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.