22 Jan 2022
Jon Mark Nail
Jon Mark Nail, Joshua Russell, Dustin Whitehead
Dustin Whitehead, Callan White, Jeff Benninghofen
Bruiser is a surprisingly thoughtful action/drama from director Jon Mark Nail, that features real hidden character depth and angry social commentary underneath the bloody, violent fight scenes it pins to its chest.
Jack Rose (Dustin Whitehead) is a low-level thug who uses his fists and fury to make money for himself through local gangster Harry (Jeff Benninghofen). When his father (Allan Whitehead) faces bankruptcy, Jack accepts a dangerous, high-risk, high-reward job from Harry. But when he finds out the job involves a young girl (Diana Mendoza), he questions his own identity – and risks the wrath of unseen forces…
At Bruiser’s heart is its characters. Too many brawler movies make the mistake of assuming audiences will sympathise with violent, aggressive leading men simply because they are the protagonist. Bruiser takes time to establish Jack as a man trapped by circumstance, who yearns to live a better life but lacks the tools to make one other than his fists. Director Jon Mark Nail shows Jack’s vulnerable side, and creates an impression that this is brute with a heart of gold. A scene between Jack and his father accomplishes this beautifully, and a later scene with the young girl also underpins why Jack is willing to risk everything to do the right thing (although such a scene between the pair would have been welcome earlier in the film)
A real highlight of the film is the dynamic between Jack and his de-facto boss Harry. Dustin Whitehead and Jeff Benninghofen have excellent chemistry, and bounce off each other to create tension, drama, and humour when required. The two characters represent the light and dark sides of aspiration – and there is a real electricity when they clash.
The build-up of tension in general is executed very well, with clear inspiration from Drive in the creeping danger imbued into the plot and No Country for Old Men for the multi-perspective pursuit we see once the Time-Keepin’ Man (Colin Wasmund) is introduced. Despite the initial impression of a Tarantino-style bloodbath, violence is gradually withdrawn throughout the film in favour of nail-biting pressure – which makes the blood, gore and shootouts that much more meaningful when all that tension is released.
The plot does meander, and the unique structuring of the film takes risks which do not end up paying off. A long scene focused on selling bibles stutters the momentum of the film in the build-up to the conclusion. Similarly, some sharpening up around Jack and the girl’s relationship would have been welcome – as would added clarity on the Time-Keepin’ Man’s motivations. Points for originality, but a more traditional approach would have benefitted the story here.
There are subtle (and not-so-subtle) commentaries in the film on the idea of America, and the hostility faced by those outside of the American dream in the Trump years. What could have been a clumsy and mishandled politicisation of the film instead feels natural and embedded in the narrative in a manner that is both angry and loud, and quiet and contemplative in an intertwining fashion. Not every statement the film tries to make lands naturally, but there is enough within to add depth.
Bruiser is not a perfect film by any means, with a plot and structure that gets messy and an unsatisfying conclusion. But its characters, and the audience’s connection to them shine through, and director Jon Mark Nail’s ability to create tension on screen will leave viewers hooked to the screen. This one takes you by more surprise and leaves you more out of breath than a feint-jab to the ribs.