Writer-director S. Craig Zahler casts Vince Vaughn against type and brings an arthouse sensibility to the grindhouse in his brutal prison film, Brawl in Cell Block 99.
Miami-born filmmaker S. Craig Zahler made one hell of an entrance in 2015 with Bone Tomahawk, a slow burn western-horror hybrid that’s probably best described as The Searchers meets The Hills Have Eyes.
It wasn’t just his successful blending of two disparate genres that made audiences and critics sit up and take notice. Zahler’s interests lay in character building, wordy dialogue and dramatic impetus, as well as bursts of bone-crunching violence, inviting comparisons with Quentin Tarantino and Sam Peckinpah.
For his second feature, Brawl in Cell Block 99, Zahler applies the same measured character-driven approach to the prison film, casting Vince Vaughn against type as a hulking former boxer and drug runner who winds up in the slammer, where he is blackmailed into unleashing his pent-up rage against fellow inmates.
“I was seeing a lot of prison movies at a revival theatre in New York City, and as is often the case when I’m investigating a lot of one thing, be it westerns, death metal, independent gore movies, or whatever, I become interested in doing one myself and figuring out how to go about it,” says Zahler of his inspiration for Brawl in Cell Black 99, which has attracted some extremely positive buzz on the festival circuit.
“It’s a fun one to go around and see with an audience,” he says. “There’s certainly a point where things just start boiling over. I’ve yet to see it with an audience that doesn’t start to react audibly, and consistently, once the freight train has gone off the rails.”
“There’s certainly a point where things just start boiling over”
The aforementioned train is both the film and Vaughn’s character, Bradley Thomas, who has an obvious propensity for violence, yet is more complex and unpredictable than the average tattooed thug. For example, upon learning of his wife’s infidelity, he tears her car apart with his bare hands and then sits back down to engage her in quiet conversation.
“This whole movie rests on the shoulders of that character,” says Zahler. “This person making some interesting choices, and not necessarily doing what normal people would. These are testaments to his strength and his willpower, that he has all of that fury within him, but it’s not coming out all the time.”
It’s an atypical role for the star of comedies like Wedding Crashers and Dodgeball, which is exactly what Zahler had in mind when it came to casting.
“I started to think ‘who would be an interesting choice to do this?’ There are some obvious choices, like Woody Harrelson, who’s done something like this. But then picking someone who hasn’t and who is really talented, I think this is the case twice over with Vince Vaughn.
“Vince has done dramatic stuff, but this role is unique. It’s just a giant, towering badass with all this hurt and suppressed rage and all the pain from his life prior to this story beginning. There’s a lot for him to deal with.
“When I started working with him and saw how committed he was, and the depth of his performance, I knew I had chosen really well. It’s kind of impossible for me to think of another human being who would have landed this role as well as he would have. The ultimate compliment is I’ve already finished shooting my third movie and he’s one of the stars of that one. So obviously we got along really well.”
Brawl in Cell Block 99 sounds like the kind of pulpy title you’d expect to find playing grindhouses and drive-ins during the seventies, but Zahler’s emphasis on low-key dramatic moments and complicated, layered characters transcends exploitation movie trappings.
“I’ve heard the idea of the elevated B-movie or grindhouse movie, but it can also be the arthouse dragged into the gutter,” he notes. “The movie where it’s just a dude beating the sh-t out of people doesn’t have all of these heavier dramatic moments and bizarre characters on the fringes. To me that’s a thinner experience. Spending the time to show all of these other characters, you really get a sense of the world outside the journey of the lead character.”
DID YOU KNOW?
Director and screenwriter S. Craig Zahler is also a vocalist and drummer with heavy metal band Realmbuilder, performing under the stage name Czar.