Writer-director S. Craig Zahler does what he wants, and throws the rest to the wind.
If that wasn’t apparent from his first two films, the brutal Bone Tomahawk and Brawl in Cell Block 99, then his latest, Dragged Across Concrete, now out in theaters and on VOD, should get the message across. Zahler wants to tap into emotions and provoke a response — but if you believe the filmmaker, he isn’t being reactionary.
In interviews, Zahler has made a point of saying that there’s nothing intentionally political about his movies, a claim that’s becoming harder and harder to believe. The portrayal of a mindless troglodyte clan in Bone Tomahawk was offset by the white characters’ hubris and a long history of genre expectations; the “blue lives matter” rhetoric in Brawl in Cell Block 99 was counterbalanced by a singular focus on Vince Vaughn’s convict bruiser and the horrors of the prison system. However, setting Dragged Across Concrete, a classic tale of hard men turning to crime to make ends meet, in modern-day America — and prominently featuring cops who exhibit racist, misogynistic behavior, and people of color who seem to conform to negative stereotypes about them — feels deliberately provocative.
To complicate matters further, one of the film’s three leads is Mel Gibson, a noted conservative whose history includes accusations of domestic violence and records of anti-Semitic, racist, homophobic, and misogynistic language. Zahler has said the part of Brett Ridgeman, a bigoted cop, was written without any actor in mind, and while that on its own is not hard to believe, it’s impossible to say that Gibson’s casting doesn’t add several layers to what is already a prickly film. Zahler’s mastery of his craft is inarguable — Dragged Across Concrete is a thrilling, compelling watch — but the content of his latest film is so grim and murky that it starts feeling like a sunk cost.
The first time we see Ridgeman, he’s putting his boot on the face of a Latino drug dealer as his partner, Anthony Lurasetti (Vince Vaughn), looks on. Soon afterward, he’s interrogating the suspect’s near-naked girlfriend by pushing her into a cold shower and joking that he can’t understand her accent when she doesn’t tell him what he wants to hear. The sequence isn’t played for laughs, but it’s not a condemnation, either, and it’s harder to stomach when Ridgeman almost immediately proceeds to complain about politically correct culture and (liberal) media outrage. The one authority figure he has to answer to — a police lieutenant who is his former partner, played by Don Johnson — makes it clear that he disapproves of his behavior and that it’s held him back from promotion, but he doesn’t entirely disagree with Ridgeman’s take that there may be too much policing of the police.
That niggling uncertainty — the sense that Zahler knows how his film will come across, but is either resistant to or ambivalent about providing any clarity — runs through the entire film. Stereotypes are counteracted by small moments that make more bigoted characters out to be fools and more marginalized characters (particularly Tory Kittles as the film’s third lead, Henry Johns) to be the smartest people in the metaphorical room, but that doesn’t lessen the death by a thousand cuts (well, slashes) impact of the white characters’ relentless bigotry and the violence they perpetrate.
The driving force behind Ridgeman’s decision to take an off-the-books job is his desire to get his family out of a predominantly black neighborhood. His wife Melanie (Laurie Holden) bemoans that she’d never thought of herself as racist until they moved into the neighborhood, and tells Ridgeman that she fears their daughter (who has orange soda spilled on her by some local boys, apparently a repeat occurrence) will be raped if they stay too much longer. Though Melanie’s framing puts some of the blame on herself, there’s also no pushback to her dog-whistle line of thinking.
The only rebuttals are issued to more glaringly “obvious” instances of racism: Ridgeman’s suspension; positioning Johns as a hero despite loading him with a lamentable backstory (his mother has turned to prostitution, and his little brother uses a wheelchair); and repeated digs at white men who think the use of African-American Vernacular English is inherently inferior. The way Zahler leaves everything else — including Gibson’s casting — hanging in the air is frustrating, not least because it leaves room for those who would want to superimpose right-wing messaging onto the film to do so with relative impunity.
If Zahler weren’t such a deliberate, talented filmmaker, it would be easy to dismiss Dragged Across Concrete as thoughtless. The problem is that, like Bone Tomahawk and Brawl in Cell Block 99, Dragged Across Concrete is very good. (I would call Bone Tomahawk a masterpiece; perhaps coincidentally, as a Western, it’s also the least on-the-nose of Zahler’s films, as far as cultural relevance is concerned.)
The way the disparate threads of the story ultimately wind together is spellbinding, and the performances — yes, even Gibson’s — are uniformly strong. Binding it all together is Zahler’s penchant for overly florid, Western- or noir-esque language, and long, static shots, which beautifully build up and amplify a sense of dread, and complement the unease of not knowing exactly how to interpret the finished product.
The most straightforward take is a macro one: Zahler says he writes characters doing what he thinks those characters would do, rather than using them to push any particular political agenda — that he’s presenting “a lot of differing viewpoints.” That his characters are awful people isn’t to be celebrated or condemned; they just are, as is Zahler’s portrayal of contemporary society. The catch-22 is that taking no stance is still a stance. There’s no such thing as an uncurated exhibition of art, and the same principle applies to film. Dragged Across Concrete is a nearly three-hour descent into hell, specifically the hell that is America.
Zahler’s films are all brutally violent — Bone Tomahawk features a live vivisection, and Brawl in Cell Block 99 a decapitation by stomping — usually in service to dramatically shifting the tone of the story (or shaking the viewer out of any sense of complacency). The horrors inflicted upon the characters in Dragged Across Concrete are no more or less awful, but the victims of the worst assaults are often women and minorities. The film’s most emotionally affecting segment, and also its most cruel, finds a new mother shredded by a hail of bullets. The scene demonizes the villains (Ridgeman and Lurasetti’s “unorthodox” methods are hence justified by the men they’re trying to stop), but it also feels like a step too far — all the more so when it’s followed by the extended humiliation of a kidnapped woman and the disemboweling of a black man.
Zahler’s work isn’t alone when it comes to harrowing depictions of the present climate, or slicing into a saga of bad men doing bad things for ultimately good ends, but no films (or shows) in recent memory lay claim to the same kind of impartiality. Think of Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight or Danny McBride, Jody Hill, and David Gordon Green’s one-two punch of Eastbound & Down and Vice Principals. Both center (primarily) on white characters who exhibit the same kind of glib, racist, misogynist behavior as Ridgeman and Lurasetti and (in The Hateful Eight’s case) spill gallons of blood; both reach similar points of excess. However, they have an advantage in being built with a distinct take rather than flatly in terms of point of view. There’s no question as to the fact that characters like Kenny Powers or Chris Mannix are meant to be objects of ridicule for their close-mindedness, even if they are also supposed to engender a degree of sympathy; they still have dimensionality without any “both sides” hedging.
The creative voices behind those projects display no pretense as to whether they’re political works. Dragged Across Concrete is no lesser a piece of art because of Zahler’s lack of an overt stance, but it becomes a snake eating its own tail in attempting to maintain that distance. Zahler is too smart a filmmaker to do anything without knowing exactly how it’ll change the tone and texture of his movie — this is a film that devotes just as much time and attention to meandering asides about pumpernickel bread and breakfast sandwiches as it does gunfights — so the fact that some moments of bigotry are addressed and others are not (and that Mel Gibson is essentially playing a pulp version of himself) feels deliberate.
The opinions of the characters in Dragged Across Concrete may not reflect Zahler’s personal views, but they paint a picture of a filmmaker more intentionally provocative than he’s letting on. It’s not that Zahler doesn’t want to rattle his audience; he just doesn’t care, good or bad, what that reaction is.