Film Review: Dragged Across Concrete
Vile, Racist, and...Thrilling?
In today’s sensitive political climate, a film like Dragged Across Concrete is sure to prod, offend, and enrage. The third feature from writer and director S. Craig Zahler, the film is a perfect cauldron of incendiary messaging - from its casting to its characters and narrative, Dragged Across Concrete teems with nasty provocations that will undoubtedly cut against the grain of all liberal sensibility. But, Zahler’s latest is also an effective and engrossing police thriller that paints realistic portraits of its characters, rough edges and all. As a left-leaning member of today’s society, my experience with the film is a curious paradox: a cautious and hesitant appreciation for a stylized and violent tour de force, even if it is steeped in a harrowing backwards morality. Mild spoilers below…
Indie movie studio Cinestate, through a spate of recent press, has earned a standing as a populist production company; The Daily Beast, in a spotlight on the studio, labels it as making films “for the MAGA crowd,” while online publications such as Film School Rejects cheekily characterizes Cinestate as “Trumping Hollywood.” S. Craig Zahler, the studio’s most prolific director, has certainly garnered a reputation for provocation with his bone-crunchingly violent debuts of Bone Tomahawk and Brawl in Cell Block 99. Taken together with director Henry Dunham’s The Standoff at Sparrow Creek earlier this year, one can easily draw a conservative and reactionary thread through Cinestate’s library of films: tinted with posturing white-male machismo, fear of outsiders, and gruesome violence, the films undoubtedly have a covert populist tilt. And I say covert because Zahler and Dunham are no dummies - they’re talented filmmakers uninterested in political fist-waving, focusing instead on character studies that just so happen to have perspectives wildly different from mainstream Hollywood. Unlike the offensively silly and sledgehammer-subtle God’s Not Dead trilogy, Cinestate films have no interest in the glorification of a conservative edict - their characters are flawed and their victories are Pyrrhic, and despite their settings and subject matter, the studio’s films tend to tread carefully around politics. But as Bone Tomahawk, Brawl in Cell Block 99, and even The Standoff at Sparrow Creek toe the line of political ambiguity, Dragged Across Concrete obliterates it, not because it has a message or agenda, but because its main characters are such unrepentant racists and misogynists. At what point do your racist and misogynist protagonists transform your film into a sounding board for your characters’ worst impulses? The question would be moot if the resulting product was trash, but Dragged Across Concrete is far from a bad film, so it’s an inquiry worth analyzing.
“At what point do your racist and misogynist protagonists transform your film into a sounding board for your characters’ worst impulses?”
With the casting of two of Hollywood’s most notable conservatives, one with an extremely public checkered past, Dragged Across Concrete is prickly before the movie even starts. The inclusion of Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn, however, is just the tame prelude of a nauseatingly thrilling police story. Right off the bat, we’re introduced to partners Brett Ridgeman (Gibson) and Anthony Lurasetti (Vaughn) as they brutally interrogate a Latino drug dealer and humiliate his naked girlfriend, an incident that results in their suspension without pay when cell phone footage of their behavior goes public. This opening scene acts as a diving board overlooking a pool of nightmarish muck, a setup to a fascinating plunge into some of the darkest depictions of crooked policework to date. Ridgeman and Lurasetti are, simply put, relics - as characters in a film and as people, they are blunt instruments in a world (and Hollywood, for that matter) that has outgrown them. In a light dressing-down, their captain (Don Johnson) hangs a lampshade, “You get results. But you’re losing perspective and compassion. A couple more years out there and you’re gonna be a human steamroller, covered with spikes and fueled by bile.” In between skull-crackings and throat-stompings, the two complain of a new world of soft men and political correctness, lamentations that are all too familiar in the era of Trump. Does Zahler sympathize with these bigotry-spewing antiheroes? He doesn’t exactly wag the finger at their racism and misogyny, but instead paints them as real human beings with vulnerabilities and relatable problems. By making the degenerate Ridgeman and Lurasetti begrudgingly likable, Dragged Across Concrete sets up a fascinating dichotomy that allows the audience come to its own conclusions about their behavior.
The film’s inciting incident, however, is just an appetizer for what comes next. At a meaty 158 minutes, Dragged Across Concrete bides its time as Ridgeman pulls Lurasetti into a side job that involves ripping off a criminal (Thomas Kretschmann) in order get their due. The film builds to crescendo with whip-smart dialogue and an uncompromising focus on the mundane leading up to the big score. Like his previous films of Bone Tomahawk and Brawl in Cell Block 99, Concrete is peppered with stomach-churning acts of violence, but shines most brightly in its quieter moments and meticulous plotting. It also, however, becomes increasingly hard to watch. The film’s treatment of its women is especially shocking in moments sure to trigger and outrage, with plenty of its female cast existing only to be put down, abused, and discarded. It’s the aspect of the narrative that I have most issues with; one can argue that the film’s dealings with brutality and race are a byproduct of the story, but its shaggy-dog stories concerning female characters are gratuitous and border on tastelessness. Zahler does, however, hedge his bets with the charismatic Tory Kittles, who plays African-American ex-con Henry Johns. Henry is the closest thing the film has to a decent human being: an ex-criminal roped back into the underworld by his childhood friend (Michael Jai White) to support his struggling family, Kittles plays him with a hard-nosed pragmatism and repressed tenderness. While his story doesn’t intersect with Ridgeman and Lurasetti’s for a long stretch, it’s no less engaging and worthwhile. All of the disparate threads then come together in a fantastically bloody denouement, with Zahler’s penchant for violent spectacle on full display. No one does bloodbath quite like Zahler, and Dragged Across Concrete is no exception. Eschewing the slow motion sprays and twisting acrobatics of today’s action films, our director instead opts for brutal efficiency in bouts of gore. Death departs almost as quickly as it arrives, barely allowing the brain to even register what happened: it’s effective and harrowing, almost stepping over the line that separates cinema from the real.
Mel Gibson’s Ridgeman, in an oddly meta turn, states at one point, “I don’t politic, and I don’t change with the times, and it turns out that shit’s more important than good, honest work.” Dragged Across Concrete is an unapologetic noir that’s at times hard to swallow, a construct of the times that seems lab-grown to provoke and outrage. There are plenty who will take umbrage at the fact that Mel Gibson is even in this film, others will be offended by the film’s rampant acts of racism and misogyny, and I myself will continue to have mixed feelings about it, but the one undeniable fact is that S. Craig Zahler is continuing his streak of bracing filmmaking. Ridgeman and Lurasetti may be morally bankrupt cops undeserving of our attention or our sympathy, but at least they are characters that feel real and make a lasting impression on the viewer. I’ll take that over grade-school cops and robbers any day of the week.