Film reviews: Brawl in Cell Block 99 | The Death of Stalin

Director S Craig Zahler takes his time exploring the morals and motives of his main character in Brawl in Cell Block 99, before all hell breaks loose in true horror movie style

Vince Vaughn in Brawl in Cell Block 99
Vince Vaughn in Brawl in Cell Block 99

Calling a film Brawl in Cell Block 99 is the titular equivalent of Chekov’s gun: having invoked a prison beat-down before the film has even started, there’s no way it’s not going to happen at some point in the action. That’s something the film’s cult writer/director S Craig Zahler exploits to his advantage. Like his debut feature, the cannibal-themed western Bone Tomahawk, his sophomore effort is another outré genre piece intent on subverting expectations, not so much by putting a new spin them, but by putting all the expected tropes on the back-burner in order to make us crave the promised violence of the title.

That’s a neat trick and in some respects Brawl in Cell Block 99 functions as a sort of anti-movie in its refusal to conform to the trashy set pieces you might expect from a film that casts Vince Vaughn as a shaven-headed, tattoo-sporting bruiser who works as a drug courier for a local crime lord. Tapping into the sort of darkness Vaughn backed off from playing after starring in Gus Van Sant’s misunderstood Psycho remake (he played Norman Bates), it’s certainly a revelatory performance, the antithesis of all those dismal comedies he spent much of the 2000s making.

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It’s a revelatory performance mostly for how contained Vaughn is. His character, Bradley Thomas, might be introduced as the sort of guy that responds to the double blow of losing his job as a mechanic and discovering his wife’s infidelity on the same day by literally punching his car to pieces, but the film doesn’t proceed to send him on a roaring rampage of revenge on account of how crappy his life is. On the contrary, it’s the very next scene that sets the dominant tone of the film as Bradley sits down with his wife, Lauren (played by Dexter’s Jennifer Carpenter), and engages in a protracted conversation about how to save their marriage.

Like Tarantino – an obvious reference point, but an accurate one in the sense that Zahler is one of the few filmmakers who understands what makes Tarantino so distinctive – Zahler is unafraid of slowing the pace of a movie right down in order to focus on his characters in ways that can seem banal and even boring. In Brawl in Cell Block 99 there’s certainly no getting round the fact that all the longeurs can seem extraneous given the film’s baggy two-and-a-quarter-hour running time. But they also thoroughly establish Bradley as a man with a strong moral code, committed to doing the right thing when the situation demands it – or the wrong thing when he needs to achieve a righteous goal further down the line.

That happens when a drug deal goes wrong and he elects to save the attending police officers rather than his own skin. Incarcerated in minimum-security prison, he accepts both his punishment and the fact that he won’t see his now pregnant wife or meet his unborn child for several years. But that all changes when the leader of a Mexican drug cartel kidnaps Lauren and orders him to kill a prisoner in the titular maximum security wing. The only chance he has of saving the heavily pregnant Lauren is if he gets himself transferred – which is when the mayhem starts.

Even then, though, the violence comes in short, sharp blasts, largely so it will have more impact. That’s important because that violence is also very cartoonish. Zahler is a horror director at heart and by the time we get to the titular cellblock – run by Don Johnson’s sadistic prison warden – we’re firmly in horror movie territory, with all the attendant freedoms that entails. Bones are broken in graphic detail. Faces are pummelled beyond recognition. And skulls are repeatedly stomped into the floor. All of a sudden, the slow-burning drama of the preceding 100 minutes or so erupts into a sustained firestorm of ferociousness, with Vaughn emerging from ashes as a screen actor who might finally be worth watching again.

If a week feels like an eternity in politics these days, Armando Iannucci shows it’s always been the case with The Death of Stalin, his riotous new comedy in which he applies the frantic behind-the-scenes politicking of The Thick of It, In the Loop and Veep to the chaos that ensued in the immediate wake of Joseph Stalin’s demise. That might not sound like fertile territory for comedy given that Stalin’s was a totalitarian regime in which death and suffering were real and very prevalent parts of daily life, but it’s also a regime in which language was policed, emotions were checked and panic was everyone’s default position, and from this Iannucci has created a fast and furious farce exploring the hysteria that results from living life in a permanent state of anxiety. Setting the funny-yet-horrifying tone right from the off with Paddy Considine as a radio producer thrown into a state of dread when Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) calls up to request a recording of a just-broadcast concert that no one thought to record, the film takes real-life events like this and spins them into a hilariously surreal nightmare as Stalin’s inner circle – Kruschev (Steve Buscemi), Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Molotov (Michael Palin) and sinister puppet-master Beria (Simon Russell Beale) – conspire to manage the transition of power following their leader’s sudden demise. Brilliantly acted, written and directed, it’s a film that uses laughter to further pull back the curtain on the very real danger that comes from weak-minded men grabbing power for its own sake.