If novelty’s your thing — and hell, even if it isn’t — then you should probably buy a ticket to “Brawl in Cell Block 99,” a veritable feast of images you don’t see every day: heads being divested of faces, necks and limbs getting crushed under foot, Vince Vaughn giving a master class in self-restraint.
But if forced to single out the most original moment, I’d point to a sequence barely five minutes in, not long after Vaughn’s character — a 6-foot-5 human refrigerator named Bradley Thomas — gets laid off from his auto-mechanic job and returns home to find that his wife, Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter), is having an affair.
One look at Bradley’s strongman physique and bald, cross-tattooed scalp, and you can guess what’s probably coming next: a screaming match, a few slaps and punches, and one of the two spouses getting thrown out of the house. Except none of that happens. Instead, Bradley finds a more constructive physical outlet for his rage — I won’t spoil the fun, but let’s just say he manages to vent his personal and professional grievances with impressive two-birds-one-stone economy — and then begins an even-keeled discussion with Lauren about the state of their marriage, their lack of communication and a tentative plan for reconciliation.
It’s a tense but tenderly played scene, and it immediately tells us something essential about the character: Bradley (never Brad) may have a violent temper, but he crucially knows how to control that temper, modulate his emotions and communicate with his words rather than his fists. As borne out by the plain-spoken witticisms that roll easily off his tongue — the writer-director, S. Craig Zahler, has a playful but incisive way with dialogue — there is more to this man than the deadly wall of muscle that meets the eye.
Something similar could be said of “Brawl in Cell Block 99,” a grimly mesmerizing pulp powerhouse that, by the end, makes the word “brawl” seem like the mother of all understatements. (The amusingly blunt title is a riff on “Riot in Cell Block 11,” a 1954 prison picture directed by Don Siegel, one of several genre masters to whom the film tips its hat.) But while a face-stomping, bone-breaking jailhouse rumble may be this movie’s advertised destination, it never feels like its reason for being.
Zahler, a novelist, musician and cinematographer who made his feature filmmaking debut with the exquisitely grisly 2015 western-horror-comedy “Bone Tomahawk,” is in no rush to get to the payoff. (Both features clock in at a leisurely but gripping 132 minutes.) He is both an unapologetic grindhouse aficionado and a painstakingly methodical storyteller, and it’s the tension between these two seemingly oppositional sensibilities that gives his work its peculiarly bruising impact.
When we catch up with Bradley 18 months after that initial introduction, he and Lauren are expecting a child and living somewhere in New York state, in a conspicuously nicer house than before. Faced with few other options after losing his job, Bradley now runs drugs for a suave crime lord named Gil (Marc Blucas), who remunerates him handsomely for his coolly efficient work. When some ill-advised backup causes an important pickup to go violently south, the cleanup duty falls to Bradley, who, always seeking to protect his boss and minimize bloodshed, submits to a seven-year prison sentence.
That willingness to sacrifice himself makes Bradley an even more intriguingly sympathetic antihero. But as the movie follows him behind bars, it becomes painfully clear that his honor comes at a very steep price — not least because he’s about to become a father, a detail that ups the stakes in memorably squirm-inducing fashion. It’s not long before he receives his first unexpected visitor, who makes it clear to him that he has far less hard time on his hands than he thought. There is work to be done, and mere days, even hours, in which to do it.
There have been some exceptional prison pictures in recent years, Steve McQueen’s “Hunger” and David Mackenzie’s “Starred Up” not least among them. But there is still something revelatory about the way Zahler ushers us into the cold, clammy world of the incarcerated. Bradley’s movement is constricted not only by armed guards, handcuffs and two-sizes-too-small prison shoes, but also by the dim, static images composed by the cinematographer Benji Bakshi, in contrast to the wide-angle lenses and tracking shots employed in the film’s earlier scenes. At times “Brawl in Cell Block 99” plays like the most austere exploitation movie ever made, steeped in chiaroscuro and purged of sensationalism; it’s a maximum-security Dante’s “Inferno.”
The radical deliberation of Zahler’s approach nonetheless allows for a few self-conscious flourishes that testify to the eclecticism of his enthusiasms. The flavorsome soundtrack abounds with classic soul tunes, though the most memorable song here may be the high-pitched drone of the stun belt that Bradley is forced to wear when things takes a decidedly medieval turn. The delectable supporting cast — the standouts include Fred Melamed, Mustafa Shakir, Don Johnson and (of course) Udo Kier — feels like a winking confirmation of the film’s B-movie bona fides.
But the most persuasive evidence of this movie’s single-minded skill — and the most powerful weapon in a story with little use for conventional firepower — is Vaughn himself. The actor has shown signs in recent years (“True Detective,” “Hacksaw Ridge”) of shrugging off the comic-loudmouth persona that has overly defined him for much of his career. But this is the first time I’ve been reminded that his towering physical stature — which at times makes him look like a walking exclamation point — might serve something other than a strictly comedic purpose.
Vaughn’s performance is riveting in its containment, and he honors his character’s ethos by making sure that every word, glance, gesture and silence counts. By the time Bradley reaches the point of no return and sends the movie hurtling toward its Grand Guignol climax, you realize he isn’t cutting loose or being driven over the edge. He’s simply a man with a job to do, reacting precisely and intelligently as the circumstances dictate. Cell Block 99 may be Bradley Thomas’ new home, but it turns out to be Vince Vaughn’s liberation.
‘Brawl in Cell Block 99’
Running time: 2 hours, 12 minutes
Playing: Laemmle’s Monica Film Center, Santa Monica