Brawl in Cell Block 99
A grindhouse film with the violent self-composure of Bergman, S. Craig Zahler’s Brawl in Cell Block 99 continues to stake this pulp-impresario’s claim as the modern Sam Fuller, a filmmaker equally scrimmed with a brutal intensity and a deliciously hazardous sense of stillness. Even the title sounds like a Fuller picture newly recovered. In Brawl, the placid momentum of the early goings, a continual combustion engine masquerading as a lugubrious art film, turn inertia into pure cinematic action of the mind. Most action films turn human motion into a given, a guarantee, such that each successive movement loses its individual impact. Yet every minute twitch and quiver of the body in Brawl in Cell Block 99 does not merely hit with a ton of bricks. It genuinely ruptures the soul, shattering the visage of a tough, silent man and recombining the pieces with a violent force that acknowledges complete reconstitution is an impossibility.
This figure is Bradley Thomas, a reformed drug runner who lands in prison and is tasked with murdering a fellow prisoner for his once-employer to save his kidnapped wife and unborn daughter. Sounds like hackwork in theory, but Zahler infuses the film with a brutish meticulousness that is frighteningly pointed and discriminate, each motion maximized to achieve as much as possible with as little effort. Brawl wears its entirely-implicit themes lightly, but it walks with a heavy force of sheer being, like every shot trudges through the burden of the sheer abjection it visualizes. But not one ounce of Brawl succumbs to its own mass, for not one moment is artificially freighted with thematic importance – there are no symbols, no allegories, no metaphors here. Rather, Zahler’s film achieves a harder, harsher eloquence, a forceful pull of significance which doesn’t announce any thematic heft but which arrives at meaning inductively, through the sheer potency of its images, the minimalist force of its monstrous, almost inescapable momentum.
It’s a brutal film, not simply because it’s extremely unapologetic about its violence but because every moment feels in jeopardy of collapsing from the rot around it in this mentally savage motion picture with a back alley morality and a gutter-gravity. Or a bruised majesty, one also infused with Fuller’s reportorial ear for the poetic vitality of prison put-downs and the uncanny surrealism of seeming low-lifes who are tougher, more pointed, and more cutting with their words than the college-educated crowd expects them to be. Especially dialogue spoken by Vince Vaughn here, who imbues Thomas with a stewing, brewing implacability in addition to a quiet, humble humanity, a sense of single-minded intensity that he delivers with murmurs of full-bodied might. He holds every ounce of his hulking physicality in a sort of mordant repose throughout. Each glare, line, or minimal motion discharges a sort of violent potentiality, the terrifying weight of expectation begat by knowing what this man is truly capable of. He’s not a volcano, a spasmodic collection of explosive parts, but a black hole, a titanic entity with a leviathan-esque energy derived from his reticence, a presence of absence.
Vicious to the bone, Brawl might be deemed scalding-cold. Dropping Thomas into increasingly nebulous and chthonic realms of pain and torture, his suffering has a Biblical weight to it in its elementality and its primordial ambitions. But other than the cross on the back of his neck, Zahler avoids any self-satisfied high-brow excursions into allusion, the kind which might have more obviously marked how Thomas rekindles some of Max Von Sydow’s steely reserve and monomaniacal purpose from The Seventh Seal, to quote an art film with an equally sinister, almost proto-grindhouse sensibility that similarly bridges high and low brow. Brawl is a fearlessly empty film, barbaric and noxious and soul-bearingly tired and beaten-down and worn-out. It’s malodorous. But, in a rare feat of cinematic grindhouse potency akin to, say, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, because it is so extraordinarily evacuated of self-conscious meaning, it achieves a back-door purposefulness rooted in the sheer frictiveness of its images and sounds, the unalloyed, definitive presence of its being. Not unlike Thomas, it says little, but when it speaks, it cannot be dismissed.
John Carroll Lynch’s Lucky is self-evidently, transparently Harry Dean Stanton’s Lucky. The script written by Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja is self-aware enough not to withhold its enamored attitude toward Stanton, one of the great character actors in cinema history, but it’s also thoughtful and pungent enough, plastic enough with its treatment of aging, to not turn it into a museum piece that locks Stanton into his past or surrounds him with a glowing godliness. The film never dulls Stanton’s comic or his dramatic persona, but it also doesn’t diminish the messiness he represents.
Unceremoniously affectionate, this slice-of-retiring-life tale follows Lucky (Stanton) wandering around a desert town, locked into a daily ritual he approaches with a cheerful mix of ascetic determination and happy-go-lucky indifference. He’s an old-soul, a cowboy at heart, but the driftless, unmoored spirit animating that image in the American imagination if not in reality is more silent with his nonagenarian body. His itinerant life mostly takes the form of traversing to the local diner, then to the bar, and then back home, a steadfast and unerring circularity driven into coarse relief when David Lynch’s character – a friend of Lucky’s – enters the fray, his personal rhythm disrupted with the disappearance of his pet turtle. The necessity of mundanity, the need for the comfort of routine, becomes almost tragic in its incessant presence.
Lucky is a more genial film than that ultimately suggests. Lynch’s presence tacitly rhymes the film with Stanton’s walk-on role in this year’s Twin Peaks: The Return, but Lucky is a more relaxed sort than Lynch’s totally form-devouring mini-series. Unlike Lynch’s show, Lucky is an ode to Stanton rather than a mobilization of Stanton (and so many others) to peculiar, adventurous ends. This is mildly disappointing, but if we compare every slice of media negatively to the newest David Lynch feature, everything is going to come up short. Lucky isn’t an empty construction, anyway. Its unassertive exploration of physical frailness isn’t unique, but at its best it explores the fragility of the soul.
For instance, there are a number of extremely droll conceits where the screenwriters force-feed Stanton leaden monologues about realism and other subjects. But the script – or, really, Stanton mostly – elevates them by treating its semblance of meaning not assertively as dogma or truth but as a reflection of the retiring Lucky’s still-present need for conversation that mostly consists of being listened to and endeared by everyone around him, even those who are tired of his antics. This jaundiced twist, given a more spirited treatment in Lynch’s series, still germinates a mild aura of bitterness, the sort that allows the film to feel disenchanted with cowboy immortality, the myth of the cowboy’s subject-position and unquestioned supremacy to those who listen, without the film being rancid or fetid. Lucky doesn’t exactly dislodge expectations, but it does at least scribble around them.
When it isn’t layering on its commentary, Lucky also harbors suspicions that it can reach questions of aging implicitly, even if it stacks the deck by giving Stanton more lines than his skeletal physicality and dry, morosely poetic demeanor truly need to explore the film’s themes. Still, if Lucky’s screenplay is a tad over-written, it also does allow Stanton the pleasure of reading its lines, and who can complain about that? At one point, Ed Begley Jr’s doctor character effacingly compares Lucky to a werewolf and a vampire, not as a reflection of any malevolence or evil but of Stanton’s mythological status, his iconic and archetypical quality as one of the remaining members of America’s mid-century generation. Certainly, Stanton is playing a self-evident totem to himself, a nameless-but-named ambler confronting the loneliness of living past his time. But in select moments, the film achieves wider resonances of haunted memories, reverberations beyond Lucky’s personal mortal coil that relate not simply to dying but to living to the point where death would be more indifferent than either welcoming or frightening.