Fringe with Benefits: BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99

FRINGE WITH BENEFITS is a rotating column here at Ghastly Grinning that seeks to highlight films that aren't necessarily "horror" but cross into the realm through the periphery. Taking a look at the disturbing, fantastic, and macabre, FRINGE WITH BENEFITS ensures to be a pleasant addition to any genre lovers pallet. 

Violence in movies comes in many shapes and forms and can serve a variety of purposes. Sometimes it’s fun, akin to a macabre punchline to a ghoulish joke the audience and the film are in on together. Other times it can be a cathartic experience as we celebrate those who have been wronged exacting justice upon those that deserve to be eradicated. However, there are times when violence in entertainment is just plain ugly -- as it is in real life -- and is used as a device by filmmakers to shock and disturb the audience. Of course, it can be a combination of all the above as well, as some of the best genre films have demonstrated. Brawl in Cell Block 99, the second feature from writer-director S. Craig Zahler, falls into the latter category, and what a ride it is.

Zahler isn’t the type of filmmaker who sugarcoats the atrocities which take place in his bleak worlds. His debut, the horror-tinged western Bone Tomahawk, features one of the most disturbing slaughter sequences you’re ever likely to see in a genre flick. Yet, despite that film’s well-earned reputation for boasting unflinching nasty violence, it’s peppered sparingly throughout. With Bone Tomahawk, Zahler was more concerned with telling a good old-fashioned man-on-a-mission story at his own leisurely pace than he was about delivering an action-packed gorefest. We spent time with the characters as they spouted cowboy lingo and navigated their way through the wild frontier. His latest outing is similar: a character-driven slow-burner featuring sudden bursts of bloody mayhem whenever it’s called for. This time, however, he’s swapped the desolate plains of the Old West for a modern high-security prison, albeit one that’s run by corrupt savages.

In a career-best role, Vince Vaughn plays Bradley Thomas, a well-mannered former boxer who just can’t catch a break. After he gets fired from his blue-collar day job, he returns home to discover that his wife (played by Jennifer Carpenter) has been sleeping with another man for months. This leads to him destroying her car with his bare hands before calmly acknowledging that their relationship had its faults and he was willing to do whatever it takes to make it work. However, first thing’s first: he needs to get another job before they can see about making a go of it again. This forces him to call up an old friend for some work in the drug game, but it’s only a matter of time before his new means of employment leads to his incarceration. That’s when shit really starts hitting the fan.

When Bradley gets sent down, his marriage is happy again: the couple moved to a nice house and were eagerly awaiting the arrival of their first child. However, his mistake cost some very bad people a lot of money and some casualties in the process -- and just because he’s in the pen it doesn’t mean he’s getting out of repaying his debt. To make amends from the inside, he must kill a fellow inmate with a large bounty on his head to make even. The only problem is that said inmate is in another prison -- and a brutal one at that -- and Bradley must find a way to get himself transferred so he can complete the task at hand. And if he doesn’t comply, a “North Korean abortionist” will dismember his unborn child and kill his wife. What ensues is a captivating descent into hell.

If Bone Tomahawk was like the offspring of John Ford and Ruggero Deodato, then Zahler’s sophomore feature is an ode to Don Siegel and Edward Bunker. The film evokes the pulpy exploitation fare of the 1970s with sincerity and aplomb. This is straight-up, old-school storytelling that’s unapologetically macho, misanthropic, and mean-spirited. A movie with scars all over its body and dirt in its nails, populated with a cast of gritty character actors who’ve been around long enough to tell their own war stories. We don’t see movies like this too often in this day and age - films that are this ugly, rough around the edges, and unapologetically dismissive of the attitudes it will undoubtedly offend. But just because we disagree with a movie’s perceived politics doesn’t mean that we can’t enjoy its confrontational aspects, either. Genre movies should make us feel uncomfortable sometimes. Brawl in Cell Block 99 accomplishes this and then some.

That said, the initiated viewer of films of this ilk is accustomed to being presented with offensive material. And if you’re a fan of this kind of cinematic savagery you’ll find a lot to enjoy here, despite the bleak nature of the material. While the film must be commended for pulling this off very stone-faced, the inherent ludicrousness of the story serves as a constant reminder that we shouldn’t really take it seriously. While Brawl in Cell Block 99 will put you through the wringer, you might have fun basking in the depravity.

Vaughn is tremendous here and is clearly embracing his new “serious actor” transformation as if Wedding Crashers never happened. While he probably won’t be in contention for any prestigious awards, his performance is reminiscent of the outings hard-boiled legends like Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood gave back in their respective heydays. But he has great material to sink his teeth into as well; Bradley is a character who’s willing to get his hands dirty, but he does have some moral fiber; and despite living his life disobeying rules, he’s a good guy at heart. Vaughn conveys Bradley’s complex characteristics with realism, spoken through a mesmerizing southern laconic drawl. And on top of demonstrating the dramatic chops to pull off such a meaty performance, his imposing physicality is also fully-realized.

If he continues down this dark path, the Vaughn-aissance is going to be a fascinating journey. I’m certainly never going to object to him returning to the goofy comedic roles that made him a star, but seeing him thrive with edgier material has given me a newfound appreciation and respect for his talent. With another film written and directed by Zahler set to be released next year, the police brutality thriller, Dragged Across Concrete, it would seem that he’s not ready to return to lighter fare anytime soon. Long may it continue.

The supporting cast is also fantastic here. The star of the show is Don Johnson as Warden Tudds, who makes sure that Bradley’s prison stay is an everlasting nightmare. Elsewhere, Udo Kier is wonderfully sleazy as the messenger who informs our protagonist what will happen to his wife if he doesn’t comply. As for his wife, Jennifer Carpenter showcases pain and resiliency as Lauren, a former drug addict who’s perpetually down on her luck. By the end of it, you just want her to find peace.

The final 30-minutes of Brawl in Cell Block 99 are bowling shoe ugly as Bradley embarks on a killing mission through the titular prison unit, crushing skulls with his boots as he pursues his target. When it’s all said and done, it’s an experience you won’t forget anytime soon.