S. Craig Zahler doesn’t make movies for the faint of heart.
With his first two features, 2015’s Kurt Russell-led Western Bone Tomahawk and now this Friday’s Vince Vaughn-headlined prison actioner Brawl in Cell Block 99, the writer/director has perfected a very particular brand of genre cinema, one in which long stretches of engaging character drama are punctuated by—and/or concluded with—extreme forms of viciousness. At first inviting, then bruising, and finally jarring to the point of leaving one stunned, they’re like a Mike Tyson uppercut to the senses. Even for those raised on action, horror, and crime cinema, they deliver a level of devastating brutality that’s difficult to shake—and, at least in terms of degree, unlike anything you’ve seen before.
“I’m always trying to come up with something that surprises myself; that’s my process as a writer. And whether that’s a moment of violence, or a character moment, or especially when it’s a moment of humor, it’s rooted in being something beyond what’s expected,” Zahler says. “It’s been more than thirty years of me watching gory movies, and reading violent books and comics—I need to come up with something different than what you’ve seen before for it to register for me as something unique and new, and also to satisfy me as a writer that it’s startling. So when I’m trying to come up with something that would shock me, it’s going to be a little bit further than what is typical—if not a lot further.”
That aim is certainly accomplished by Brawl, which tells the tale of Bradley Thomas (Vince Vaughn), a former boxer who, upon losing his car-towing job and discovering that his wife Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter) has been cheating on him, endeavors to turn his wayward fortunes around. His means of doing this involves returning to a life of running drugs for a local boss, which proves initially fruitful and then disastrous when a deal-gone-awry lands him in prison. Making matters worse, he becomes the target of another kingpin who, as payback for Bradley’s actions, kidnaps the now-pregnant Lauren. Courtesy of a nefarious intermediary known as the Placid Man (Udo Kier), Bradley is offered a new deal: murder an inmate in a high-security facility’s cell block 99, or have unspeakable things happen to his spouse and unborn child.
It’s a worst-case scenario for Bradley, and one that Zahler orchestrates with the sort of slow-build tension that also marked Bone Tomahawk, allowing his material—and protagonist—to develop at a menacingly unhurried pace. By the time the mayhem truly transpires, Brawl in Cell Block 99 has so well-established Bradley’s personality, motivations and rage that the barbarity lands with additional impact. And land it does, often on people’s skulls, as Zahler goes several steps beyond American History X in delivering a series of head stomps that are as gnarly as anything seen on-screen in recent memory. They’re the film’s unforgettable centerpiece images, and for Zahler, always looking to push things into previously unseen territory, they made sense both creatively and, in terms of Bradley himself, logistically.
“In the case of Bradley Thomas, you have a guy who’s driven by quite a bit of anger. You’re dealing with that anger as a viewer right from the get-go. He’s suppressing that anger and you see all of that kicking inside him,” he remarks. “Where are you going to channel it?”
The answer, it seemed obvious to Zahler, was enemies’ craniums. “That certainly is the most aggressive place to attack on somebody—their head. A focal point for him, in terms of neutralizing some opponents, would be doing something like that. If you want to viciously take apart somebody, the head seems like a really good place to attack. He’s not going around ripping out hearts, though perhaps there could have been a version where he was doing a lot of that. But the head seemed the way to go.”
Though Vaughn has often taken detours away from comedy to play crime-cinema heavies (think Clay Pigeons, Psycho, and True Detective, to name just three), his turn here is striking in its battering-ram intensity, and Zahler surrounds him with a series of solid supporting players, including Carpenter, Kier, Fred Melamed as a foul prison official, and Don Johnson as the warden of (figurative) hell. As Bradley descends into ever-uglier circumstances that require him to commit unspeakable atrocities, Zahler maintains rigorous focus on Bradley’s interior state, which only further serves to transform the proceedings into a nightmarish portrait of a desperate man forced into appalling action in order to protect those he loves.
It is, to be sure, not a film for everyone, and Zahler admits his latest is yet another work made primarily with his own interests—rather than those of the commercial mainstream—in mind. “There’s nothing really calculated in terms of, this is what the audience wants. Certainly, no audience was out there like, ‘When is there going to be the next cannibal Western? The next 132-minute prison picture?’ These are to my tastes,” he chuckles. Even the idea for Brawl in Cell Block 99 came about in an unexpected way, with Zahler—the author of fifty screenplays and eight novels, covering a wide range of genres—hitting upon the story’s basic concept after binge-watching prison classics at a retrospective at New York City’s Film Forum. “I saw twelve, fourteen [movies]? And I thought, ‘What would I do with this genre?’” he states. “It doesn’t come from a place of, let me emulate something. It more often comes from a place of why something doesn’t work for me, and what would I do differently.”
Zahler cites Sidney Lumet, Don Siegel, Sam Peckinpah and Takeshi Kitano as inspirations for his own melding of crime, drama, comedy and out-there violence, and emblematic of his unique artistry is an early scene in which Vaughn’s Bradley, having just learned about his wife’s infidelity, sends her inside the house in order to spare her his wrath. He then takes his fury out on her car, his hands tearing the vehicle apart piece by piece, increasingly bloodied from his destructive handiwork. It’s an eye-opening sequence of brute-force physicality that Zahler explains was filmed in roughly “1.5 takes,” with only a few “resets”—installing new headlights for Vaughn to re-smash, for example—breaking up the shoot.
“I knew going in when I’d written the piece that this would be a very discussed scene in the movie, and I actually approached it and handled it very much the way I handled the dismantling of the deputy in Bone Tomahawk,” Zahler says. “There was a very specific linear progression, but in both cases, we only had so much time, and it only went one way. We had to do it piece by piece.” Given the exertion required by this feat, Zahler is quick to credit his leading man. “A lot of what he’s doing is actually pounding on the vehicle, which isn’t the most comfortable thing to have your performer do. And there were many things that weren’t comfortable for Vince in this, but he was game to do all of them. He’s a champ.”
Having already collaborated with noted Hollywood libertarians Vaughn and Kurt Russell, as well as just completing production on another feature (Dragged Across Concrete) starring Vaughn and Mel Gibson, Zahler’s own alleged conservatism has become a natural focus of attention. The director, however, says his own politics rarely factor into his filmmaking equation. “On the spectrum, I would be just right of center. Certainly, libertarian views make some sense to me. But I don’t come from a political place at all when I write,” he asserts. “I’m more interested in presenting multiple points of view in a piece than I am in presenting any political dogma that I have. And I really don’t have much. For instance, I’m an atheist, and I wrote the lyrics for, and co-composed, straight-up religious Christian songs that are in the movie. So that’s where I come from—a place of what’s most interesting for the piece. It’s more interesting for me as a writer to get into the mindset of characters who don’t have my belief system, or have some of my belief system, than to write a bunch of characters who say what I think.”
What really motivates him are projects that eschew message-making pedantry. “I would say none of these [movies] have a clear ‘This is the agenda of the movie.’ That’s actually something I tend not to like about a lot of modern movies—in particular, those that are chasing awards. They’re so agenda-driven, and I feel like there’s a sermon,” he says. “It’s not that compelling when you show one point of view as smart and the other point of view as incorrect, and to spoon-feed that.”
Which isn’t to say that Zahler is surprised that his politics come up; with the actors he’s chosen for his first three films (“the Mean Men Trilogy”), such questions are, he recognizes, inevitable. It’s just that he doesn’t care about what others might presuppose about him or his intentions. “People are going to make assumptions, and that’s fine. I’m okay with it,” he offers. “It’s just not satisfying to me as a creative person to write a bunch of things that deliver my political views. That’s what a blog is for.”