TIFF 2017: Brawl in Cell Block 99 Review

Midnight Madness

A few years ago a cult novelist tried his hand at filmmaking for the first time with the stunning Bone Tomahawk. What started as a slow burn and cynical homage to The Searchers turned on a dime into one of the most vicious horror flicks in years and S. Craig Zahler instantly established himself as a genre filmmaker to watch. Now he’s back with Brawl In Cell Block 99. The film is less ambitious than his previous effort. More of a lean n’ mean exploitation flick that takes audiences and Vince Vaughn down a dark road to hell via the American Dream, the movie confirms that Zahler is a hell of a talent. It’s also the most likely movie at TIFF to separate you from your lunch.

Vince Vaughn stars as a bald n’ tattooed former addict trying to do well. Vaughn isn’t doing his usual fast-talkin’ shtick, but there is a certain deadpan humour to his southern gentleman. After losing his Joe job, Vaughn decides to work for his drug dealing friend. He doesn’t want to, but his wife (Jennifer Carpenter) is pregnant and he wants the family to do better. It happens. They make money. Vaughn even becomes central enough to the operation that he’s trusted to take part in a big deal that could expand the business. Of course, everything goes wrong and Vaughn ends up in jail. That’s when Udo Kier turns up and the movie goes insane. Explaining why would be unfair, but Vaughn’s journey into the institution is very much a journey into hell and the darkest corners of his soul. Reality shifts ever so slightly and Zahler delivers some imagery guaranteed to leave a scar on your brain that will never heal. 

This is one damn twisted and unsettling movie. It doesn’t seem like it will be at first. Zahler has a way of sneaking that sort of thing upon viewers. He makes you fall into the rhythms of an unpredictable world, gets you caring about the characters, and then when you least expects it slides the tale into a nightmare from which there is no waking up. Actors are deliberately cast against type to keep things woozy and they all deliver. By the time this is over, you’ll never look at Vince Vaughn or Don Johnson the same way again and that’s very deliberate. Two movies into his career, Zahler’s primary filmmaking goal seems to be to shake and rattle viewers by teasing them into a deeply uncomfortable place with no escape. The climax of this movie is unforgettably bleak and disgusting, yet somehow it all feels earned and dramatically appropriate.


Brawl on Cell Block 99 is shock cinema with a heart and a brain. Somehow that only makes it all more painful. Don’t see this unless you have spare time to wonder around in a daze afterwards.