Brawl in Cell Block 99 Review

S. Craig Zahler‘s Brawl in Cell Block 99 may be one of the most violent movies ever made. It’s easy to imagine scenes from its gore-soaked final act becoming YouTube shock fodder in the years ahead, moments that people spring on unsuspecting friends to get a reaction. That may sound like catnip for seasoned genre film fans, audiences who are numb to cinematic violence and feel like they’ve seen everything, but even those with the most hardened nerves may find themselves lightheaded. It’s that gross. It’s that unsparing. It’s that effective.

But it also comes at the end of a bad movie. Albeit, a bad movie that curious viewers should definitely check out for themselves because Brawl in Cell Block 99 is too weird to ignore, too audacious to write off, and too damn interesting to stop thinking about. But yes, it is bad.

To tell you the plot of Brawl in Cell Block 99 is to tell you the entirety of Brawl in Cell Block 99. It’s hard to know where to start. Allow me to get anecdotal: following the premiere of the film at Fantastic Fest, someone asked me to tell them the entire plot of the movie beat-for-beat when I found myself unable to describe the basis premise. 15 minutes later, we both agreed that the movie I was describing sounded pretty wild and probably pretty good. On paper, Zahler, whose genre-defying horror western Bone Tomahawk has rightfully found a cult following, has crafted something unique and unforgettable and unmissable.

And those qualities still apply to Brawl in Cell Block 99 on screen, even if the final movie is…well, how do you even begin to describe this movie? It’s bad, but it’s also everything else.

Vince Vaughn (attempting to retire his fast-talking comedic persona for good) plays Bradley Thomas, a righteous Good Guy criminal who looks like a bruiser but chooses to literally tear apart a car with his fists to defuse his anger rather than lay a hand on his cheating spouse. He’s such a righteous Good Guy criminal that, after he’s arrested, the interrogating detective notes that he probably owns more than one American flag (he owns two). He’s the kind of righteous Good Guy criminal who plans to quietly serve his time for a crime, but instead finds himself plunged into a hell that forces him to unleash his inner beast and destroy a bunch of people with his fists and feet.

But why is Bradley Thomas destroying so many people? That’s tough to to discuss. Because the first hour of so of this 132 minute movie is all prologue, all set-up. It takes a long time for the movie with prison imagery in its title to get to prison and what happens there deserves to be discovered in context – it’s too weird and too wild and too ridiculous. People deserve to discover the insanity on their own time. It’s your reward for enduring the rough patches.

There are a lot of rough patches in Brawl in Cell Block 99. It’s paced like an assembly cut, with every scene feeling too long (and there are about twelve too many scenes of Vaughn driving in silence or walking across a room and so on). There’s a deadly serious patience to the film that defies what actually goes down in the plot. What we’ve got here is an 85-minute piece of delirious, feverish trash, stretched kicking and screaming into a unbearable running time.

Not quite as deadly but still is an issue is Vaughn himself. While incredibly tall (Zahler makes sure that every shot emphasizes how huge he is compared to his co-stars), Vaughn is never particularly convincing as a bruiser whose physicality immediately impresses total strangers. It’s not a bad performance, just a weird one – you can feel him giving himself over to the character, subjecting himself to Zahler’s grotesque whims, and rolling with the film’s increasingly outlandish storytelling with a straight face. But you never escape the feeling that he’s a square peg trying to fit into a round hole. It’s never quite as convincing as it should be.

Unless that’s part of a larger plan, because Brawl in Cell Block 99 is never as serious as its sometimes-glum tone suggests. It’s about as realistic as a Looney Tunes cartoon and when Don Johnson and Udo Kier pop up as mustache-twirling villains who feel like they stepped out of an alternate dimension, you can’t help but question everything you’ve seen before. What is this movie? Why is it so gonzo? Should I be laughing or should I be horrified? Is that deliberately mawkish or a failed attempt at honesty? These questions make the film fascinating and frustrating. And to Zahler’s credit, these questions make it a fair bit more interesting than most movies you’ll see this year.

Also to Zahler’s credit, the film undoubtedly expresses a unique voice. It’s clear that deliberate pacing, shocking ultra-violence, stylized (and sometimes stilted) dialogue, and macho, justified-in-their-brutality leading men are his thing. I remain interested in him as a filmmaker, as someone ready and willing to shock and appall and frustrate. That doesn’t make Brawl in Cell Block 99 a good movie, but it makes it the work of someone who’s going to stick around and fascinate people for years to come.

Label this a negative review – Brawl in Cell Block 99 is not a good movie. But I will also never dissuade anyone from seeing it. It’s undoubtedly an experience, something that adventurous movie fans should seek out just so they can join the conversation. And you owe it to yourself to see the (astonishing, unreal, unparalleled) violence in context. You know, before someone springs a YouTube clip on you.

/Film Rating: 5 out of 10

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About the Author

Jacob Hall is the managing editor of /Film, with previous bylines all over the Internet. He lives in Austin, Texas with his wife, his pets, and his board game collection.