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Jail Fights and Battle Raps at the Toronto International Film Festival

The fest that launched Quentin Tarantino into the wider world has always been a home for extreme visions. This year, Vince Vaughn’s ‘Brawl in Cell Block 99’ and the rap satire ‘Bodied’ have everyone talking.

Stills from ‘Brawl in Cell Block 99’ and ‘Bodied’ RLJE Films/Shady Films

The Midnight Madness section at the Toronto International Film Festival is the place where bad-taste taste-making begins. Since its inception in 1988, Midnight Madness has played host to some of the most extreme visions in international cinema, helping launch Quentin Tarantino’s career in 1992 with Reservoir Dogs and generally serving as a barometer for genre moviemaking. Last year’s selection included Ben Wheatley’s frenetic Free Fire and the awe-inspiringly graphic French cannibal-coming-of-age-story Raw.

Whether or not S. Craig Zahler’s pummelling Brawl in Cell Block 99 — probably the most high-profile title in this year’s Midnight Madness program — ever reaches a wide audience, it’s got the sort of crazed, unrepentant intensity that makes a cult classic. Continuing his post–True Detective re-branding as a dead-eyed badass, a bulked-up, scalp-shorn Vince Vaughn stars as Bradley Thomas, a mechanic who is good with his hands.

In the first of Zahler’s hilariously heavy-hitting set pieces, we watch our antihero literally pulling his wife’s car apart in a rage over his lost job and her infidelity. The quiet, detached, almost documentary style of filmmaking serves two purposes here: it gives us a sense of Bradley’s almost superhuman strength and potential for explosive, all-consuming rage, and it makes us wonder what it would look (or sound) like if he ever turned his frustrations against flesh and bone instead of steel and chrome.

We do find out, of course: Brawl in Cell Block 99 is an astonishingly violent action movie, albeit on a set of focused, rigorous terms that place it somewhere between grindhouse and the art house. In terms of its plot, however, it’s very much about the big house. After trying to solve his marital and financial problems in one fell swoop by hooking up with some drug runners, Bradley is caught and sent to prison, where he learns that his pissed-off employers want him to assassinate a fellow inmate or else will exact a terrible revenge on his pregnant wife (Jennifer Carpenter). In order to complete the assignment, Bradley will have to get himself transferred from a minimum-security ward to a notorious black site facility — a narrative twist that forces him to drop the passive-giant act and get nasty with the guards and inmates. His calculated change of demeanor is something to behold, and transforms the film around it from a restrained crime thriller into something apocalyptically violent.

Zahler already went all-guts-all-glory in his superb 2015 debut Bone Tomahawk, a hybridized horror-Western that ranks with — and in some ways outstrips — Tarantino’s attempts at bloody frontier revisionism in Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight. Brawl in Cell Block 99 isn’t necessarily a better movie than its predecessor, but it indicates its director’s willingness to go places that many of his peers wouldn’t dare and probably couldn’t reach even if they tried. Vaughn’s stoic, borderline-sociopathic charisma is Zahler’s greatest asset here, and the actor’s ability to suddenly and convincingly weaponize his massive frame for the hand-to-hand combat scenes dotting the film’s second half suggest that he may have been wasting time all these years in frat-guy comedies instead of cracking heads.

In terms of composition and choreography, Brawl is masterful, and it’s also got some sharp, edgy ideas concealed underneath its pitilessly hard surfaces. Not only does Zahler take pains to dramatize the socioeconomic roots of Bradley’s anger, he also gets in a few well-placed digs at the American military-industrial complex, albeit in a way that evacuates the topic of race in favor of a more general attack on institutionalized brutality.

The other clear standout of Midnight Madness is a film that works beautifully as a companion piece to Brawl, even though its violence is verbal rather than physical — and it puts race front and center instead of pushing it to the side.

If 2017 yields another film as ambitious, astonishing, and obnoxious as Joseph Kahn’s Bodied, it’ll be a miracle, or maybe a catastrophe. The love-it-or-hate-it-factor is through the roof here. It may turn out to be the millennial Do the Right Thing — an irrepressible expression of culturally and historically specific angst that forces you to have an opinion instead of watching passively.

As probably the most successful large-scale pop-video director of his generation, Kahn has spent a lot of time crafting images that have helped his clients build their consensus. In his clips, Kahn has an uncanny knack for catering to — and pandering to — a mass audience, but his feature films, including 2011’s spiky, amazing Detention, and now Bodied, work in a different way: they represent this very sly and self-aware artist’s attempts to satirize, atomize, and pulverize the pop mainstream he’s helped saturate with shiny, glossy, product.

In the most basic terms, Bodied is a barely disguised remake/update of 8 Mile, with Calum Worthy starring as Adam, a white graduate student writing a thesis on battle rap. As the film opens, he’s attending an underground confab and diligently taking notes on the verses, disses, and decorum (or lack thereof) of the entire community. The 8 Mile parody begins to rear its head when it’s revealed that Adam is, to his surprise, a B-Rabbit-type who can hold his own with the more experienced battlers, but where Curtis Hanson’s 2002 hit was an attempt to prop up Eminem’s own (self) myth-making — the origin story of a (white) working-class superhero more tortured and authentic than his (black) competitors — Bodied goes in a different direction. Adam isn’t punching up against anything; instead, he’s an embodiment of white male privilege, and any awkwardness he feels in his new career is offset by the fact that battling seemingly lets him get away with saying anything at all.

The emphasis here is on anything: I can’t remember the last time I was as shocked by the dialogue in a movie as I was during Bodied. Outrage and offense are baked into the battle rap format. And yet Kahn and his screenwriter, the Toronto-area wordslinger Alex Larsen (a.k.a. Kid Twist) are determined to test the audience’s boundaries in the same manner as Adam, whose notoriety as the most viciously racist virtuoso on the circuit comes with plenty of criticism from his liberal-arts college buddies.

Bodied’s provocation is multidirectional. Kahn has recently drawn fire on Twitter for his advocacy of free-speech absolutism — for, in effect, calling out political correctness as a liability rather than a solution in the age of Trump. As obviously as Bodied critiques Adam for getting off on the carte blanche handed to him by his new persona — and I’d say that recognizing its antihero’s essential awfulness is its largest and most salient point — it also gleefully mocks identity politics and the woker-than-thou platitudes of self-appointed ideological cops. (There’s a shot of a Bernie Sanders sticker on a laptop that’s devastatingly funny in context.)

It’s not so much that Bodied’s aggressively centrist, you-can-dish-it-out-but-can-you-take-it mentality is persuasive — and get ready for a ream of aggrieved essays about exactly why it’s not — as that it feels plugged into a moment when so much social exchange is so discordant and performative. It’s almost the movie equivalent of a think piece — or perhaps a Twitter thread. Before the premiere, Kahn told me that he thought that everyday Twitter discourse has started to feel like an endless series of battle raps — attempts to inflict damage and score points, with the outcome judged by onlookers all too willing to tag in and take their own shots.

Bodied is exhausting and annoying a lot of the time, but it’s also hilariously funny, finely stylized, and genuinely bold where it counts, both in terms of its story arc and the willingness to go there with words-as-weapons that Zahler shows with splintered limbs in Brawl (the title of which could have easily been Bodied). It’s also astonishing that a film so committed to questioning the Eminem myth comes produced by Marshall Mathers himself, who would have had to sign off on Kahn’s final and most wounding musical cue — an oldie-but-goodie that’s the perfect anthem for a movie that examines whether there’s any real value (artistic or otherwise) to acting like a complete asshole.