Tag Archives: Blue Ruin

Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2017): A Delightfully Grisly Trip to Prison

This a brutal movie and not for the easily offended. Coming off a similarly violent debut, director S. Craig Zahler (Bone Tomahawk) has made his genre preferences clear. He’s interested in the plain viciousness of violence and his newest film gives him ample situations to execute his vision. Vince Vaughn (The Internship) plays Bradley, a former boxer and reformed drug runner forced back into the trade to support his family after losing his job. When a drug deal with a foreign syndicate goes wrong, Bradley finds himself facing years in prison, but that is only the tip of the iceberg. Once inside, he is forced into a serious of deadly confrontations on the prison ground.

Vaughn proves himself to be a capable lead in the difficult role. It’s one thing to play a criminal, but it’s another to be a genuinely sympathetic one. Plenty of gangster films do this by idolizing the lead’s actions and basking in their success and its copious financial rewards, but Zahler isn’t about to glorify criminality. Bradley’s crimes are forced by necessity, not desire. He returns to running drugs only after losing his job in a poor economy and the violence he begets in prison is a result of an unfortunate situation. Vaughn plays the character with a quick-thinking practicality. When placed in difficult position, he determines what action is needed, then immediately takes it. The complete lack of emotion or pleasure he gets from fighting others combined with his precarious circumstances, allow him to be likable despite his aggressive behavior.

Bradley’s pragmatic demeanor separates him from other movie criminals.

Zahler is a director that never turns his camera away from the action. Most films would cut on the impact of a punch or away from the results of a violent beatdown, but not here. Zahler takes great pride in offering close ups of the carnage others would avoid. The audience will flinch, but he doesn’t. The hits here hurt. This isn’t PG-13 combat and limbs are broken, shattered, and snapped in the wrong direction, revealing the bones underneath. Faces get even worse treatment. They are beaten, bloodied, and, in many cases, smashed, with the aftermath put on display throughout. As a director of fight scenes, Zahler does an admirable job. He favors wide, unbroken shots with tight choreography that feels grounded and efficient.

The violence can sometimes cross over into slight comedy as it escalates, but it doesn’t detract from the film. It’s a real joy to watch, wince, and, occasionally, clap at the brutality onscreen. The level of savagery almost pushes the movie into the grindhouse category, but Zahler isn’t interested in campy thrills. His appreciation for bloodshed rests atop a solid narrative foundation. This puts him in a group of new filmmakers (like Blue Ruin director Jeremy Saulnier) that bring A-level talent to what could be B-grade genre films. His ability to balance character with action makes Brawl in Cell Block 99 a treat for both thriller and genre fans. The violent assaults and sympathetic lead create an enticing and delightfully grisly trip to prison.

4/5 stars.

I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore (2017)

[BS Note: This film is currently available for streaming on Netflix]

Winning the Grand Jury Prize in the Dramatic category at this year’s Sundance, I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore received significant buzz, despite having one of the most onerous titles since Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It is the directorial debut of Macon Blair, star of the intense thriller Blue Ruin. Like that film, this is also a revenge story. Ruth (Melanie Lynskey; Happy Christmas), a regular woman somewhere in suburban America, finds her house broken into with her furniture ransacked and her laptop and her grandmother’s silver missing. She calls the police, but, after their apparent disinterest, she decides to find the culprits herself, teaming up with her strange neighbor Tony (Elijah Wood; The Lord of the Rings).

Like 2015’s Wild Tales, this a story of normal people being pushed just beyond their limits until they finally break and act out. The film paints Ruth as the kind, unsung altruist in a world of selfishness. She spends he days caring for strangers as a nurse and treats others with respect. Yet, she doesn’t see that same kind of goodness in those around her. Other people litter, are rude, and cut in line. She feels lost and alone. The robbery and the ineffectual police response are what set her off on a path of assertiveness that eventually becomes aggression. This growth is empowering as she finally takes charge of her life and gets the things she wants and deserves.

Ruth and Tony are an unlikely, but strangely appropriate, pairing.

The film’s biggest surprise is Elijah Wood. His eccentric, religious loner is the perfect complement to Ruth. While she feels suffocated by the world, Wood’s Tony is barely even aware of it. He walks around listening to his metal and disconnected from anything or anyone around him. He decides to help Ruth because of his sense of justice, but is obviously unfamiliar with anything even remotely close to real crimes. Where others would bring a baseball bat as a weapon, he brings shuriken and a morning star, claiming to know how to use them. His strangeness is balanced by his innocence and he proves to be the perfect counter to Ruth’s increasing hostility. He is not only her companion, but is also her moral center, reminding her of what is right, what is wrong, and why she started her mission in the first place.

Blair’s choice of story and directing style are clearly influenced by his friend and frequent collaborator Jeremy Saulnier (Green Room). He uses the same stripped-down approach and also favors characters in the margins of society. The difference is that where Saulnier goes for the pure tension and gore of a genre film, Blair brings comedy. He is still able to create tense scenarios, but they are result of his characters’ own comical failures. Their fumblings are caused by their own inexperience and unintentionally raise the stakes as Ruth and Tony mess up even the simplest of tasks. They find themselves embroiled in increasingly dangerous schemes with little idea of how to remedy the situation. This comedic tone makes I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore a funny and liberating revenge thriller with agreeably offbeat leads.

4/5 stars.

Green Room (2016)

A lot of bands spend time living out of a van and traveling from gig to gig. For hardcore bands, the venues can range from heavy to dangerous. Green Room, the third film from writer-director Jeremy Saulnier, follows a little known heavy metal band as they tour. Struggling to make ends meet after a canceled concert, a journalist friend gets them the chance to headline at a place his cousin knows. What he doesn’t tell the band is that this show is in the middle of nowhere at a bar filled with white supremacists. A normal person would immediately turn around and get the hell out of there, but this is an metal band. So what they do? They get on stage and open with a new song whose only lines are “Nazi Punks! Nazi Punks! FUCK OFF!!!”.

The bulk of the movie is about the aftermath of their concert. Surprisingly, it’s not the lyrics that get them in trouble but rather an event they mistakenly witness in the titular green room. Now a liability to the owner of the venue, the band is stuck in the middle of the woods locked in the green room unable to get help. What happens next? That is where Green Room separates itself from Saulnier’s previous film, Blue Ruin.

This band is hard, man.

Green Room has noticeably lesser ambitions than its predecessor. Blue Ruin was a taut deconstruction of its genre. The hero wasn’t a John Wayne-like badass. He was a regular person, unskilled in violence. It was the rare revenge movie where violence had consequences for everyone involved. While Green Room retains the high level of suspense, it chooses to stay within the confines of its genre – a slasher movie with a metal band and white supremacists instead of teenagers and a serial killer. The limited nature of the film does however lessen the overall impact when compared to Blue Ruin.

Saulnier again shows off his skills as a director. His visuals (he was also the cinematographer on Blue Ruin) continue to excel, using the serene forests to contrast with the dingy, propaganda-laden interiors. The film is well paced with tension built and released on point. The moments of violence, of which there are many, are visceral and significantly more explicit than most R-rated features. From hacked but not severed limbs to bullet-ridden heads, the gruesome details are happily displayed. Macon Blair (Blue Ruin) plays the role of the club manager and is again immediately sympathetic as the slightly incompetent everyman put in a difficult situation. Patrick Stewart (Star Trek: The Next Generation) is the pragmatic owner who has to clean up the mess. Stewart’s performance is adequate, but he is perhaps miscast as he isn’t able to exhibit the degree of villainy needed for the role to be believable. Green Room has modest goals, but its creators have more than enough skill to achieve them. It won’t be acclaimed for its scope, but as a slasher film, it thrills and shocks with ruthless precision.

4/5 stars.