Katabasis is about descent; but the archetypal hero will usually return triumphant in victory. Brawl in Cell Block 99 offers an alternative vision of moral redemption though within Bradley Thomas’ avenging-angel-versus-the-devil narrative.
The concept of Katabasis is a descent of some kind, such as moving downhill, or a military retreat, or in this context, a violent journey into the underworld. The term has multiple related meanings in poetry, psychology, and Greek Mythology. Heroes such as Orpheus, Odysseus, and Lazarus went down into the depths of Hades to locate lost loved ones, collect information, and battle their demons. Conversely, writer-director S. Craig Waller has produced something akin to Sam Peckinpah reinventing the story of Orpheus. But instead of employing beautiful music to defeat the enemy, Waller’s anti-hero Bradley Thomas (Vince Vaughn), uses his fists, head, body, bats, bars, guns, and hulking power to defeat his foes.
Brawl in Cell Block 99 opens with a stunning shot from behind Vince Vaughn’s bald, bulking head emblazoned with a startling crucifix tattoo. As a means of establishing character and showing us the world we’re in it is emphatic, visceral, and deviously economic. You know immediately not to mess with Bradley Thomas as he is a coiled spring of masculine power, yet he also has a strong moral compass. Finding himself out of work and in difficult financial times, Thomas takes up drug courier work to support his pregnant wife portrayed by Jennifer Carpenter. All is going smoothly until a deal with a Mexican drug cartel goes awry and, from when Thomas enters prison, all manner of sickening and brutal hell breaks loose.
The film is shot on a low budget but the style is impressive. The cinematographer, Benji Bakshi, along with the director Waller, are brave in their choices; utilizing natural light, drained colors, shadows, and darkness. Often Thomas’ is lit by a slit or shaft or box of light as his character finds himself trapped in corridors and cells as well as his own life choices. Much will also be made of the ultra-violence which includes some impressive bone-crunching Foley sound work. But, the hyper-real violence, while reminiscent of the cartoon horror gore of early Peter Jackson and Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead series, is paradoxically not exploitative. This is because it is contextualized within the brutal crime setting and driven by Thomas’s powerful desire to save the people he loves.
The screenplay, also written by Waller, is full of witty one-liners and deadpan repartee between hard-bitten, desperate criminals and jailers who look as though they have been transported right out of hard-pipe thrillers such as John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), Sam Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974) and Don Siegel’s crime gem Charley Varrick (1973). While over two hours long the plot moves pretty quickly, yet Waller takes his time deliberately building character, suspense and tension before busting out into spectacular violence. Having previously directed the stunning B-movie Western Bone Tomahawk (2015), S. Craig Waller is certainly making a name for himself as an independent film director of some note.
Waller finds a compelling cinematic partner-in-crime in Vince Vaughn too. Vaughn, who burst on the scene with a hilarious performance in brilliant indie-hit Swingers (1996), could be argued to have not lived up to his full acting potential. While he has performed in some excellent movies his CV is also peppered with unfunny comedies, soporific romances, and bland family films. Don’t get me wrong, we have to pay the mortgage but there’s always been a nagging sense Vaughn was not utilizing his meaty acting ability. Having said that in Hacksaw Ridge (2016) and now Brawl in Cell Block 99, he proves himself to be a character actor of some force. Indeed, his natural comedic timing, muscular frame, and searing intensity are all utilized here to mesmeric impact in a career-best performance.
As such, Brawl in Cell Block 99 joins a list of recent lower-budgeted-independent-minded movies such as Cold in July (2014), Green Room (2015), Out of the Furnace (2013), and Hell or High Water (2016), which rip into the dark underbelly of United States’ industrial and criminal landscape leaving us in no doubt to the destructive nature of the American dream.