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  • Writer's pictureS.K. Chishty

Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2017)

Zahler's film wears its blood-splattered grindhouse influences on its sleeves.

Broken teeth, smashed-up faces, shattered limbs, and torture all show up casually and with increasing intensity in Zahler's second feature film after Bone Tomahawk.

The violence in Zahler's previous film was extreme and did not occur until the final scenes. This allowed the audience to get involved in the lives of the film's characters making the final scenes genuinely shocking. Here, the director seems to be trying to perfect this style.

Zahler is in no hurry to get to the Block 99, leave alone the advertised brawl as of the title. Bradley Thomas (Vince Vaughn) has just been fired and returns home to find out that his wife Lauren (Jeniffer Carpenter) has been having an affair. He proceeds to practically destroy her car with his bare hands to vent out his anger as the audience fleetingly wonders, "What if that were a man?". Zahler, in one stroke, shrewdly raises the audience's expectations and displays Bradley's ("not Brad") almost inhuman strength.

Later, he sits calmly with Lauren in his living room discussing their marriage, while his hand bleeds.

Flash forward a year later, the couple is pregnant and Bradley has been forced to take up drug dealing. After one delivery goes terribly wrong, he finally finds himself in jail - a medium-security one where the guards are comparatively friendly. Before Bradley acclimatizes himself to do his seven years, he is approached by Udo Kier (credited as Placid Man) who informs him that the only way he can get out of the debt of the lost delivery and save his wife is to kill someone inside.

Zahler comes across as a supremely confident director because just when his main character reaches the jail and the brawl looks closer on the horizon, he slows the film even further. Each detail of Bradley's initiation into the jail is charted with patience. This is where the time spent on his character pays off. We continue to watch everything with fascination - and growing dread. This section also lulls the audience so that when the violence begins, its vehemence is shocking.

Perhaps, most importantly, this also suggests that Bradley's anger and its mercurial let-out is not just to save his wife. It suggests that there would have been a "brawl" irrespective of his wife's kidnapping.

Like the film looks bleached of colors, Zahler seems to have deliberately drained his film of any political ideology too. Its images of hidden sections in a prison specially designed for torture, Bradley being led into these cavernous spaces with a white cloth over his face in an orange jumpsuit might trigger memories of the images from Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay. But these allusions, if they are that, are fleeting and for those who like to watch their films to reaffirm their political stands, like an itch that cannot be scratched.

Zahler might not commit to any political ideology but his commitment to the pulpiness of his project is admirable. He understands grindhouse sensibilities better than those who claim to be experts. He does not go for po-faced realisticness simply because neither did the films he is obviously indebted to. His dialogue might seem showy in a Tarantino-esque way but somehow it never calls attention to itself as it is more concerned with the details. I think the reason for this latter is that the actors are not aware that they are speaking something precious, something unrealistic. Despite the physicality of the film, the director's hand is so light that even the twists don't land as twists.

Vaughn's presence is bracing and his performance largely unsentimental. He almost recalls the presence of Michael Myers in the best Halloween films. Meted out with the worst, but somehow still indestructible.

The usage of prosthetics in the final shots is obvious and his character, whatever it is a symbol of within the American landscape, continues to live on.

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