Brawl in Cell Block 99

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Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2017)
Dir. S. Craig Zahler

The same DOP that flattened wild west expanses for Zahler’s ultraviolence and comic book one-liners in Bone Tomahawk flattens streets and cell blocks for Zahler’s ultraviolence and super direct (comic book) melodrama before cramming us into evocative in a weird way medieval torture chambers. They also shoot Vaughn so Vaughn looks his height which is of course with his eyes and bulk, terrifying, and Vaughn does his post-True Detective s02 understated routine, now with the punctuation intact (which is good but also sad for anyone who enjoyed those unusual line-readings). It is impossible to say whether or not Brawl will be an enduring ‘thing’, as everything from the title to the posters suggests that it does not want to be a ‘thing’ at all, and this goes with its spirit of exploitation played straight- no winks, barely a nudge, ostensibly no desire to cater to or even please us (which as exploitation played straight is its biggest and most enduring con). The cameras stand back too far and the shots cut too infrequently to let Vaughn slack off, instead he remembers fight routines which to be fair basically just add up to him getting hit and then hitting back once or twice way harder. There is a horrific sort of pleasure to this sort of a fight scene- they’re not interesting or even impressive, and in fact they’re all narratively programmed so as to not feel good or bad, just blunt and horrible. It knows what we want to say about this, and calling Brawl in Cell Block 99 an interrogation of our desire to see violence gives it more and less credit than it deserves or even asks for. At its core exploitation was about efficiency, and melodrama, emotions. Here dragging itself while keeping us at arms length amounts to something, I’m sure, but it’s hard to tell what. Zahler wants to be a brilliant idiot, and he’s pulling it off even quicker than the time it’s taking him to figure out what that means.

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