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The Slow-Burn Pleasures of S. Craig Zahler

The director of “Bone Tomahawk” and “Dragged Across Concrete” makes long, leisurely, and nasty movies—and that’s the point.
Dragged Across Concrete
S. Craig Zahler dares his audiences to walk out of his films early—either in protest, or for a bathroom break. At 158 minutes long, the director’s new film, Dragged Across Concrete, is a particularly drawn-out and nasty piece of work. The violence is calculated to elicit gasps of disgust; the dialogue tends to be provocative or provocatively mundane; and Zahler knowingly casts Mel Gibson as Ridgeman, a law enforcer who’s reprimanded for racist behavior. “I don’t politic, and I don’t change with the times,” Ridgeman complains. “And it turns out that that shit’s more important than good, honest work.” Gibson does, at least, refrain from winking at the camera.
Yet perhaps the most polarizing moment in the movie occurs during a spell of peaceful silence. Vince Vaughan’s Lurasetti, a fellow police officer on a stakeout with Ridgeman, occupies himself with an egg salad sandwich, and we watch him wolf it down, bite by bite, for over a minute. “A single red ant could have eaten that faster,” Ridgeman remarks. Grindhouse movies are typically high-octane, 90-minute (or less) splatterfests, but Zahler’s third feature is a simple heist premise dragged across nearly three hours. The “S” initial stands for Steven, but it may as well be “slow.”
In that sense, Dragged Across Concrete is a natural extension of Zahler’s previous films. Take the writer-director’s 2015 debut, Bone Tomahawk, a road movie set in a horseback era. As a cruel joke, Arthur, the protagonist depicted by Patrick Wilson, has a broken leg. So Arthur hobbles along with crutches, struggling in an ever-expanding desert, while his fellow journeymen—speaking for the audience—plead for him to hurry up. It’s a plot point that feels like it adds 20 minutes to the running time alone.
On the surface, Bone Tomahawk suggests an action-packed premise: Arthur and a band of outsiders are tracking down the cannibals who kidnapped his wife. Yet Zahler devotes the movie’s middle hour solely to the mechanics of the trip, from the hardship of riding horses for multiple days, to a late-night debate about reading books in the bath. With another director, the trek might be a montage or a few scenes; for Zahler, it’s an opportunity to soak in the lonely landscape, to flesh out the interpersonal relationships, and to sustain the fear that they might never reach their destination. For an 1890s-set horror movie, it’s surprisingly redolent of Gus Van Sant’s Gerry.
By the time Arthur and the gang locate the cannibals, 90 minutes have passed. They’re exhausted and dehydrated—perhaps the viewers are, too. So when the energetic cave dwellers start slicing and dicing through Arthur’s companions, it’s a jolt to the system. We’ve learned all sorts of information about the sheriff’s deputy, Nick—his four brothers, his fondness for checkers—and now he’s just a heap on the ground? Well, two heaps, to be exact. After all, Zahler’s movies treat their violence as delayed gratification: the tension builds and builds, until there’s a set-piece so sickening that it can only be referred to as“that moment.” You exit the cinema and gossip to friends about “that moment.” It’s reliably quick, gruesome, and the payoff to a lengthy build-up. If reduced to a GIF, “that moment” is a gruesome albeit ingenious celebration of practical special effects; within the context of the film, though, it’s traumatizing.
Zahler’s second feature, 2017’s Brawl in Cell Block 99, boasts an even greater “that moment.” And, of course, Zahler makes you wait for it: this is a prison movie in which Vince Vaughn’s Bradley isn’t locked up until the 47-minute mark. By Hollywood conventions, the inciting incident should occur within the first 15 minutes. But Zahler luxuriates in the banalities of Bradley’s pre-prison life: the architectural details of his house, the soul music that he blasts on the stereo for pleasure, and the small talk that he exchanges with his pregnant wife. Could you imagine if The Shawshank Redemption had a 47-minute prologue depicting Tim Robbins’ civilian life?
Like Bone Tomahawk, Brawl in Cell Block 99 revolves around an unhurried “how do I get from A to B?” mission. Bradley is tasked with breaking into Cell Block 99—also known as the prison within the prison—and he frequently stands around, in silence, scrutinizing the surroundings like they’re magic eye puzzles. The camera angles are framed like a strategy video game, and we play along with Bradley in real time. Our eyes scan the prison interiors and we wonder where the solution lies. It’s like a series of dimly lit escape rooms, where each code can be cracked with fisticuffs and by stomaching a few punches. So when Bradley, beaten and bruised, finally reaches Cell Block 99, he stamps on an enemy’s skull—the harsh crunch of the bone is especially impactful.
That said, Zahler isn’t slow for the sake of being slow. The lengthy shots are meticulously timed to generate suspense, or to at least prove that Vaughan does his own stunts. Each scene is too precise to be meandering. At times, it’s like watching a play: the dialogue, evidently planned to the syllable, unfurls at what is now Zahler’s recognizable rhythm. The violence, displayed with minimal cutaways, is as if a bystander is documenting evidence of a crime scene. That’s why the creepiest moment of Bone Tomahawk is a background detail: Arthur spots a line of blind, pregnant, imprisoned “Troglodytes”; the camera lingers over them, and then Arthur walks on past. The mystery is left unexplained.
Bone Tomahawk and Brawl in Cell Block 99, though, were scripts from before Zahler turned director. So Dragged Across Concrete, penned after the success of his first feature, is Zahler’s version of swagger: it’s his longest and most leisurely effort to date; it contains zero handheld shots; and it’s very much the work of an auteur in love with his own subplots. A jittery mother, played by Jennifer Carpenter, is introduced midway; the camera tracks her as she waves goodbye to her baby, and then details the minutia of her commute to work. She’s essential to the plot, we assume, but then she’s gunned down in the next scene. It’s Zahler’s version of world-building.
In Dragged Across Concrete, it’s also significant how someone enters a space. There’s one specific door that appears three times. The first time, Ridgeman’s daughter bolts the locks, in tears, having just been bullied by local kids. The second time, Ridgeman, so often the figure in charge, is ordered by his wife to remove his shoes. The third time, the same daughter, in a different headspace, forgets to even shut the door. Noah Baumbach joked that Kicking and Screaming is a film about people walking in and out of rooms. But whereas Baumbach aims for snappy rhythms, Zahler wants to lull you into a mood of hyper-awareness, or perhaps even boredom.
Intriguingly, Zahler has been around for longer than his directorial credits suggest. As a screenwriter, he broke onto the scene in 2006 when his violent western The Brigands of Rattleborge topped The Black List, the annual list of Hollywood’s “most liked” unproduced screenplays.Before Bone Tomahawk, Zahler sold upwards of twenty still-unused spec scripts, attracting names such as Steven Spielberg, Michael Mann, and Leonardo Di Caprio. So Zahler must have done something very right to make these sales, and also something very wrong to scupper the deals. Put it this way: could you imagine Dragged Across Concrete in the hands of another director? Without the stubborn tempo and uncompromising running time, would it really be worth it? The Incident (2011) and Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich (2018) were Zahler scripts without Zahler’s direction. Both were under 90 minutes and both were quickly forgotten.
At a Q&A I attended for Dragged Across Concrete, Zahler alluded to not cooperating with studio notes in the past. He used Jennifer Carpenter’s character as an example of what a studio executive would eliminate. It seems, then, that Zahler is someone who’d prefer his movies were made his way, or not at all. Even if he’s frustratingly evasive about personal politics in interviews, there’s evidence he’ll stand his ground in other areas. He has a blog in which he trashes other people’s films. (He calls The Revenant “self-congratulatory, egotistical garbage masquerading as important art.”) In a 2015 podcast, he expressed relief that Park Chan-wook, who requires a translator for English-language projects, would not direct The Brigands of Rattleborge: “That was a version that I wasn't excited about but other people were.” A few weeks ago, Park reportedly re-joined the project. The Korean director’s interpretation, if it happens, could very well maintain the methodical slowness of The Little Drummer Girl (2018). But would Park’s flashier, more flamboyant visuals complement Zahler’s snail-pace dialogue and conversational cul-de-sacs? It remains to be seen. 
After all, in a digital age of short attention spans, Zahler’s prolonged pacing feels radical. That each film’s grimy world is inhabited by grimy people is part of the challenge. As for the esoteric narrative structures, I have a theory. In interviews, he claims not to outline his scripts, and that he’s usually done within thirty days. If so, Dragged Across Concrete is the by-product of a screenwriter making it up as he goes along. Zahler decides what happens scene by scene, like the characters do, and the slow-burn tempo emulates the creative process: the characters really are driving the story at each turn, and anybody could die at any moment. (That most of them seem to be vocal racists or racial stereotypes is another matter.)
So where does Zahler go from here? His unproduced screenplays (some are purchasable on his site; others are floating online) suggest he can keep churning out the same type of slow-burn thriller at an inversely rapid rate. However, his next feature, Hug Chickenpenny: The Panegyric of an Anomalous Child, will reportedly be suitable for family viewing; it’s a black-and-white period piece about an animatronic orphan, and is a partnership with the Jim Henson Company. It’s the flipside to Dragged Across Concrete, one would assume, except he’s estimated that it will be three-and-a-half hours long. It’s simply in his DNA: for Zahler, patience will always be a storytelling virtue.

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