Confusion in Cell Block 99

Give Brawl in Cell Block 99 credit, it’s a gutsy movie. It has the guts to make the primary hostage of the film an unborn child – that this conceit slipped past the Hollywood gate-keepers astonishes me. It has the guts to cast Vince Vaughn as a near-superheroic brawler – despite his age and soft physique. It has the guts to cast the bad guys as a Latino drug cartel – rather than the near-obligatory Russian mafia that seems responsible for 99 percent of American crime these days if Hollywood’s output is anything to go by.

(Spoilers: It isn’t.)

You have to respect a film that takes as many risks as this one. The list continues. The protagonist is a straight up drug running bagman. His wife isn’t a stronk wimmin who don’t need no man. The lead pair actually love each other and fight for each other. The first half of the movie is a slow burn character drama that leads to a second-half bloodbath as brutal as any put to film. The secondary henchman is a stomach-churningly emotionless abortion doctor.  It’s both a slow-build character study and an over-the-top gore fest all at once. This film does so many things that simply aren’t done that it’s hard not to recommend it.

And yet…after some serious consideration, I can’t recommend it.

Brawl in Cell Block 99 (available on Amazon Prime) starts with a down on his luck tow-truck driver, who in fine Country-Western fashion loses his job and finds out his wife has been cheating on him on the same day. His response is measured and provides the first real handle on the character. We learn his marriage hit troubled waters after a miscarriage, but we also see them begin to work things out and choose to salvage the wreckage of their marriage.

Brief aside – the casting doesn’t work here. Vince Vaughn only has ten years on Jennifer Carpenter (the wife), but she looks so much younger than he does in this movie that it took me several minutes to understand that she wasn’t his daughter. Kudos to Carpenter for playing romantic leads into her late 30s, but if Hollywood is going to keep pushing May-November couples on screen (hello again, American Made!) they’ve got to learn how to distinguish husband-wife from father-daughter with more speed and clarity.

So we’re given reasons to root for this struggling couple, and it’s enough for us to forgive the fact that Vince Vaughn is a drug runner. He seems troubled by his career choice, which helps us sympathize with him, even if we can’t forgive him for helping to destroy the fabric of America. It also helps that the heavies in this film are shown to be uncaring, vicious, and stupid monsters. If the film had been consistent in this regard, I might actually have been able to recommend it.

As it stands, the film tries too hard to be gritty, and makes a few strange choices that suck the burgeoning emotion out the experience. What’s left is another schizophrenic film that elevates internal conflict above emotional manipulation.

That’s not a compliment. Movies are supposed to be manipulative. When we got to the movies, we are paying to be manipulated. We pay for a comedy trusting that the film will manipulate us to laugh. We pay for a romance trusting that the film will manipulate us to feel the love. We pay for exciting films because we want to be excited. The only manipulation this film provides revolves around confusion. If you want to be confused, go see a mystery. A straight-ahead action film stiff-arms any attempts at audience engagement when it fails to ground the protagonist’s struggle in doing the right thing.

Two examples from this film help illustrate.

  1. Our hero has been remanded to medium security prison.  He needs to be transferred to the nearby maximum-security prison by showing himself to be a raging psychopath.  He can do this by beating the holy hell out of the sadistic guards that surround him.  The set-up is there, but moments before the pay-off, the worst of the guards is given several moments to show a touch of humanity that sucks the cathartic release out of his defeat.  The heel-face ruins the emotional impact of the fight, turning it from a well-deserved come-uppance to a sad and nauseating display.
  2. Later, our hero needs to moved from Cell Block 56 to the worst, blackest hole in the maximum-security prison.  He makes a reasonable request of a violent gang, knowing that his request will spark a fight.  The tension of the fight carries far more weight than the previous one specifically because it’s more fun watching people who deserve a beat-down get one than it is watching a decent guy get beat down.  For decent people, anyway.

Sometimes they get it right. Sometimes they get it wrong.

In the final analysis, despite everything the movie does right, those repeated little mis-steps and risks that don’t pay off cost my firm recommendation. The barrage of difficult choices thrust upon Vaughn’s character left me repeatedly thinking, “I don’t know if I like that.” It became a litany that I still feel when thinking about it, and as a result I don’t know if I feel like recommending it.

Hey, Brawl in Cell Block 99, you succeeded in manipulating me into feeling very conflicted about you.  Congratulations on that, I guess?