I, Tonya

Posted December 10, 2017 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: biopic, overrated

i-tonya-margot-robbie-850x478A rarity for me: I went into I, Tonya without knowing who the director was. As the absurdist black-comedic biopic unfurled, I thought, “Whoever made this, he’s really trying to get his Scorsese on.” (I thought “he” because female directors rarely if ever try to get their Scorsese on — they’ve worked too hard to express their own voices to want to ape someone else’s.) The major tells were the frequent (and frequently ironic) ’70s-rock needle-drops and the incessant trackings in and out — the camera almost never stops moving, except when it’s locked down in “interview segments” wherein Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) or Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) unburden themselves.

As it happens, the director is the nondescript Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl), who aside from his Scorsesean gesticulations mostly stays out of the way of the star and co-producer, Margot Robbie. I would like to report that in the reviled Tonya, the media-beloved actress has found something feral, primordial, essential in herself, as Robert De Niro did in Scorsese’s Raging Bull. I would like to, but that isn’t true. Robbie is snarly and entertaining, but except for the grinning-rictus-through-tears bit she does in a mirror — and that’ll turn up in her Oscar reel if she’s nominated — she doesn’t locate any humanity except fear, rage, need. And since Robbie is more conventionally attractive than the real Harding, the makeup she wears to render her skin mottled and white-trashy suggests that, in this context where Tonya’s stupid tragedy is played for black comedy, Robbie is condescending to working-class Harding even physically.

I, Tonya left me in a mildly desolate mood. It says that dreams are shit in a country that turns everything to shit. The movie (rather brilliantly, actually) ends with Siouxsie and the Banshees’ cover of “The Passenger,” and that’s what Tonya is. Pushed into skating as a toddler, forever connected to a ridiculous crime, she has no agency. (She rides and she rides.) The movie’s concerns don’t seem universal — they’re belittlingly specific. We’re just watching these particular dimbulbs — Tonya, her hapless husband Jeff, his buffoonish friend Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser) — as they fuck everything up. The characters get progressively idiotic, until, by the time we get to Shane Stant, the doofus who actually kneecapped Nancy Kerrigan, he’s so brutally inept we wonder how he manages to figure out his pants in the morning.

It’s difficult to stay engaged in a work that has so little regard for its subjects. Gillespie doesn’t display the freezing contempt of, say, an Alexander Payne, but it’s hard to know what he does feel about these people. The movie hedges its bets more than a little by casting a ringer, Allison Janney, as Tonya’s ghastly mother. Not only has Janney played this sort of role before (as a trailer-trash floozy in Drop Dead Gorgeous, in which, despite the more farcical context, she may have done subtler and more compassionate work than she does here), she’s still playing it every week on Mom. Janney is America’s sweetheart in the division of endearingly fucked-up mothers. When Tonya’s mother is abusive and hateful here, it just seems like Janney doing her usual shtick; the movie is deadpan-sarcastic about it — look at this moron woman throwing stuff at her moron daughter until finally she lobs a knife at her — and Janney hasn’t been directed to make anything real out of it. Real would be sad, sobering, anathema to the sour good time the movie wants to give us.

Eventually Gillespie drifts away from imitating Scorsese and starts imitating Scorsese’s imitators. The last reel or so has the spun-out, dirge-like melancholia of the last act of Boogie Nights, where people wound up beaten up, in jail, dead, soulless. Here, everyone starts dropping around Tonya like brainless flies, whisked off to jail, and the camera lingers on Tonya in her devastation after she is sentenced to life without professional ice skating. Then we see a bit of Tonya’s career as a celebrity boxer spitting blood all over the ring. Ah, finally she’s found an arena that lets her release her rage. But then, stupidly, the movie cuts to footage of the real Tonya skating, and we see, through the context of the life we’ve just watched, the aggression and fury in Tonya’s movements, the fierce determination, the itchy underclass energy that the upper-class skating establishment was never going to be able to accept. Tonya quite elegantly and wordlessly speaks for herself in this footage, and leaves the callow jeering movie in her dust.

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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Posted December 3, 2017 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: drama, one of the year's best

threebillboardsAn unburied corpse, in ancient Greek tragedy, gave pause to the very gods themselves. It was the ultimate indignity, an affront to life as well as death, a refusal of humanity. This has something to do with Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, a sort of Greek tragedy in modern garb. Here, the body, which we never see except fleetingly in police photos, is that of the teenage daughter of Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), who works in the town gift shop. Mildred’s daughter was interrupted rather violently almost a year ago; in response, Mildred has rented three billboards and uses them to frame an accusation. The billboards — posted within about a football field’s length of each other, like three-quarters of a grim parody of a Burma-Shave sequential ad — read as follows: “Raped while dying”; “And still no arrests”; “How come, Chief Willoughby?”

That would be Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), who has done everything he can to find the rapist and murderer of young Angela Hayes. Sometimes, he says at one point, you don’t catch a break. That’s not nearly good enough for Mildred, who may as well be aiming her query at God. “The heaven shall reveal his iniquity,” the book of Job tells us, “and the earth shall rise up against him” — in the form of billboards, presumably. Three Billboards proceeds in the grand classical tradition of tragedy, though it’s not without humor, this being a movie by the writer/director of the madly amusing crime films In Bruges (2008) and Seven Psychopaths (2012). This is something of a crime film, too, though the major crimes take place before and (possibly) after the narrative’s reach.

Whodunit? Maybe God — unless, of course, “there ain’t no God and the whole world’s empty and it doesn’t matter what we do to each other,” muses Mildred. She flirts with nihilism, but it doesn’t flirt back, and soon she’s swinging into action again, driven forward by rage and grief, hardly even noticing her living son. Like many Greek-tragedy heroines, Mildred is both a great woman and a monster. Her quarrel with Chief Willoughby is really a quarrel with death and with life, and McDormand creates a façade of stoic strength she allows to develop tiny cracks so we can see the ungovernable pain beneath.

Three Billboards deals in the, let’s say, archetypal — the drunk, racist mama’s boy who ultimately shapes up to be a fine detective and avenger (Sam Rockwell, mesmerizingly askew as always); the cheesy, near-pedophiliac ex-husband (John Hawkes). Peter Dinklage shows up — McDonagh must love dwarves and love it when clueless idiots call them midgets, because he told that joke in In Bruges and tells it again here, only with Peter Dinklage. By now such things in McDonagh’s work impress us as signatures, pet themes, preoccupations we can only guess at. McDonagh had been building a rep as the next bad boy of crime cinema (cf. Tarantino, Danny Boyle, etc.), as conversant with gore as with wit. But this film feels like a step forward, or at least a step sideways.

When a character here opts for suicide, McDonagh attends to it with empathy, but also doesn’t let us forget the deceased leaves behind a grieving spouse and two children. A good chunk of Three Billboards is about redemption and how people are stubbornly complex, able to be many things at once. A man can be good and noble and still be prideful in ways that deprive children of a father. A man can be a racist twerp and still (rather literally) come through a baptism of fire and find himself more reflective and intuitive. A woman can be full of unappeasable fury and still, in telling little moments, pop back into community and humanity when faced with another’s agony. How we’re supposed to feel about the ambiguous ending depends, I think, on what mood we’re in — whether we want to see it as proof of evil helplessly regenerating itself or proof that even the most monomaniacal and violent can grow and change. Either mood is, accidentally I’m sure, very much of this harrowed and degraded moment.

Lucky

Posted November 24, 2017 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: art-house, drama, overrated

luckyAnyone who has ever loved Harry Dean Stanton in one of his two hundred film and TV credits over the last sixty-three years will have to make some time for Stanton’s leading-man swan song Lucky, even though it’s a bit of a chunk of dry toast, a little too knowingly thrown as a low-key vaya con dios party for him. Stanton plays the title character, who passes his ritualistic days drifting from place to place in a small town. A diner in the morning for coffee and the crossword puzzle. Home to the TV set and Lucky’s “shows” in the afternoon. Out to a bar in the evening. Occasionally he ruminates about life and our purpose in it, and how to face death though he’s pretty sure there’s no God, just darkness. That’s about it.

Lucky is about both Lucky and Harry Dean Stanton, of course. Screenwriters Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja shaped their work specifically around Stanton, his range (not the widest, but often surprising and inventive within it), and his own life. Inevitably, Stanton doesn’t really seem to be acting; we feel that he’s simply being himself in character as Lucky. Sometimes, as when the film contrives to reunite Stanton with his Alien captain Tom Skerritt, it shows its hand as a construct designed for Stanton to thrive in. On the other hand, seeing Stanton alongside Skerritt again is admittedly a kick, and they do beautiful work together, reminiscing about World War II (more details pulled from Stanton’s life).

What makes Lucky worth indulging is Stanton, naturally, but also the way he refuses to insult this feature-length gesture of affection towards him by giving any less than he’s ever given. He could have rested on his laurels here, coasted, stoically accepted his due — but he doesn’t. He brings levels of melancholy and odd anger to each scene; he keeps us riveted physically, letting his wrinkles and eyebags tell eloquent silent stories. We can’t take our eyes off him, but that’s no doing of point-and-shoot actor-turned-director John Carroll Lynch. Nor can we say the film protects him by putting him up against boring actors, when Stanton butts heads with the likes of Beth Grant, Ed Begley Jr., and the indefatigable David Lynch. Stanton makes his sweetest music with David Lynch, as those who’ve seen Stanton in Lynch’s own films (Wild at Heart, Twin Peaks, etc.) already know.

In and of itself, the movie is arid, visually null. The camera isn’t being used to express much of anything, and so we begin to wonder why, other than to raise a toast to Harry Dean Stanton, this is a movie. Though well-acted, the supporting characters in Lucky’s life feel like supporting characters; with most of them, we don’t feel that they have lives outside the scene and the frame. The exception is Bertila Damas’ store owner, who invites Lucky to her son’s tenth birthday fiesta, leading to a rare and lovely moment in which Lucky, in Stanton’s own slightly querulous but soulful singing voice, croons “Volver, Volver.” It’s a great moment — but we’re aware of it as a great moment, engineered as a great moment for the star.

I don’t begrudge Stanton the apotheosis he receives here. Few artists get swan songs this apropos, this on-the-money. (Who doesn’t despair when reminded that the accidental swan song of Gene Hackman, who has retired from acting, will be Welcome to Mooseport?) Stanton at least goes out with the same level of integrity he’d always had. Even when he showed up fleetingly in a trick of slick whoring like The Avengers, we were absurdly happy to see him, an oasis of rumpled humanity in a desert of plastic. (It spoke well of the director, Joss Whedon, that he apparently bent over backwards to find some way to get Harry Dean Stanton in there.) He elevated any and all material; Repo Man is inconceivable without him. Lucky doesn’t exist without him. Stanton leaves the sort of void that so troubles Lucky. There will not be more of him. The movie itself is aptly named — it’s lucky to have Stanton. He does more for Lucky than it does for him.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Posted November 19, 2017 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: action/adventure, adaptation, comic-book, foreign, one of the year's worst, science fiction, Uncategorized

Valerian-and-the-City-of-a-Thousand-Planets-(France)-1-FullI can’t quite bring myself to convince you that the entire two hours and seventeen minutes of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets are worth sitting through for Rihanna’s appearance some eighty minutes in. Soon enough, she becomes a blue blob and later turns to dust. But she’s fun while she lasts, as a shape-shifting performer named Bubble who helps the titular hero, Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan), rescue his captured partner Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne). For twenty minutes or so, Rihanna is a suavely fierce nonactress adding some welcome grit and personality to a mix that includes far too many aliens and special effects, far too little humanity.

Valerian is great-looking but awful, a combination that has sadly become the stock in trade of the once-impressive Luc Besson (Leon, The Fifth Element, Lucy). Those who found The Fifth Element a jocular piece of futuristic excess but a bit on the empty-calorie side won’t find much to plug into here; the meaning of the movie is simply to get Valerian and Laureline from one hectic, shiny set piece to the next, barely stopping for a breath or even a scenery-chewing villain performance from the likes of Gary Oldman (who brightened Leon and Fifth Element). Here we get only the grouchy Clive Owen as our heroes’ commander, who gives orders to wipe out an entire species of alien pearl farmers, one of whom stows away in Valerian’s body after dying.

Look, I could go on discussing plot points to prove I saw the film, but you’ll just have to trust me. Valerian has tons of plot but no real story to speak of; our heroes hurtle to and fro to get justice for the aliens, and that’s all there is to it. The movie is so pointlessly eventful and convoluted, though, that it feels more complicated than it is. It doesn’t help than DeHaan and Delevingne have zero chemistry or presence; DeHaan has a gruff dudebro voice like Keanu Reeves’, only without Keanu’s soulfulness, and Delevingne often just seems vaguely inconvenienced, glassy-eyed with indifference for the material. (The two have matching hollow pouts, and they both have arrogantly unmusical voices.) DeHaan does bestir himself when trading lines with Rihanna, though that just serves to prove he has a pulse. Her boss, called Jolly the Pimp, is given a naughty twinkle by Ethan Hawke, but he’s not around for long, either. (I tend to think Hawke opened the script, saw his character’s name, and signed on just on the strength of being able to play a character called Jolly the Pimp.)

What we get here instead of interesting humans is a flock of CGI aliens (the one voiced by John Goodman is amusingly stern) and various scenes of the heroes’ spaceship streaking heedlessly through space, or through trippy environments, and for minutes at a time we might as well be watching animation demo footage unconnected to any context of any interest. Valerian may be welcomed as eye candy by kids and by aficionados of controlled substances, but it offers nothing for someone who merely buckles in for a good time at the movies. Besson also no longer knows what to do with interesting humans when he has them. Rutger Hauer is tossed aside after punching his time card for what our British actor friends call a cough and a spit role; Herbie Hancock is in it, mostly seen as a hologram scolding the heroes. An international cast mumbles stale dialogue in person or as the voices of aliens.

The overstuffed yet empty Valerian is nothing new, of course; we’ve been getting this sort of flatulent, pricey “entertainment” for decades, and it’s not going to end any time soon. Every so often a Get Out or a Wonder breaks out, because it scratches a previously neglected itch, or it speaks to people. Valerian and its ilk speak to no one, although they are engineered to appeal across continents, languages, cultures. Everyone understands things blowing up. Yet you have to drive out of your way for an hour to see, say, a French film for grown-ups (Valerian is based on French comics), while plastic junk like this blurts onto 3,500 screens in America — then slinks off after nine weeks having made back a fraction of its cost. Its failure in America (and in general, worldwide) would be encouraging if we didn’t still get a hundred movies like it every year.

I Love You, Daddy

Posted November 11, 2017 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: art-house, comedy, drama

i-love-you-daddyWatching the edgy, abandoned-by-its-studio comedy I Love You, Daddy, which may be writer/director Louis C.K.’s last effort for a long while at least, is a saddening experience for one who has admired C.K.’s previous work in stand-up and on TV. In what has to be the most awkward case of timing since Husbands and Wives premiered after the Woody Allen scandal, this movie’s former distributor, The Orchard, mailed out its for-your-consideration screener discs; the screeners arrived a couple of days after the schlubby auteur’s acts of sexual misconduct were confirmed and attached to real names¹, and after C.K. himself acknowledged that the women’s “stories were true.” So now hundreds of critics are sitting with this damn thing, wondering whether to watch it in the first place, and wondering what the hell to do with it once they have watched it.

What I can do with it, having watched it, is to say that I Love You, Daddy requires a great deal of unpacking if one is unwilling to ignore the real life surrounding it. I can say that the movie is clearly the work of a gifted weasel — a man who writes scenes and dialogue that actors can latch onto and make sing, and also a man who has, on several occasions that we know of, pleasured himself in front of women without their stated consent. The film is about perversion and neurosis, as so much of Louis C.K.’s work is. It is also unavoidably funny, due largely to the terrific cast C.K. has assembled. It would be a true bummer if the hilarious apoplexy of, say, Edie Falco as a harried TV producer toiling against an impossible schedule, or the joie de sleaze of Charlie Day as a loutish TV comedy star, were lost in oblivion. Perhaps at some point in the future their contributions, and those of others in the cast, can be viewed and enjoyed.

C.K. plays Glen Topher, a successful television creator working on his second show, which he isn’t crazy about, but a prime-time slot was open and he grabbed it. Glen is also dealing with his rudderless 17-year-old daughter China (Chloë Grace Moretz), who finds herself drifting into the orbit of Glen’s filmmaking idol Leslie Goodwin (John Malkovich), who seems to be conceived as a cosmopolitan libertine in the mold of, oh, Woody Allen (whose influence on C.K.’s show Louie and on this film is obvious). Glen is appalled that the 68-year-old genius Leslie has taken an interest in his daughter. He has endless anguished talks about it with various women in his life, most of whom tell him he’s a schmuck, a bad father, a bad man. Even the movie star (Rose Byrne) who admires Glen’s work and may star in his new show soon finds herself regarding him with distaste and frustration.

The Louie persona has always attracted women, despite himself, and then repelled them, because of himself. Louis C.K. is more savage to himself (or to his character, but at this point it’s a distinction without much of a difference) than to anyone else in the movie, but that’s nothing new. What is new, and weird, is that I Love You, Daddy — in form an homage to Woody’s notorious Manhattan — both lionizes Allen’s work and deplores his pervy attention to women much younger. I wish I could say the movie worked as Louis’ apologia for his own skeeviness or as an artistic reckoning with it, but a late scene in which seeming justification for grossness — “Everyone’s a pervert” — is put in the mouth of China’s teenage African-American BFF (Ebonee Noel) is dodgy at best. Louis doesn’t dare voice this himself, so he has what he considers a beyond-criticism source — black and female — do it for him. It’s cowardly. It sucks.

It’s impossible to watch I Love You, Daddy except through the stained scrim of its creator’s actions — same as with Husbands and Wives, really, except that movie seemed to have more under the hood. Allen’s film also weighed in at just an hour and forty-eight minutes (generally he has never let his movies run much longer than that, with a couple of exceptions); C.K.’s goes on, often in bland, static two-shots (nicely photographed in b&w though they are), for two hours and three minutes. The movie has fleetingly interesting things to say about what men think female sexuality should be and about women’s “Oh, really?” response to that.

What if the movie had come from a sexually and personally unimpeachable artist? Then, oddly, it wouldn’t seem to have much point. I Love You, Daddy seems to want to be an excoriation of disgusting maleness from a man who knows the disgustingness all too well, who has lived in it and with it, but Glen isn’t disgusting, just a lame, opportunistic creator and an insufficiently assertive parent. The finger of scorn ultimately points not to Glen or even to Leslie (who seems imperiously sexless) but to the spoiled and flighty China, despite Moretz’s compassionate performance. The source of male agita is a teenage girl who has no inner life, has nothing much except a body to be lusted after, protected, or barely clothed. Which makes this an art-house version of the legendarily creepy ‘80s “comedies” She’s Out of Control or Blame It on Rio, and did we really need one? Even without Louis C.K.’s real-life sliminess, this movie wouldn’t sit well on the stomach.

¹As opposed to his behavior being rumored-about in blind items and such, which is where it had been for years unless you were female and in the comedy community.

Goodbye Christopher Robin

Posted November 6, 2017 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: biopic, drama, Uncategorized

goodbyechrisrobinTo the short subgenre of biopics about children’s-book authors (Lewis Carroll in Dreamchild, J.M. Barrie in Finding Neverland, P.L. Travers in Saving Mr. Banks) we must now add the modestly touching Goodbye Christopher Robin, about A.A. Milne, creator of Winnie-the-Pooh. This one, though, concerns itself more with postwar trauma than with the usual biopic tropes and beats. Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) goes off to World War I, and is injured in the notoriously brutal Battle of the Somme. Once home with his young wife Daphne (Margot Robbie), Milne broods on war, how it seems to render all the world’s sources of happiness impotent. Then Daphne, with misgivings, bears him a child, who will lead him out of himself and into fame and fortune — and a whole other set of problems.

Directed with a stiff sense of dignity by Simon Curtis, Goodbye Christopher Robin is about men and boys, fathers and sons, losing and finding themselves. Curtis, though, with Gleeson’s help, convinces us that Milne has been broken by the nightmare meat-grinder of the Great War, and this runs underneath every scene Milne is in. It’s kept quiet, though, not obnoxiously obvious. And given that this is a very polite PG-rated film, with only the most oblique glimpses of war bloodshed, Curtis impressively conveys the eternal dread of the postwar life. We gather that Milne saw hell. Out of this darkness, improbably, blossoms one of English letters’ most enduring creations of whimsy (not beloved by all, of course, as those who recall Dorothy Parker’s legendary dragging of The House at Pooh Corner can testify).

Inspired by the playtime of his son Christopher (Will Tilston) using a variety of stuffed animals, Milne creates Ashdown Forest and its inhabitants, a place of safe and gentle adventure, as opposed to the real world and all its dangerous, vicious adventure. Milne gives himself a fantasy into which to escape, but in the meantime he has made an unwilling celebrity out of his son, upon whom the books’ Christopher Robin is based. The real Christopher is pressed into service hosting tea parties for lucky young contest winners and posing for photos with a fake Pooh bear. We spend most of our time with the younger Christopher, until the magic of movies telescopes time while he’s at school, so that he becomes a teenager (Alex Lawther) beaten and ridiculed by bullies because of his literary connection. It’s this Christopher, hardened after years of a public childhood, who decides to go off to war himself, this time World War II.

By then, we know what such a decision will do to Milne. A couple of fine, pained scenes between Milne and fellow WWI veteran E.H. Shepard (Stephen Campbell Moore) — who goes on to illustrate the Pooh books — show us what this shared experience does to men, and there’s an equally fine scene near the end, when another pair of men sit and take note of the beauty that the world can also offer. When things look bleak, Daphne excoriates Milne for “fixing it” so that their son (who’d failed the physical) could go to war, but what could Milne do? It was what Christopher wanted, and for Milne to deny him would have driven the last wedge between them. Sidebar stuff like this, which has little to do with the origins of Pooh and Piglet and Eeyore, deals with things we seldom see in movies; a father and a son bonded by horror, ready to embrace the future and abandon the agony of the past.

Much of Goodbye Christopher Robin is honorable, even if the tears are jerked a little too strenuously near the finish. One thing, however, prevents me from giving the film more than a middling mark. I know this isn’t her movie, but the cavalier, seemingly unloving behavior of Daphne throughout the film is baffling, all the more so because no one else seems to notice it. She leaves her husband until he starts writing again; she seems ruthlessly unsentimental, which is fine, but it seems at odds with everything else in the movie. Margot Robbie plays her as a borderline flapper who seems to yearn for champagne and glitz over a stuffy old house with a stuffy old writer. (When they married, Daphne was 23, Milne 31.)

Eventually, offscreen apparently, Daphne gentles into a vaguely worried mom tinkering in the garden, and Kelly Macdonald steals the movie as Olive, Christopher’s faithful caretaker. Macdonald brings that tired cliché the selfless nanny to life, and her expressions of despair and later joy are far more compelling than anything else going on. Goodbye Christopher Robin is refined, tactful, competent. Its dark undertone of war and its deforming power lifts it above the usual schmucky Hollywood stuff. But it’s missing that gratifying sense of everything coming together to create a vision based on subtle thematic work — that almost audible click when the elements hang together coherently and with originality of purpose. (We feel this, for example, at several points in Pulp Fiction.) The movie seems to be about a man who, when creating a fantasy into which to escape war memories, inadvertently drives his own son into another war. How does a movie even begin to deal with that? This one doesn’t.

Brawl in Cell Block 99

Posted October 29, 2017 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: action/adventure, drama, film noir, one of the year's best, thriller, Uncategorized

Brawl-In-Cell-Block-99-TrailerIn the first shot of Brawl in Cell Block 99, the heavy tire of a truck flattens a can of lite beer. This, I imagine, is a signal that you’re about to get a shot of the hard stuff. You may have read about how ferally brutal Brawl is, and what a change of pace it is for its star, Vince Vaughn, but the truly shocking thing about it is how tender much of it is, how much humanity even briefly seen supporting players are apportioned. The movie is hushed, almost meditative, as it lays the groundwork for a grand finale involving crushed skulls, faces scraped against concrete. The audience for the film may fall within a very tiny Venn diagram of those who can sit with subtly emotional, drawn-out scenes and those who can hang with the bone-cracking and bloodletting.

It is also some kind of grim masterpiece, fully delivering on the promise of writer/director S. Craig Zahler’s 2015 debut, Bone Tomahawk. In that Peckinpah-meets-Deodato epic, Kurt Russell and a small posse delve into hell — land of hulking cannibals — to save a woman from a fate worse than death. Here, Vaughn, as recovering alcoholic with a side order of rage issues Bradley Thomas, must descend level by level into a dungeon of horrors to rescue his pregnant wife Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter) and their unborn daughter from an equally ghastly end. There’s a heaping helping of white-knightism in both films, but it doesn’t go unchallenged, nor do easy notions of manhood or machismo. Violence in these films is not to be relished, but to be engaged in with sorrow that it had to play out this way — without sadism but also without mercy. They are portraits of men in extremis, grotesque but fully alive and human.

After being laid off from his auto-mechanic gig, Bradley comes home to discover that Lauren has been cheating on him. He tells her to go into the house, then uses his fists on her car, finally ripping the hood off. We don’t need to be told that he is inflicting damage that he can easily fix; the same would not be true of wounds dealt to Lauren. And then a wondrous thing happens: after punishing the car, Bradley steps inside and faces Lauren, and they talk. They talk like adults in a movie for adults. This, too, is shocking. Everyone who meets Bradley seems to sense that he has, as a detective puts it, a moral compass. They can also see in his eyes that he would rather not hurt people, but is exceptionally capable of doing so if his hand is forced. Well, his hand is forced, in an odyssey that takes him from a minimum to a maximum security prison, and finally to “the prison within the prison,” ruled by the sportive cigarillo-puffing sadist Warden Tuggs (Don Johnson).

Brawl in Cell Block 99, like Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk, doesn’t use brutality for a kick or a tickle. It’s lumbering, terrible, thudding stuff, with the fights often filmed in long takes so we can see that, yes, that is indeed Vince Vaughn and not a stunt double distributing pain like Halloween candy. Bradley is a bad-ass, but Vaughn isn’t interested in that aspect of him (nor is Zahler). You’re not meant to go “whoo!” when the fists fly and arms are splintered, the way you were at something like Sylvester Stallone’s back-to-basics 2008 Rambo. You’re meant to wince, avert your eyes. Vaughn brings an intelligent wit and vulnerability that play against his six-foot-five frame. Bradley is a man who could easily be a hero, except that fate has made him a villain.

He does it all for his woman and his unborn child. As with Bone Tomahawk, I couldn’t be less interested in unpacking the story’s politics (avoiding spoilers, but some of the plot hinges on a hot-button issue). A great many effective pulp fantasies of the past, of course, would not pass today’s ideological purity tests. I’m as lefty as they come, and whatever right-wing skeleton may be rattling around inside Brawl concerns me not in the slightest. There’s no agenda being pressed here, just a cracking story with across-the-board fine performances (it’s predictable that Udo Kier is in perfect creepy form as a crime associate, but how about the surprisingly authoritative work from Marc Blucas — the most boring presence on Buffy the Vampire Slayer — as Bradley’s racist drug-dealer friend?). I don’t know how S. Craig Zahler votes, but I have seen how he writes and directs, and I’m ready to say he’s the most exciting filmmaker working in the violent genres since Tarantino raised his flag 25 years ago. Watch him.