There’s a moment in Michael Mann’s Thief where James Caan espouses his moral code, confessing that he’s a “… straight arrow, I am a true blue kind of a guy.” That confession of ideology and its accompanying hue underscores every one of Bradley Thomas’ (Vince Vaughn) actions in S. Craig Zahler’s Brawl in Cell Block 99. We’re first introduced to the back of the Bradley’s shaved, tattooed head under the radiance of a blue tint. He’s our “true blue kind of guy”, a character with a distinct moral compass, a red-white-and blue everyman with an indomitable presence. At the start of the film he’s laid off from his tow-truck job. It’s a tough blow, but he leaves with the kind of humility that would otherwise be considered unbecoming for a man of his hulking stature. He returns home to find his wife Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter) in a compromising position. As she’s leaving in their car, he pleads with her to return home: a beaten-down shack that prominently features a tipped over garbage receptacle decorating the lawn and a limp American flag flailing along the veranda. Lauren returns, though Bradley is slow to follow. He proceeds to dismantle – with his bare hands - their car, punching in the glass windows and ripping off its hood as he hurls it across the lawn. Knuckles bloodied, Bradley proceeds into their living room to discuss their relationship with a mannered directness; he wants to salvage their relationship and be a better husband to Lauren. He wants to provide and be there for her. The blood from his knuckles appears to stain the couch. These scenes, in their frank and lucid details, tell you all you need to know about Bradley Thomas.
There’s an economy to Zahler’s filmmaking that’s refreshing in its vividness. It’s deliberate, though that should not be confused as slow. Rather, Zahler reflects on details about his characters that would otherwise go unnoticed by other filmmakers. He’s the kind of filmmaker who’s interested in filling out his characters with detail, demonstrating an interest in their ascetic worldview that’s infectious. Everything from Bradley’s music taste to his attentiveness to both his profession and his wife imbues him a sense of agency, individuality, and even warmth. Compounded with Vaughn’s committed, sententious performance, and Brawl in Cell Block 99 would initially appear to be a Michael Mann film in disguise.
But these Mann soupçons eventually funnel into Zahler’s more pulpy and muscular affectations, where violence begets violence when we see the foundation of Bradley’s worldview become compromised. In pursuit of the American dream, Bradley’s embrace of vice over virtue eventually leads him into a medium security prison. The film steps outside the blue-tinted idealism of its opening act into a crimson bayou, where Bradley must essentially bludgeon his way into a high security prison to ensure the safety of Lauren and their unborn daughter. The film puts aside a set of terms that can be embraced or disengaged with. One can see Bradley’s quest as a pulpy fulfillment of vengeance in the name of maintaining the safety and security of his family, or more broadly speaking, Brawl in Cell Block 99 can speak to the metaphorical American Dream that as nationalist nightmare. To embrace the Brawl’s primal persuasiveness requires its audience to question some of the troubling politics posited by Zahler. And as viscerally percussive as the film may be, the fact that it posits an additional contextual layer beneath all its bone-crushing mayhem is an unexpected delight.