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Brawl in Cell Block 99

[1]6,764 words

Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2017), a new film by writer/director S. Craig Zahler and which stars Vince Vaughn in the lead, enters the canon of recent films and TV shows dealing symbolically with the plight of white men in contemporary America. This theme is explored through the protagonist’s surface-level patriotism, antagonisms between Mexicans and Anglos, and through the allegory of a beaten-down Christianity, as embodied in the character of Bradley Thomas (Vince Vaughn). 

The variants of patriotism and Christianity depicted in the film, however, are not of the increasingly specious patriotism of Proposition Nation, nor the ascetic theologies and pathological altruism of Christianity’s most liberal proponents today. Rather, they signify a tired and ragged patriotism and an older, more muscular Christianity, where strength, honor, and mercy coalesced into a white Christendom, the heritage of which bound Western European cultures together and largely defined the contours of Western civilization.

Whatever Zahler’s intentions may have been in writing and directing this film, they do not necessarily have to align with the film’s communicative symbols. After a brief Jungian foray into how successful, resonant films can act as an expression of the collective unconscious, I will attempt some interpretive decoding of Brawl in Cell Block 99, the plot of which involves Bradley’s attempt to, so to speak, secure the existence of his family and a future for his white child. In the case of Brawl in Cell Block 99, discipline, stoicism, great violence, and ultimately personal sacrifice are required.

Art and Creative Unconscious

Greatly influenced by Nietzsche’s grappling with the irrational forces believed to reside just below the surface of civilized society, and steeped in the literary and philosophical traditions of German idealism, Carl Jung theorized that each of our individual psyches contains an unconscious reservoir of motives, desires, fears, beliefs, and other characteristics that we have suppressed from our conscious mind. This suppression may be a deliberate psychological defense mechanism and/or it may be the filtered result of societal taboos:

Modern man does not understand how much his “rationalism” (which has destroyed his capacity to respond to numinous symbols and ideas) has put him at the mercy of the psychic “underworld.” He has freed himself from “superstition” (or so he believes), but in the process he has lost his spiritual values to a positively dangerous degree. His moral and spiritual tradition has disintegrated, and he is now paying the price for this break-up in worldwide disorientation and dissociation.[1] [2]

Jung furthermore believed that insofar as certain shadow elements of one person’s unconsciousness are shared by others — that is, as part of a collective psyche — we then have a second operative dynamic of the collective unconsciousness, which Jung attempted to demarcate through his schema of archetypes. In the same way that an individual has a Shadow, an entire culture or subculture (with shared experiences and, according to Jung, ancestry) can likewise possess a collective Shadow:

Since conscious thinking strives for clarity and demands unequivocal decisions, it has constantly to free itself from counter-arguments and contrary tendencies, with the result that especially incompatible contents either remain totally unconscious or are habitually and assiduously overlooked. The more this is so, the more the unconscious will build up its counterposition.[2] [3]

The path to psychological health, according to Jung, is the individuation process, and the first step of that process involves encountering one’s Shadow and attempting to integrate its components into the ego. This cycle of individuation then repeats itself continuously as a person matures through adulthood. Unfortunately, across the West today, any individuation process involving racial consciousness is strictly forbidden (for whites only).

In the multicultural society that is the contemporary United States (i.e., a society no longer having relative racial homogeneity), the individual collective consciousness of one white person as it relates to racial consciousness and racial anxiety, when concatenated with other white persons from the society in question, associatively emerges to shape and form the collective unconscious of whites in that society. In other words, white collective anxiety is manifested in the collective unconscious of whites as a racial subgroup. With respect to ways and outlets of expressing this collective anxiety, any sentiment not involving white self-loathing is essentially taboo and not allowed as a topic of public conversation. Over the course of many decades cultural Marxism has succeeded in stifling healthy individuation among whites to an unparalleled degree, primarily by stifling any and all outward expression (and inward processing) of racial consciousness.

In this type of repressive climate, therefore, works of art that touch upon this issue (however indirectly or subconsciously) will resonate. One can argue that the collective unconscious of an increasingly dispossessed white America is the ‘demand’ in our quasi-economic equation, with the ‘supply’ being those works of art and culture which satisfy the psyche. Whether it is through movies, music, or literature, Jung’s unconscious Shadow archetype expresses itself as the antithesis of whichever personality type is the dominant, actualized, conscious Zeitgeist of the day. In reaction to this suppressed and bottled-up aspect of white racial consciousness, the Shadow surfaces vis-à-vis subconscious, metaphorical surrogates: We can see this in the huge success of the Lord of the Rings movies, and in TV shows such as Breaking Bad. We can see a more pointed, subconscious fear of mass-immigration-leading-to-total-racial-displacement, for example, manifesting itself in the demand for (and success of) shows such as The Walking Dead and the countless other modern zombie movies of recent years. Such is the macro-level, societal form of compromised individuation for whites in the current cultural climate.

It is in this context that the symbolism found in works of art can be studied, interpreted, and appreciated. “Whatever the unconscious may be,” Jung writes, “it is a natural phenomenon producing symbols that prove to be meaningful.”[3] [4] Of the very nature of a symbol, he writes: “By this I do not mean an allegory that points to something all too familiar, but an expression that stands for something not clearly known and yet profoundly alive”[4] [5]

The arts, Jung believes, can act as a deep expression of the unconscious mind. Elements of the Shadow are encountered in creativity and can act as a sublimated expression of this encounter. Great art resonates with a people when it taps into those elements of the collective unconscious most in need of resolution, broaching unresolved tensions of the conscious and unconscious minds, ultimately providing a step towards psychic integration. Oftentimes, the artist is not even aware of the full extent his or her work is accomplishing in this regard. In his essay “Psychology and Literature,” Jung writes:

The novels which are most fruitful for the psychologist are those in which the author has not already given a psychological interpretation of his characters, and which therefore leave room for analysis and explanation, or even invite it by their mode of presentation…. An exciting narrative that is apparently quite devoid of psychological exposition is just what interests the psychologist most of all. Such a tale is built upon a groundwork of implicit psychological assumptions, and, in the measure that the author is unconscious of them, they reveal themselves, pure and unalloyed, to the critical discernment.[5] [6] 

Jung believes that the more primordial elements or visions an artist gives expression to can have a salutary effect upon psychically unbalanced situations: 

What is of particular importance for the study of literature in these manifestations of the collective unconsciousness is that they are compensatory to the conscious attitude. This is to say that they can bring a one-sided, abnormal, or dangerous state of consciousness into equilibrium in an apparently purposive way…

These primordial images are numerous, but do not appear in the dreams of individuals or in works of art until they are called into being by the waywardness of the general outlook. When conscious life is characterized by one-sidedness and by a false attitude, then they are activated one might say, “instinctively” and come to light in the dreams of individuals and the visions of artists and seers, thus restoring the psychic equilibrium of the epoch.

In this way the work of the poet comes to meet the spiritual need of the society in which he lives, and for this reason his work means more to him than his personal fate, whether he is aware of this or not. Being essentially the instrument for his work, he is subordinate to it, and we have no reason for expecting him to interpret it for us. He has done the best that in him lies in giving it form, and he must leave the interpretation to others and to the future.[6] [7]

In his postwar essay from 1946 entitled “The Fight With the Shadow,” [7] [8] Jung attempted to makes sense of both the rise of Nazism and its subsequent horrors, particularly given the fact that Germany, at the time, was one of the most advanced civilizations of the West. Remarkably, Jung believed that, years before Hitler’s rise, he (Jung) glimpsed an element of foreshadowing in the German Zeitgeist that would lend itself to a formulative understanding of the rise of Nazism. “As early as 1918,” Jung wrote, “I noticed peculiar disturbances in the unconscious of my German patients which could not be ascribed to their personal psychology.” Amid earlier, pre-war writings which noted patterns found in his clinical subjects, Jung had what could be construed as premonitions about the Zeitgeist in Western Europe itself, beyond just Germany. In the earlier 1918 essay he alluded to, Jung wrote the following:

As the Christian view of the world loses its authority, the more menacingly will the “blond beast” be heard prowling about in its underground prison, ready at any moment to burst out with devastating consequences.[8] [9]

It is to one incarnation of this prowling in an underground prison that we now turn.

The Backdrop of Brawl’s Creation

In addition to writing and directing, S. Craig Zahler has worked as a screenwriter, cinematographer, and animator. It’s worth noting that he also composed the ’70s-style soul R&B song which opens Brawl in Cell Block 99, and is reportedly [10] also in a death metal band.

Relatively new to directing, Zahler is best known for writing and directing Bone Tomahawk (2015), a violent cross-genre picture that is at its heart a western, but which is peppered with elements of horror. Both Bone Tomahawk and Brawl involve slow buildups towards explosive, Peckinpah-like, third acts in which a doomed hero descends into an unspeakable hell in order to save others. Zahler’s style is a unique sort of realism blended with a touch of the fantastic and the almost otherworldly. Stylistically, both films have the visual signatures of Zahler, and deploy minimal use of score as well a minimal use of quick-cuts and editing.

Brawl is the better and more assured film, a mix of grindhouse, prison movie genre, violent revenge flick, and serious art film. Of Brawl, Zahler himself notes [11] in an interview with a chuckle: “All these reviews say, ‘It’s hard to classify it between the grindhouse and the arthouse.”

Regarding his politics, Zahler is a bit circumspect, but certainly appears conservative to some degree. From a Daily Beast article [12] on Brawl:

Having already collaborated with noted Hollywood libertarians Vaughn and Kurt Russell, as well as just completing production on another feature (Dragged Across Concrete) starring Vaughn and Mel Gibson, Zahler’s own alleged conservatism has become a natural focus of attention. The director, however, says his own politics rarely factor into his filmmaking equation. “On the spectrum, I would be just right of center. Certainly, libertarian views make some sense to me. But I don’t come from a political place at all when I write,” he asserts. “I’m more interested in presenting multiple points of view in a piece than I am in presenting any political dogma that I have. And I really don’t have much. For instance, I’m an atheist, and I wrote the lyrics for, and co-composed, straight-up religious Christian songs that are in the movie. So that’s where I come from—a place of what’s most interesting for the piece. It’s more interesting for me as a writer to get into the mindset of characters who don’t have my belief system, or have some of my belief system, than to write a bunch of characters who say what I think.”

As noted above, Kurt Russell, the lead in Bone Tomahawk, describes himself as a “hardcore libertarian [13]” and Vince Vaughn is also known as a conservative who leans libertarian [14]. While there isn’t much information on the politics of Don Johnson, who plays a warden in Brawl, the fact that he used to race powerboats with Chuck Norris and Kurt Russell on a team named “Team USA [15]” may provide clues.

Vaughn, coming off his celebrated cameo as a drill sergeant in Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge (2016), and before that as the one good thing in the disappointing second season of True Detective (2014), has a notable friendship with, and connection to, Mel Gibson, which may shed further light on Zahler’s views, as well as the question of whether Zahler might be a Based Director, or one in the making. (Who can forget Vaughn’s icy stare and Gibson’s bewildered glare when, sitting together, they endured Meryl Streep’s anti-Trump tirade at the 2017 Golden Globes ceremony.)


The stare and the glare

Gibson is a conservative, traditional, pre-Vatican II Catholic, whose views on the Jewish Question are widely known, albeit inarticulately revealed through a drunken rant. It’s also worth noting that Vaughn, Gibson, and Don Johnson will all be in Zahler’s next project, Dragged Across Concrete, slated for a 2018 release. The film’s IMDb summary [17] hints that it will address an institution reviled by the Left (and blacks) in America, the police:

The script centers on two policemen, one an old-timer (Gibson), the other his volatile younger partner (Vaughn), who find themselves suspended when a video of their strong-arm tactics become the media’s cause du jour. Low on cash and with no other options, these two embittered soldiers descend into the criminal underworld to gain their just due, but instead find far more than they wanted awaiting them in the shadows.

Lastly, the contrast between northern Anglo civilization and southern Mexican barbarism, what we might call the civilizational difference theme, is on display in Brawl, and has been previously mined by Mel Gibson in his masterful film Apocalypto (2006), as well as in lesser Gibson acting vehicles such as Get the Gringo (2012) and Blood Father (2016), the latter film also deploying a Christ-sacrifice theme similar to that of Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino (2008) and the finale of Breaking Bad (2013).

Bradley’s Journey

“[W]hat happens in the life of Christ,” writes Jung, “happens always and everywhere. In the Christian archetype all lives of this kind are prefigured.”[9] [18] While it is beyond the scope of this essay to distill the influences of pagan images and symbolism on Christianity, and the pre-Christian parallels of the Christ myth in particular, Jung sees the Christ mythos as representing an archetypal character, one which resonated with the collective unconscious of an epoch. Ordinary men unconsciously live through archetypal forms and dream in archetypal patterns, Jung believed, and part of an explanation for Christianity’s historic memetic dissemination is the wider applicability of Christ-symbolism to the lives of these ordinary men:

It is only natural that I should constantly have revolved in my mind the question of the relationship of the symbolism of the unconscious to Christianity as well as to other religions. Not only do I leave the door open for the Christian message, but I consider it of central importance for Western man. It needs, however, to be seen in a new light, in accordance with the changes wrought by the contemporary spirit. Otherwise, it stands apart from the times, and has no effect on man’s wholeness.[10] [19]


The Stamp & The Signifier

In Brawl, our first image of Bradley, the film’s antihero, is of the back of his head, with its large tattoo of a cross with spiraling barbed wire. In the case of Bradley, this cross signifies anything but weakness or slave morality. He is a tall and tough dude, with a troubled past and a hot temper. Symbolically, the cross serves as a stamp or marker as to whom Bradley represents. Of his character in the film, Vaughn has referenced [10] the Christian element:

Bradley, Vaughn expands, is a guy who “really had an alcohol problem and as a belief system falls into Christianity. He’s a flawed, complicated guy, and he wants to connect on some level. He’s really being challenged when the movie starts; there are obstacles and challenging situations. We find him at a teetering point.”

Vaughn calls Brawl “a morality tale.” Bradley makes a choice to create the life he wants, “but he doesn’t necessarily have the means at his fingertips.”

The film quickly establishes that Bradley is trying to lead a good life, after a questionable past. It’s implied that he used to run drugs, is a reformed alcoholic, and is a former amateur boxer, the latter a plot device used to explain his fighting skills on display later in the film. He sports a Southern accent, convincingly delivered by Vaughn who spent time with a dialect coach, displaying “southern charm” and southern manners between his bouts of rage.

Early in the film, he loses his job as a tow truck driver at an auto garage, itself symbolic, only to come home to find his wife Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter) sitting in her car, deliberating on whether to leave him for good. We see an American flag prominently displayed from the front of his house.

Bradley confronts her and she confesses that she’s been seeing another man for several months, not out of spite per se, but because she and Bradley “haven’t been close,” something he acknowledges, and because she thought he was doing the same to her, which he wasn’t.

In a semi-comic sequence, he then orders his wife into the house, which she does, and begins destroying her car as much as he physically can: he smashes the mirrors and tears off the hood, flinging it into the street. He then calmly walks into the house, with no signs of rage, and has a civilized conversation with her, about the state of their relationship, eventually convincing her that they should try again, which she agrees to. (Zahler cites [21] Cassavetes as an influence in this scene between Bradley and his wife.) Bradley expresses how he wants a better home for them than the small, run-down house they currently inhabit, and how he’s going to call Gil (Marc Blucas) to work as a drug courier.

“You said you would never work for Gil,” Lauren protests.

“So we’re both breaking promises today,” he replies.

While it may a stretch to believe Zahler intended this, Bradley characterizes their plight, and what he envisions as their future, vis-à-vis a milk metaphor [22]:

I want us in a better home than this sh*thole… with kids and happy. I’m tired of getting the goddamn skim milk, and hoping that luck brings out the cream. Cuz it won’t, not ever. This won’t be forever. I promise. Will you abide?

Lauren abides. We jump-cut forward and Lauren is pregnant and they are living in a much nicer house. Bradley is making a living delivering drug packages for his friend, the wealthy drug dealer Gil (who is himself white). The deals go smoothly, violence not being necessary. Nonetheless, we see Bradley’s moral integrity under stress. Of Bradley’s conflicted character, Zahler notes [21]:

Someone who has ideals and a code, such as Bradley does, doesn’t mean he’s going to follow it. There’s a sequence, and Vince talks about this a lot, when he’s moved into a better life and is in a nicer vehicle and about to go home to his nicer house . . . he’s in his nicer vehicle and he sees a drug addict outside. He’s listening to a religious song on the radio, he’s aware of it and still (delivering drugs). We see that when he makes all the wrong decisions it gives him a better life and all the right decisions make things worse. All of that stuff I find much more interesting than good vs evil and the noble guys making all the right decisions. Playing in that gray area is the most fun space.

Despite this conflict, on the whole, things seems to be going good for Bradley, both personally and ‘professionally,’ that is, until Gil makes a fateful decision.

The Mexicans

Bradley arrives at Gil’s mansion, part of a routine courier run, but also because Gil wants Bradley to meet Eleazar, a wealthy Mexican living in America who may be Gil’s new drug partner. In Gil’s basement billiard room, he and Bradley talk, awaiting Eleazar’s arrival. They hear someone arrive at the house:

Gil: That’ll be Eleazar.

Bradley: That’s the new source?

Gil: If this deal goes well, I’ll be partnering with him. He’s got lines to Mexico and a steady stream of good, cheap crystal. [He] just wanted to meet you before the pickup.

[Sound of footsteps of several men coming down the stairs to the basement.]

Bradley: Sounds like he brought amigos.

Gil: Mexicans ain’t comfortable being by themselves. You know how they grow up. Five to a bed. Ten beds per adobe.

Eleazar enters the room, with two associates, Pedro and Roman. After some cursory introductions, Bradley’s instincts kick in:

Bradley: [Nodding towards Roman] I’m not doing a pickup with him.

Eleazar: And for what reason?

Bradley: He looks like he’s using.

Eleazar: Roman’s been clean for two years. I test my employees. He’s extremely reliable, and he knows what to do in adverse situations.

Bradley: Sorry. Words from a stranger don’t drop instinct.

Gil pulls Bradley aside, and despite Bradley’s reluctance, convinces him to go along to protect his interests in the first planned drug deal of a Gil-Eleazar partnership:

Gil: We’re good.

Bradley: I’ll go . . . But if something comes up, I got the reins.

Eleazar: They shall mind you.

Bradley: Roman, look at me. If I say “dump the package,” what do you do?

Roman: Dump.

Gil: [Shaking Eleazar’s hand] Amen.

We cut to a night sequence, where Pedro and Roman accompany Bradley to a marina. Bradley pilots a fishing boat into some nearby waters, where they recover a submerged trunk which contains a shipment of drugs. While on the boat, Bradley instructs the two Mexicans to get rid of the emptied-out trunk. They lift and toss it into the water, one of them joking to the other: “Help make America beautiful, right?”

Upon returning to the dock, the Mexicans disobey the agreed-to instruction by Bradley to dump the sealed drugs into the water near the dock, but they refuse, punch Bradley, and then walk with the bags of drugs to the end of the dock onto shore.

Police cruisers suddenly swarm the Mexicans and a firefight ensues. Rather quickly, some cops are downed by the Mexicans’ stronger firepower. Bradley is far enough away from the action that he could escape free and clear (the police have not spotted him), but after struggling with what to do, he decides to prevent any potential police deaths by entering the fray on behalf of the police. Bradley kills Pedro, before the police eventually get control of the situation, arresting both Bradley and a wounded Roman. (Zahler describes [21] this decision of Bradley’s as “the crucible of the entire picture.”)

First Level of Hell (Medium-Security)

We cut to Bradley sitting alone in a police interrogation room, when a detective enters. There is a large, standing U.S. flag in the room across from Bradley. In a rather unusual and conspicuous dialogue between the two, the detective presumes Bradley is the sort of anti-American criminal he routinely encounters. He is surprised to discover that Bradley is not this sort, and then equates patriotism with morality. There may be a series of double meanings latent in their dialogue, as it could apply equally as well to the Alt Right’s (or, at a minimum, traditional conservatism’s) appropriation of patriotic symbols:

Detective: [Gesturing to flag] You want to burn it? You want to wipe your ass with it? You want to cut it up in little pieces . . . and send them to Putin?

Bradley: I have one over my front door.

Detective: So you’re a patriot?

Bradley: I’m not gonna tell you anything you want to hear. And prison will give me plenty of time to look at guys I don’t like.

Detective: What is it that you think I want to hear, hmm? . . . The names of your associates? The people who profited from all your hard work while they wiped their dirty asses with that? [Gestures to flag]. You can pretend you don’t hear, but I saw that video. I saw how you took down those lowlifes when they went up against the police, even though you could’ve got away clean . . . I knew before you told me that you got an American flag in your home. You probably got more than one.

Bradley: I got two.

Detective: Because of your selfless actions, no police were killed in that event, which tells me that you know the difference between right and wrong, and that you have a moral compass.

The detective tries to get Bradley to cough up who he is working for, in exchange for leniency, but Bradley will have none of it. A sense of honor precludes him from doing so. He fully understands that this will mean he serves approximately five years in prison, but he fully accepts this fate.

In this next phase of Bradley’s journey, while there are peripheral whites, we see an inordinate number of non-whites exercising power and control over him. In court, a black judge sentences Bradley to a seven-year sentence, to be served at the fictional Franklin R. James medium-security detention center. Upon arriving at this facility, Bradley interacts with Mr. Irving (Fred Melamed), an administratively sadistic Jewish gate keeper, who intones to Bradley: “Best to remain civilized, Mr. Thomas, even in a prison. Enjoy your stay.” Bradley has a female Indian case worker, is escorted around the facility by an elderly black inmate named Lefty, and receives power-trip taunts from a black guard trying to get Bradley to join the prison boxing program. Bradley says no, his moral code being such that he’d “rather knit baby booties with pink yarn than hit people for no reason.”

[23]Throughout the prison sequences of the film, and due to events that take place, there are continuous wounds on Bradley’s hands and also at times on his feet. For the duration of the film, he keeps his hands wrapped in bandages, which are mistaken by one guard as a boxer’s bandages, the image serving as a rather overt reference to Christ’s wounds, accentuating the film’s theme of ultimate sacrifice.

Later, Bradley is informed that his wife Lauren is having complications with her pregnancy and that her obstetrician, Dr. Pelman, is coming to the prison to personally discuss the matter with him. At the visitors’ windows, Bradley picks up the phone, but the man on the other side of the glass is not a doctor, but rather a well-dressed, elderly, white man with a heavily German accent, who acts as an intermediary for the Mexican cartel figure Eleazar. Billed only as ‘Placid Man’, this figure is wonderfully portrayed by the German born actor Udo Kier, whose emotionless demeanor and thick German accent connote the banality of evil.

Placid Man: Your betrayal cost my employer $3.2 million. I’m here to settle that matter.

Placid Man shows Bradley cell phone photo proof that his wife Lauren has been kidnapped, and then calmly provides Bradley with a gruesome, Mengele-like threat that comes with an attached ultimatum:

Placid Man: There is an abortionist from Korea. He works for my employer. He claims that he can clip the limbs of a fetus, yet leave the child in such a condition that it will live to be born. This little operation will only happen if you don’t pay your debt to my employer.

Bradley: How?

Placid Man: There is a prisoner who my employer wants dead. He is serving a life sentence at the Red Leaf detention center.

Bradley: I’m in the fridge for seven years. How in the hell am I supposed to choke out some guy over in Red Leaf?

Placid Man: Red Leaf is maximum security. Show the staff here that you have to be transferred . . .

Bradley: Who’s this guy I’m supposed to get?

Placid Man: Christopher Bridge . . . And he is in Red Leaf cell block 99.

Leaving this meeting, Bradley has no choice but to try to get himself transferred to Red Leaf. His means of making this happen is to brutally attack various guards when the situations present themselves.


The Battered Cross

After finally being subdued by the guards, the next shot is of Bradley being transported to the fictional Red Leaf maximum security prison. Like a crown of thorns, stitches and bruises now adorn his cross tattoo, indicating a Christianity (or Christian warrior) that is beaten, bruised, and compromised, but all towards the end goal of saving his wife and unborn child.[11] [25]

Second Level of Hell (Red Leaf Prison)

As an autumnal symbol, a red leaf represents a dying leaf, but in the case of Red Leaf Prison, the predominant color is black. Arriving at the prison, Bradley is held outside the prison’s gates, until Warden Tuggs (Don Johnson) and accompanying guards venture outside to greet him.

While the previous medium security prison displayed a significant number of non-whites in positions of power over whites, Red Leaf appears to be run primarily by white guards. There are few blacks. The heavily armed, jack-booted guards wear all-black uniforms (with a contrasting red emblem on the shoulders) which resemble paramilitary outfits. A sunglass-wearing Warden Tuggs also wears all-black, including black gloves, a harbinger of the sadistic torture to come.


The Red Leaf Blackshirts

Still outside the gates of the prison, Bradley is forced to strip naked, an act of humiliation reminiscent of Christ’s similar humiliation before the Roman praetorium. Warden Tuggs frames Bradley’s situation in what could be described as political terms:

Warden Tuggs: Mr. Thomas . . . Look at me . . . The Red Leaf detention center is classified as a maximum-security facility. But there’s another term I prefer . . . one that I think will give you a clearer picture: minimum freedom . . . If you make trouble, your minimum freedom will get smaller . . . so small that it becomes microscopic.

It is at this point that we realize the various levels of Hell Bradley is forced to endure may serve as metaphors for the increasingly constrictive social environs facing white men in America today, particularly Southern, conservative, Christian, white men. The progressively lower levels of this Hell contain totalitarian symbols, and are ruthlessly administered with Antifa-like militancy by fellow whites. (The favorable treatment and special privileges that powerful Mexican cartel figures receive at Red Leaf signify the double standards exhibited by that elite class of liberal, self-loathing whites who push and pull the levers of the modern Left’s non-white, identity politics machinery.)

In his first day in the Red Leaf prison yard, Bradley quickly learns that the current cell he is in is not part of Cell Block 99, the latter being a separate part of the prison which provides no interaction with other blocks. Determined to make his way into Cell Block 99, Bradley immediately provokes a fight with some Mexican inmates hovered around the yard’s weight benches.


Different Tribes, Different Tattoos

Bradley: I’m gonna use that one.

Mexican Gang Inmate: We’re using it now, gringo.[12] [28]

Bradley: Don’t call me a foreigner. Last time I checked, the colors of the flag weren’t red, white, and burrito.

In a wonderfully choreographed fight sequence, Bradley takes some hits but prevails, eventually putting the Mexicans down and also breaking the arm of a particularly smug Red Leaf guard named Wilson (Tom Guiry), a short and annoying white beta male, reminiscent of the sniveling guard Percy Wetmore (Doug Hutchison) from The Green Mile (1999).

Warden Tuggs enters the yard to get control of the situation, telling Bradley: “You just lost your minimum freedom. You’re going to 99.”

Third Level of Hell (Cell Block 99)

Brawl’s nightmarish third act takes place in the subterraneous dungeons of Cell Block 99, a secret and hidden underground section of the prison reached through the false walls of an innocuous looking storage room. The setting is filthy and claustrophobic (we can almost taste the stale air and foul smells), and is presented through a cinematography of dark tones, saturated blues, and diffuse yellows. Zahler notes [11]:

There are, of course, all the things you do in coloring, to bring things out. We made the blues a little stronger in coloring to achieve this look. But Benji [cinematographer Benji Baksh] has often said I’m the one director who never says things are too dark. I’m comfortable with letting shadows cover things. It just makes everything more atmospheric. Certainly by the time you get to the third portion of the movie, the last major location, that’s supposed to feel oppressive, with almost a medieval-dungeon feel. Letting the visuals go dark was a way to mirror that philosophy.

Leading Bradley into a room with what looks like torture devices on the wall, Warden Tuggs tells Bradley that “Cell Block 99 is the prison within the prison” and conjectures “I suspect that Amnesty International would frown upon the contents of this room.”

At Tuggs’ command, the guards forcibly outfit Bradley with a wide, locking, metal belt that can deliver an electric shock upon command from a remote control. While the donning of this belt is of course not of his own choosing, visually it resembles some imaginable Christian means of mortification of the flesh, one used as an ‘aid’ towards salvation. Using the remote, Tuggs gives Bradley a jolt of electricity, which causes Bradley to buckle in pain.

Warden Tuggs: Each time you misbehave, you earn five points. Each point gets you one of these. You currently have 25 points. These shall be dispensed to you over the coming week, when you are eating, when you are sleeping, when you are p*ssing, and when you are sh*tting.

Bradley is marched to a wretched cell, where over the course of hours or perhaps days he is jolted at random intervals.

Wilson, the sniveling guard with the cast on his arm, forces Bradley out of his cell:

Wilson: A few inmates requested a little face time with you. And I know how you like to socialize.

Bradley: Who?

Wilson: Friends of yours.

Bradley is marched down the dungeon corridor and into a large, furnished, much nicer room in Cell Block 99 where, awaiting him, are . . . Eleazar, Roman, and two other prisoners, one Mexican and one Asian.

Wilson: Do not kill him today. The warden will have my ass.

Eleazar: We aren’t in any hurry.

Wilson leaves the room. Eleazar then addresses Bradley:

Eleazar: Your heroics cost me $3.2 million, as well as my freedom for an undetermined period of time. And because of you, my sister is now a widow. Her husband was Pedro whom you shot in the back.

We soon realize there is no ‘Christopher Bridge’ in Cell Block 99. There is no ‘Christopher Bridge’ at all.[13] [29] It was all a lure to get Bradley before Eleazar. It becomes apparent that Eleazar’s intention here is to exact a slow torture and death to Bradley. Before Bradley’s first beating, Roman, in his deep baritone voice, tells Bradley: “It’s a long, slow payback, Blanco,” yet another metaphor for the displacement of whites by Mexicans.

As with the earlier fight sequences in the film, Brawl’s violent climax involves lightly edited, but heavily rehearsed, fight choreography sequences, where the camera frames full bodies in motion, with none of the quick-editing technique overused in so many movies of today. One hears the sound of bones cracking, punches landing. In a few sequences, the film traffics in “foot-stomping-on-a-head-until-it-is-pulverized” violence, the ensuing gore accomplished entirely through practical effects. It is a horrifying violence, one that shocks us, but one through which the audience experiences a visceral catharsis. We are rooting for Bradley and cheer him on when he smashes the skulls of Eleazar’s men. Bradley delivers his violent storm calmly, confidently, and with controlled emotion, the crushing violence he is willing to mete out, in order to protect his wife and unborn child, being part and parcel of the brutality he has endured. You could say he’s pro-family. In describing the film’s slow-burn towards its hyper violent climax, Zahler notes [21]:

So, when looking at the movie as a whole when it gets to these moments of violence from a violent character who has been oppressed for the whole piece those need to be on a grander scale for me to feel satisfied. I’m not even really thinking about the audience. This is for me to be satisfied. This dude has had bricks put on his back and has been shit upon for the duration (of the movie), so when it comes out it needs to be something almost elemental in terms of the force of what’s going on. That sort of explains why we land in those sequences that are explosive in going past what is typical.

In the melee, Bradley accidentally kills the guard Wilson, and realizes he is doomed. The other guard on the floor, a black guard named Jeremy, warns Bradley of the likely consequences:

Jeremy: You killed him . . . Warden Tuggs will kill you for this.

Bradley: Him or somebody else.

Outsmarting Eleazar, and using the drug lord’s cell phone, Bradley is able to save his wife and unborn child. All that he waits for now is cell-phone confirmation from his old boss Gil that Lauren is safe. By now, Warden Tuggs and a group of armed guards have entered Cell Block 99, but Bradley has cordoned off the area near his cell, holding Jeremy and Eleazar hostage. Tuggs discovers that Wilson is dead, while Bradley becomes fully resigned to his fate and the fact that he will die in this prison, and very soon, never to see his wife again, and never to see his child be born.

Warden Tuggs: Just what do you think you’re gonna accomplish here?

Bradley: I’m waiting for a phone call. One minute after I’m off, I will turn myself over to you. And I swear that to Jesus Christ and heaven above.

The phone rings and Bradley gets confirmation from Gil that Lauren is safe. In a moving scene, Bradley speaks to his wife over the phone, not letting her know of the dire situation he’s in, pretending that he will see her again. “I love you,” his wife tells him. “I love you too” he replies, those being the last words he will say to her.

The film’s denouement reveals what becomes of Eleazar, followed by Warden Tuggs and his men storming the cell, the final moment of the film completing the arc of Bradley’s Christ archetype of sacrifice and salvation.

Logical Meme writes at his pseudonymous blog [30].


[1] [31] C. G. Jung, “Approaching the Unconscious,” in Carl Jung and Marie-Luise von Franz, Man and His Symbols (New York: Dell Pub. Co, 1964), p. 94.

[2] [32] C. G. Jung, Mysterium Coniunctionis, Collected Works of C. G. Jung, Vol. 14 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977), p. xvii.

[3] [33] C. G. Jung, “Approaching the Unconscious,” in Man and His Symbols, p. 102.

[4] [34] C. G. Jung, “Psychology and Literature,” in Modern Man in Search of a Soul, 1933, p. 171.

[5] [35] Ibid, pp. 154-55.

[6] [36] C. G. Jung, “Psychology and Literature,” pp. 165, 171.

[7] [37] C. G. Jung, “The Fight with the Shadow” (1946), in Civilization in Transition, Collected Works of C. G. Jung, Vol 10.

[8] [38] C. G. Jung, “The Role of the Unconscious,” (1918), in Civilization in Transition. In another post-war essay “Epilogue to ‘Essays on Contemporary Events’” (1946), Jung revisits his 1918 paper “The Role of the Unconscious,” further exploring its theses within the context of the phenomenon of Nazism.

[9] [39] C. G. Jung, Psychology and Religion, Collected Works of C. G. Jung, Vol 11, p. 89.

[10] [40] C. G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections (New York: Vintage Books, 1963), p. 210.

[11] [41] The film’s concern with not only Lauren but also the developing fetus she is carrying may be Zahler playing with presumed audience positions on abortion, an issue that, while having entirely secular ethical dimensions to it, has nonetheless been misleadingly framed in liberal American culture as a concern only of the “Religious Right.”

[12] [42] Later in the film, another Mexican inmate will say “F*ck you, gringo” to Bradley, and yet another will call him “Blanco.”

[13] [43] Perhaps the name Christopher Bridge was chosen to characterize Eleazar’s lure as involving an exploitation of Bradley’s selflessness, a “Bridge of Christ” that allows Eleazar to walk to Bradley, so to speak.