This article was originally published during the Toronto International Film Festival.
Remember when Vince Vaughn was kind of America’s boyfriend and dated Jennifer Aniston? You might want to file that away as ancient history, because you are not ready for the cute cad from Wedding Crashers to go full-tilt, right-wing nut job — with a Southern accent, and a shaved head with a black cross tattooed to the back of it — in his brutal new prison revenge flick, Brawl in Cell Block 99.
Perhaps this makes more sense if you consider that in real life, Vaughn is an outspoken libertarian and gun-rights advocate who endorsed Ron Paul, and then Rand Paul, in the last three elections. (Yeah, I Googled that multiple times to confirm.) His #NotImpressed lack of enthusiasm during Meryl Streep’s rousing anti-Trump Golden Globes speech, while seated with fellow ultra-conservative and good friend Mel Gibson, made him a meme, and a bit of an alt-right hero. And there seems to be a distinct trend in the 47-year-old’s work toward playing roles that delve into toxic masculinity or the broken promise of the American dream and the anger and violence it may beget.
Take his drill-sergeant character in his buddy Mel’s Hacksaw Ridge, who is extremely pro-America, and only starts to respect Andrew Garfield’s pacifist character once he understands that just because he won’t carry a firearm doesn’t mean he’s a pussy. Or the terrifying crime boss he played on True Detective season two, who’s the definition of a man trying to shape the world to his desires through brute force and is driven by an insecurity that he’s failing at his duty to provide for his scary, hard-ass wife. (An insecurity that manifests itself in his beating the crap out of a low-level Latin pimp named Santos and ripping his gold grillz out of his mouth with pliers.) And it’s no coincidence that in Brawl, there’s a direct line between Vaughn’s character losing his blue-collar job and his mayhem-ridden confinement in a “minimum freedom” prison.
Whatever you ultimately think of Brawl — and Vaughn’s — politics, it’s hard to deny that this is superior grindhouse filmmaking. (“Prime-cut exploitation porterhouse,” one review called it after its premiere as part of the Toronto International Film Festival’s Midnight Madness section; there’s no U.S. distributor yet.) Its director, S. Craig Zahler, proved his skill with both gore and insane setups in his first film, the horror Western Bone Tomahawk, in which Kurt Russell’s sheriff takes on a tribe of cave-dwelling cannibals. Brawl is even more gruesome, if you can believe it (who knew there were so many ways to break limbs or smash in skulls?), with Vaughn in a powerhouse performance as a hulking, muscular, hand-combat killing machine, like you’ve never seen — or would never expect to see — from him before.
Within minutes of the film starting, he’s ripping apart his wife’s car with his bare hands in a jaw-dropping scene that both announces what this guy is capable of, and what we, as an audience, should prepare ourselves to expect. And weirdly, his actions are kind of understandable. His character, tow-truck driver Bradley Thomas — also an ex-boxer and cancer survivor, two years sober — arrives to work that morning to find out he’d been laid off (goddamn economy), then arrives home unexpectedly to catch his wife Laura (Jennifer Carpenter) about to drive off to cheat on him. “I’m seeing someone,” she tells him, as he pulls her out of the car and commands her to go inside. You can see the beginnings of what happens in the trailer, as Vaughn pounds on the driver’s side window and then finally just punches through it to rip out the rearview mirror. This is not a car destruction like any you’ve ever seen; it’s like this guy is unleashing a shrapnel-bomb of rage out of his fists onto the helpless machinery. The side mirror is next; then the hood, which he tears straight off the hinges and tosses into the street; then a headlight, which he not only smashes open but also reaches into and pulls out the wires from. (According to the producers at the post-screening Q&A, those are all practical materials Vaughn is destroying: real metal, real plastic, real glass, just rigged not to hurt their star outright.)
And then, after all that, with his knuckles swollen and dripping with blood, he rejoins his wife in their living room to discuss the state of their marriage. He has a long, oddly soft-spoken monologue comparing all their bad luck — which includes a miscarriage — to the frustration of going to a coffee shop and, again and again, accidentally picking up skim milk when what you really want is cream. “The law of averages would suggest that at least some of the time, I’d get the cream,” he says. He wants the cream. Which means, he’s willing to test his sobriety and start running drugs for his friend. And he thinks they ought to try for another baby.
“I think the scene that hooked me was when Bradley goes home and finds out she’s been cheating and kind of beats the car up, but then goes and says, ‘This is a good sign that we need to get closer,’” Vaughn said, laughing, at the post-screening Q&A. “I found it surprising and I also found it kind of real.” Here are two people who’ve experienced a lot of pain, but are now trying to make a good life for themselves, “So, they come together in that moment, and it oddly made me really root for them,” he says.”I think Craig does a really good job of having you connect to the characters and invest in them, and then the violence — you really understand what’s at stake and the motivation of it by the time you get to the first arm break. It’s understandable, sort of.”
You know from Brawl’s title where all that drug running is going to have Bradley wind up, but the how is still pretty thrilling, involving unrelenting shootouts and Vaughn climbing up a pole underneath a pier that’s covered in glass shards. Zahler takes his time building Vaughn’s character as a man of decency who loves his family and doesn’t default to violence, but is nonetheless capable of striking down with great vengeance and furious anger if provoked. Once in jail, he’s got to deal with shit-covered cells and Don Johnson as a cigar-chomping torture master of a warden who likes hooking up new prisoners to electric-shock belts; but it’s only when the king of exploitation movies, Udo Kier, shows up to issue a very motivating threat that Vaughn — who wrestled when younger, boxed his whole life, and now does jujitsu — really breaks out some impressive bone-crunching skills. Vaughn said even he was worried about hurting himself during the “15-, 20-punch combinations we’d do in a take, and full blow, because there’s really no way to make it look good without really kind of committing to it.” (Udo Kier loved Vaughn’s performance so much that he kissed him onstage at the TIFF Q&A.)
Still, once you spot the conservative coding of the whole endeavor, it’s hard to unsee. It’s his layoff, as a Forgotten American, that sends him into his life of drug-running and violence. His default, though, is being a guy who won’t allow his pregnant wife to handle a kitchen knife because she’s too delicate, and even carries her around their house so she won’t have to walk. (She does, however, know how to use the gun from their bedside table.) When it comes to protecting her, there’s no limit to the number of prison guards, drug bosses, and gangsters — often, you’ll start noticing, black, Latino, or Asian — whose faces he’ll bash in. And if that message were a bit too subtle, the film also includes a scene where a police detective seems almost reluctant to send him to prison, telling him he can tell he’s a man with a moral compass. “I knew before you told me that you had an American flag in your home,” says the policeman. “You’ve probably got more than one. You’re a patriot.”
I can’t speak confidently to Zahler’s politics. But just try not to make a connection between Vaughn’s statements on affirmative action; the trifecta of his Brawl, Hacksaw Ridge, and True Detective roles; and Zahler’s broad-stroke themes, such as Bone Tomahawk being about the takedown of tribal savages who are terrorizing white people, or one of the villains of Brawl being a comically slimy Chinese “abortionist.” There’s also a line, uttered to a Mexican drug thug: “The last time I checked, the colors of the flag weren’t red, white, and burrito.” It got a big laugh at my screening, in socialist-heaven Toronto. Go figure.
Then there’s Vaughn’s next project, Zahler’s third feature, Dragged Across Concrete, co-starring Mel Gibson (“an old friend of mine,” Vaughn said at the Q&A) and reuniting the Brawl team of Jennifer Carpenter, Don Johnson, and Udo Kier. It’s a crime thriller about two policemen, an old vet, and his hothead younger partner, who get suspended when the liberal media latches onto a video of what’s seen as their use of strong-arm tactics, and they have no choice, broke and embittered by what they see as their unjust persecution, but to enter the criminal underworld. Unsurprisingly, it’s already gotten a ton of backlash from liberal watchdogs bracing for what they’re sure will be a grossly conservative interpretation of police brutality.
Chances are, those liberal watchdogs aren’t far off; one of the film’s defenders is Donald Trump voter Dean Cain, who spoke out on Gibson and Vaughn’s behalf to Fox News. Still, even as a staunch immigrant-loving tree-hugger myself, I can’t condone the outcry that suggests that Vaughn and Gibson and Zahler have no right to make their White Men’s Rights horror-fantasy — if that is what it turns out to be. As much as parts of Brawl made my skin creep, it felt like valuable time spent immersed in the the other side’s perspective: the rage, the entitlement, the feeling of being fucked over by a system that’s stacked against Hard-Working Americans; the idea that a woman’s only place is as a volition-free flower to be protected at all costs (what are you doing in this, Jennifer Carpenter?). I haven’t seen American Assassins, the “brain-off spy movie” my colleague Emily Yoshida so artfully eviscerated, but Brawl has a kind of menace that I don’t think could be mimicked with Hollywood’s usual crop of bleeding hearts playing at counterterrorism or incarceration. It’s terrifying, both for what’s onscreen and just for existing. I want to see everything these guys have got. And, I have to admit, Vaughn is astonishing — and that car-pummeling scene is one of the most insane things I’ve ever seen.