Streaming Releases: Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2017) - Reviewed

Exploitation films are not meant to endear. They're uncomfortable, violent, and offensive. S. Craig Zahler is a director whose love for the genre is prolific. With only two features films, Zahler has carved out a blood laced niche among modern filmmakers, deconstructing macho archetypes with uncommon sincerity and unrelenting, even nightmarish brutality. His second film, Brawl in Cell Block 99 is one of the most daring films of 2017. In a year where polarizing films like mother! are ripping film related social media apart, Zahler's gruesome ballet of extreme violence and scathing economic dissent unapologetically takes center stage and welcomes all comers. 

Bradley (never Brad) is fired from his job and forced to become a drug mule to support his family. An act of heroism lands him in federal prison, where his former employers demand that he carry out an unsavory mission in exchange for his family's safety. Zahler's script, mirrors his debut, Bone Tomahawk, with slow paced first two acts that build towards an inevitable cyclone of nihilistic destruction. The concepts of manhood, family, and loyalty are run through a 70's stained shredder and reconstructed in an unholy marriage of post-recession politics and present-day malcontent. This is a film that will appeal to very a specific type of viewer and it makes no excuses for the bleak, and absolutely unforgiving world of its design, or, more importantly...our design. 

Vince Vaughn gives the best performance of his career. A performance that is steeped in patient affectation and domineering presence, with Vaughn's hulk-like figure flooding every frame. There is a unique dichotomy to his embodiment of Bradley. The surface is a blue collar badass, both patriotic and disgusted by country to which he is loyal. Underneath is a furious vortex of uncanny loyalty and a calm surrender to the way things are and the way things should be. Everything hangs on Vaughn, a furious titan in a sea of piss and vomit that threatens to drown him at every turn. The first act shows Vaughn's capabilities, both with respect to action and drama, but these are merely pontoons, supporting a bravura performance that should garner awards gold, but, despite its glory, such things would be an affront. The award for a performance such as this is to become legend, a cult classic gem of forbidden provenance and Vaughn's thuggish conviction sings with such poetry that this finality is all but certain. 

Benji Bakshi's slimy cinematography combines with outstanding sound editing to frame each harrowing sequence of violence as a sculpture. A work of art cut from flesh and bone. Each injury hearkens back to Quint's nails on a chalkboard, with bones cracking and faces evaporating with each sickening punch. The lighting is fantastic, framing Vaughn in solitary purgatories as his cells continually devolve as he plunges deeper and deeper into the heart of the American prison system. The journey is narrated by Zahler and Jeff Heriott's unobtrusive score and a corduroy laced throwback of 70's ambrosia. Diegetic music is a key component, with car stereos providing the lion's share of Zahler's soiled symphony. 

Don Johnson gives yet another scene stealing performance as a devious warden, highlighting his welcomed place in hardcore independent cinema, bringing his trademarked potential to bare in every scene. Jennifer Carpenter supports as Vaughn's wife and she does admirable work with her precious few scenes, simulating the hardships of commitment and heartbreak. Udo Kier and Marc Blucas round out the cast, giving expected, but perfectly at home turns in Zahler's circus of the damned. 

Ultimately, this is a tough film. It doesn't hold hands, nor does it make excuses for the unconscionable acts it portrays, which will inevitably lead some viewers to ask, "what's the point?" While the depth is there, under the cancerous surface, the absolute wonder of the film is its atmosphere. Love or hate it, this is a film that will stick to your soul like a disgusting wad of gum on the floor of the theater, dogging you at every turn until you can finally excise it. Very few films have the power to antagonize, and more so, do it in a respectful manner that understands its intended audience. If nothing above has dissuaded, then this film is most certainly going to be delight for those brave enough to endure it. 

Available now for digital rental. Zahler has brought the fire, once again. Offensive, uncomfortable, and outlandishly violent, Brawl in Cell Block 99 is bound to be one of the most divisive films of the year...if anyone dares to watch it. If you're interested in a red blooded .44 magnum shot to the dome, look no further. 2017 finally has its iconoclast phenomenon and of course it's Zahler who is the mastermind behind it.

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-Kyle Jonathan