Bone Tomahawk was a savage but highly inventive film. Writer director S. Craig Zahler has followed this horror western up with a tense and equally grim prison drama. Vince Vaughan, of all people, plays a burley, violent man with a heart of gold. He is sent to minimum security prison for seven years after he decides to betray his drug dealing boss by killing some of his men to save some police officers. However, once his pregnant wife (Jennifer Carpenter) is kidnapped, he is tasked with descending further into the hell of the prison system to kill the man in cell block 99.
The most pressing question is clearly whether or not Vaughn succeeds as the big badass you don’t want to mess with. Fortunately I feel he does. His physicality was suitably intimidating in his violent moments, but he also brought a great deal of pathos to the role. His violence is never inexplicable, and there’s always a sense of remorse to his horrifying actions. He also seems to have learned how to fight as the style of filming clearly demonstrates he knows how to duck and throw a punch and make it look good. He also has a wonderfully sardonic sense of humour that’s far funnier than a lot of his recent comedy work. I never doubted him in this role.
It was interesting watching this the day after A Prayer Before Dawn, another grim prison drama. Even at its worst, the prison that Vaughn’s Bradley Thomas is trapped in never feels quite as hellish as the aforementioned movie. The film is, however, viscerally violent in a comic way. Some of the bone crunching feats of cruelty Thomas inflicts on his fellow inmates and guards, usually with his bare hands, are truly wince inducing. My audience of fellow critics groaned and laughed as yet another bone protruded from skin. One particular head stomping will be haunting my waking hours for a good long while.
However, unlike A Prayer Before Dawn, the acts of violence are unpleasant in their bluntness, not because of the contrivances of the camera. Zahler didn’t feel the need to shake the camera and shoot too close to create a sense of immersion. He uses good blocking and just enough cuts to hide the practical effects. This means the fights are actually enjoyable to watch from a film making perspective; they become horrible and upsetting because of the level of violence and also because of my investment in the main character. This was a much more effective means of making engaging me in the brutality of the story.
Brawl in Cell Block 99 is going to be a difficult film to recommend for the exact same reasons as Bone Tomahawk. The brutality definitely becomes comic in its excess, but it’s bound to upset some viewers. The film has just as much heart (though fewer loveable characters) as Bone Tomahawk and is just as thrilling. What’s more, it is a film that subverts genre expectations and offers real surprises. Zahler is becoming a director to keep a very close eye on.
5 / 5
Paul Salt is the co-host of One Good Thing.