In a cultural landscape flooded with paroxysms of sanctimony and indignation, the prospect of a productively provocative work might seem like a non-starter—for when discourse inevitably breaks down into tetchy outbursts of bad-faith criticism, and artists in turn retreat behind self-defined platitudes in an attempt to avoid misunderstanding and offense, is there room for art that explicitly baits such responses, for movies that want to alienate an audience? Then again, as suggested by Dragged Across Concrete, the latest film from writer-director S. Craig Zahler, perhaps this is just a question of intensity.
With just three directorial features under his belt, the Miami-born director has positioned himself as a workmanlike genre filmmaker in the vein of Don Siegel, whose Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954) provides the clear model for Zahler’s previous film, Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2017). Even before stepping behind the camera, though, Zahler worked mainly as a writer, penning screenplays to be optioned (such as the 2011 feature Asylum Blackout), and publishing such novels as Wraiths of the Broken Land (2013) and Mean Business on North Ganson Street (2014), the titles of which offer a taste of his worldview and his flair for pungent, flavorful dialogue. (Reportedly, his 2018 novel Hug Chickenpenny: The Panegyric of an Anomalous Child will be the basis of his next feature.) Thus far, his films have been characterized by an unusually severe consistency: runtimes upwards of two hours; graphic, post-Tarantino bursts of violence; and, most contentiously, an unmistakably conservative viewpoint.
Set in the fictional, tellingly-named American city of Bulwark (shot in a barely-disguised Vancouver), Dragged Across Concrete is a veritable compendium of racial stereotypes: Asian prostitutes and convenience store clerks, Mexican drug dealers and shady European criminal types (one played by Udo Kier, no less). The film’s opening scene acquaints the viewer with Henry Johns (Tory Kittles), a black ex-con whose role in the overall story for a time remains tantalizingly obscure. Mainly, though, Dragged Across Concrete centers on a pair of gruff, rough white cops: a gray-haired, sixty-ish officer named Brett Ridgeman (an impressively reined-in Mel Gibson), and his much-younger partner, Tony Lurasetti (Vince Vaughn, reprising his badass turn in Brawl). When first introduced, the pair are at the end of a stakeout and the start of a drug bust, the latter carried out with excessive, unnecessary force. The pair's violent scuffle with the dealer was, it turns out, caught on camera by a concerned citizen. As we later learn from Lieutenant Calvert (Don Johnson), Ridgeman's former partner who has since moved up the bureaucratic ladder, this is just the latest in a string of such behavior from Gibson’s brazen cop, whose methods have only gotten harsher with the passing years. Ridgeman and Tony are immediately suspended without pay.
As in Brawl in Cell Block 99, Dragged Across Concrete concerns, at bottom, a defense of the nuclear family unit, which here more so than in that earlier film is freighted with nativist thinking. Ridgeman’s teenage daughter is periodically harassed by the miscreants of their “shitty neighborhood” in which the family lives because of his “shit pay,” while his wife (Laurie Holden), an ex-cop with multiple sclerosis, says that she never thought of herself as racist until moving there. Their daughter is growing up, so both parents worry aloud about the threat of rape, though the only solution they put forward is a costly move, which they’re unable to afford. (Henry, meanwhile, must provide for his mother, who had been turning tricks while he was in prison, and wheelchair-bound younger brother.) Now temporarily out work, Ridgeman convinces himself that for the sake of his family, he must break bad. To Tony, whom he recruits to help carry out his barely-sketched plan, he lays out the situation plainly: “We have the skills and the right to acquire proper compensation.”
This sense of entitlement—based on and around fundamentally conservative ideas—undergirds their actions thereafter, which involve staking out and then intercepting a potential drug deal. But from the very beginning, both Ridgeman and Tony are walking mouthpieces for right-wing rhetoric and hyper-masculine MAGA talking points, carping about everything from organic produce stores to how being accused of racism today is like being accused of Communism in the 1950s. That Zahler has cast Gibson and Vaughn, both Hollywood conservatives, is no accident either. The former is especially good in his role, though one might also feel that the script’s more impolitic lines roll off his tongue a little too easily. Whereas in Brawl or, say, Siegel’s Dirty Harry (1971), racist invectives were hurled for plausibly strategic purposes, their presence here is more conspicuous; and yet Zahler, like Tarantino, often creates situations where charges of gratuity can be shrugged off in the name of character continuity.
As irksome and obnoxious as such impulses may be, a measure of aggravation seems acceptable when faced with Zahler's talents—for whatever one might make of his politics, his skills as a filmmaker are considerable. His films are long, courtly affairs that feel foreshortened by spasms of savagery, with verbose monologues or methodical silences often followed by the horrific cracking of bones. He has a particular facility for ostensibly extraneous passages that, in lesser hands, would be deflating longueurs—and across Dragged Across Concrete’s 158 minutes, there’d be room for many—but that in his films come charged with a kind of sepulchral unease. A particularly compelling detour observes a visibly anxious bank clerk (Jennifer Carpenter) returning to her apartment only to find that it’s been chained shut; her husband refuses to let her in. As the scene plays out, a number of insidious, unsettling possibilities run through the mind, but even when the situation is explained—her maternity leave is up, but she doesn't want to go into work—the initial sense of disquiet remains. (Zahler makes sure to underline that the woman’s husband makes less than she does and stays home to care for their child—and just look where that gets them.) Though even this seems preferable in the face of the grisly bank heist that follows, which involves, in varying degrees, all of the major parties we’ve been introduced to thus far.
The wending digressions of Zahler’s script eventually converge at the film’s unquestionable high point: a tense, single-location standoff, complete with sundry shocks and brusque, barbarous reversals and during which Henry Johns emerges as a steely force to be reckoned with. This extended, half-hour set-piece unfolds in a sulfurous, hellish zone far afield of modern bureaucracy, where even the codes of the Old West seem naïve, and there are only the hard facts of the human body: the physiological revolt that occurs when you force a key down your throat, and the lack thereof when someone else cuts it out of your corpse. With its grim, purgative confrontations, this bloodletting finale clarifies the underlying parallelisms between Ridgeman and Henry as emblematic of a shared desperation, though it’s less clear whether or not Zahler would attribute their situations to an institutional landscape bereft of social safety nets. It’s no surprise that the video game that Henry plays with his brother is a first-person shooter, nor that the film’s theme song is titled “Shotgun Safari.” (And of course, the TV program that Ridgeman watches with his family before heading off is a nature show about lions and their cubs in the wild.) In the America of Zahler’s making, it’s every man for himself.
The false equivalences between Gibson’s white cop and Kittles’s black ex-con are fairly easily untangled, though it’s part of Zahler’s design that one can take Dragged Across Concrete as either a de facto denial of systemic inequalities of race and power or an indictment of indifferent state bureaucracy. (Whether one is meant to attribute the latter to the ills of left- or right-wing politics is, according to his conspicuously evasive interviews, entirely up to the viewer.) In any case, the ultimate goal, as suggested by Henry's brother, who aspires to become a video game designer, is to be an architect rather than a player. Perhaps therein lies the film's true conservatism: a worldview that sees this American notion of striving as something worth saving, even when faced with its corruption by all manner of competing forces and contemporary anxieties—which is an endorsement not of distorted means or ends, but of underlying ideals. But the cinematic game Zahler has created here, although it retains the eccentric, brutalist sensibility at work in Brawl in Cell Block 99, lacks the gnawing inevitability of that film’s spiraling descent. With Dragged Across Concrete, he’s furthered his talent for creating distinctive, subterranean universes—a predilection that the name of his heavy metal band, Realmbuilder, would seem to buttress. But for all of the implacable chaos suggested by the film’s title, it’s ultimately too studied, too expressly designed to leave a lasting mark. Zahler has before shown himself amply capable of contorting our sympathies in surprising ways—which proved productive, and well worth the discomfort. There's less to ponder in this compelling, but merely unsavory yarn, which provokes a viewer in ways they already fully expect.