmother’s hard-nosed faith that came at a heavy price. It’s the kind of faith not for the faint of heart. In keeping with the salvation story that’s been told and retold throughout the centuries, this “morality tale” (Vince Vaughn) is about strength made perfect through sacrifice; where the muscular, messiah-like figure of Bradley Thomas must descend into hell and suffer horribly in order to fulfill his righteous cause – and find redemption.
Thus, through the use of much violence, juxtaposition, hyperbole, and even absurdity, Zahler’s paradoxically straight shooting lens revisions the Christian narrative allegorically in a way that grabs you by the balls and commands your attention. The story itself is simple enough and has been told in many different ways; and although the faithful may not approve, Zahler’s re-telling is startlingly original. You might be tempted to compare it to 70s grindhouse cinema, to Tarantino’s filmic gallimaufries, or to recent postmodern mashups, like Jason Krawczyk’s He Never Died (2015). But it’s not reducible to any of those. In fact, you’d being doing the film an injustice to do so. The truth is, Zahler has carved out an interesting niche for himself and his originality is noticeable and noteworthy. As for the much talked about violence in Brawl, and in his first feature, Bone Tomahawk (2015), let me insist that, although graphic, it is never gratuitously violent, for the sake of violence alone. Like the main character, Zahler’s camera never lingers on the violence but doesn’t shy away from it either. It’s a means to an end, and he treats it in a way that speaks of violence as a matter-of-fact, the way real violence often is.
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Vince Vaughn plays the protagonist, Bradley Thomas, a blue collar, hard working “man of principle’ who knows “the difference between right and wrong”. In stark contrast to his slow moving, disarming manner, and his Joe Don Baker (as Buford Pusser) southern drawl, Bradley is a physical force to be reckoned with. He epitomizes all things masculine under perfect control, at least when and where it counts the most. When, in the opening scene, after Bradley loses his job and discovers his wife’s infidelity, we witness a spectacle of controlled rage like no other. After exorcising his anger, he has a calm, intelligent discussion with his wife Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter) about the possibility of moving forward in their relationship, and what that might look like. When Bradley tells her what he has in mind and then asks, “will you abide?”, she agrees. In a reflective moment he then says he’s tired of getting the “gray looking skim stuff” when he reaches for the coffee cream at the local mini mart, so Bradley decides against his better judgment to go back to work as a drug courier for his former employer, Gil. And when Lauren calls him on it, reminding him of the promise he made not to go back, he replies, “so we’re both breaking promises today.” As it often is with broken promises, there’s hell to pay.
Fast forward 18 months and we find Bradley and his now pregnant wife in a new home and clearly optimistic about the future. However, as fate would have it, it’s at this juncture that things start to spin out of control and spiral down – into hell itself (note: Dante’s 7th circle of hell is called “Violence”, within which are 3 “Rings”). After a drug deal gone bad and then refusing to implicate his boss, Bradley is sentenced to 7 years in a medium security detention center (Ring #1). Soon after his arrival he learns that the Mexican drug cartel he betrayed (on principle) have kidnapped his wife and unborn child. The terms of the ransom are simple but problematic: find and kill an inmate named “Christopher Bridge”, otherwise his unborn baby will be surgically maimed (and allowed to live) and his wife killed. The problem is one of logistics. The inmate is being held at the Red Leaf maximum security prison in cell block 99 which is a completely different facility, so Bradley must find a creative way to get transferred there.
When Bradley hospitalizes 2 guards and injures another, he is transferred to Red Leaf (Ring #2) where he is met by bad ass warden “Tuggs” (Don Johnson) and his prison guard thugs. But after being processed and assigned to cell block 56, he still has to get to cell block 99 which is essentially an isolation block for “psychotics”, “rapists”, and “child molesters”. After a prison yard brawl with a Mexican crew, where he also breaks the arm of a guard, Bradley finds himself in cell block 99 (Ring #3), “the prison within the prison” that “Amnesty International would frown upon”, muses Tuggs. Soon after, he is summoned by the guards, tortured, and then told a few inmates want a little “FaceTime” with him. He is then escorted to a large room where he meets Mexican drug lord Eleazar and 3 of his minions. Bradley quickly realizes there is no inmate named Christopher Bridge, and that it’s all been an elaborate ruse to get him to cell block 99 in order to kill him. But through brute force and even more bone crushing, head stomping brutality, he turns the tables on his would-be killers. And in a bravura final scene worth the price of admission, where he pays heavily for his sins, Bradley is able to effect the salvation of his wife and unborn daughter.
As I’ve alluded to throughout, Brawl in Cell Block 99 has many layers. This means there is something for everyone. As we’ve seen, it can be read as a sharp critique of our current political climate, or as a wry commentary on our navel-gazing culture. But it can also be read as a “mythico-religious” rearticulation of Western values that help give direction for living a good life in a bad world. In terms of the latter, Zahler’s “morality tale” nicely highlights the fact that such ideals are only good if they make a difference in the real world, right here, and right now. And as we know, Bradley Thomas, like Jesus Christ whom he symbolizes, died because of love, not because of an ideal. The bottom line, however, is that Brawl is entertainingly good cinema. The fact that Zahler is equally concerned with how the film is packaged as well as what the package contains is not only a bonus, but a testimony to his creative genius. His next film, Dragged Across the Concrete (starring Vince Vaughn and Mel Gibson) will likely be released sometime next year. I’m counting the days.