There are moments where Dragged Across Concrete feels like a statement from a filmmaker justifying his cynicism and challenging filmography. Writer/Director S. Craig Zahler has quickly become one of the most unique voices in Hollywood from his experience directing Bone Tomahawk and Brawl in Cell Block 99, and his films are known for their difficult subject matter and novelistic character and story development. He’s gone on record as actively pursuing subject matter that makes both him and the audience uncomfortable, and if that wasn’t obvious from his previous work then take a look at his novels and writing credits (recently including Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich for example). For his latest film though, Zahler is at his most leisurely, with a pulpy slowburner that makes the most of its wonderful cast and constructs a condensed mini-epic that feels like a true extension of the filmmaker’s oeuvre.
Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn play Brett Ridgeman and Anthony ‘Tony’ Lurasetti, two right-leaning police officers operating in a new modern world that seems all-too liberal to allow for effective police work. Their successful drug bust that kicks off the film is caught on camera through the eyes of a civilian’s phone, and the two are quickly suspended thanks to their ‘extreme’ methods as they become the subject of a media blitz. It’s impossible to ignore Gibson’s relation to the subject matter, and his work as grizzled officer of yesteryear Brett with no emotional ties to anything but his family – an MS suffering wife (Laurie Holden) and daughter (Jordyn Ashley Olsen) who is repeatedly abused thanks due to their bad neighbourhood. What could have been an awkward distinction between the two is actually ignored whilst Gibson imbues the character with depth and reservations. No matter what you think of the man, his talent has never been out of question.
Vaughn is in a similar boat too, as Brett drags him into a potentially shady drug deal whilst they’re suspended without pay. Tony is the more typically vocal right-wing enthusiast, eager to voice his frustration with the powers that be whether it’s the media or their lieutenant. Vaughn’s work is similarly impressive, though his role as the comic relief side of the duo means his character doesn’t have the chance to become as fleshed out as Brett’s. The two’s chemistry is indisputable, and Zahler’s dialogue feels fresh and natural coming from them as opposed to the few times where his diction comes across as stilted from the mouths of less-experienced performers. His particular style of testing patience, present in both his previous endeavors, returns here at full force with elongated sequences of silence and awkward interactions. A minute-long shot of Gibson watching in silence as Vaughn luxuriously finishes off a sandwich during a stake-out irks the audience in the same way it does Brett. The film is in no rush to tell its story and unfolds naturally when it deems fit.
Simultaneously we’re also introduced to Tory Kittles’ Henry Johns, fresh out of prison and attempting to help his mum and little brother’s financial situation as best he can. Of course, his leaning towards crime isn’t presented as something particularly shocking – because it isn’t. Instead Henry’s values and responsibilities take priority – the same way they do for the officers, and when he’s drafted as hired help for a bank robbery the inevitability of intertwining lives as a dull reminder of mortality rather than a ticking clock. Zahler has never steered away from violence, and more often than not his films achieve notoriety for their brash and unapologetic depictions of violence, but here it feels like a different beast altogether. The violence, whilst necessary, is sporadic and earned and instead of savoring it and embellishing the intricacies of splatter or gore, every instant of it (apart from one) is mostly a jolt of lead or split second of intensity that draws your attention even more.
There’s a small subplot involving a cameo from Jennifer Carpenter that feels like the perfect encapsulation of this experimentation. As a weary and panic-stricken new mother on her first day back to work, she’s immediately vulnerable. Much like the main characters we identify with her goals and responsibilities, only for Zahler to cruelly pull the rug from under us in a manic display of cruel temptation. This is a filmmaker who feels free enough to experiment with expectation, and there’s plenty within this 160-minute journey that justifies those extremes. Random acts of violence are presented in the static visual style Zahler uses to infuse the film with a sense of realism that conveys how cruel real life is without resorting to nihilism.
Even in its visual presentation the characters feel more at ease in the dark. Benji Bakshi’s cinematography relishes the chance to play with light, opting to focus on the casting of shadows to the extreme. Almost every character is virtually unseen within a lot of these moments, with the only solace being passing headlights, lamps or phone screens that offer respite in the dark world we’re in. Especially during the interior moments this is used to great effect, and it’s a simple visual trick that’s put to great use whilst requiring immense vocal range from the actors on screen. The film is a flurry of yellow street lamps and cold, grey slabs of concrete. The contrast between night and day alleviates the plot too, and as Brett and Tony arrive to the final shoot out (which clocks in at over half an hour), we’re not expecting a change of pace. If we did we’d be disappointed. Instead, we’re offered a contemplative and awkward shuffling of temptations between the characters we’ve come to know, backlit through the eyes of an armoured security van. It doesn’t quite reach the visceral heights of Bone or Cell Block, but it isn’t aiming for it.
Dragged Across Concrete is definitely not a film for everyone, and the film slips in enough racial slurs and heated discussions on the status quo of political correctness to stir up arguments with those you see it with. Black characters often act in such a way to spur an antagonistic response from the officers, attempting to convey the train of thought of Brett and Tony to you as you watch. There’ll be many who see this as a right-wing filmmaker exploiting his position to sympathetically contextualise such opinions and biases – but this is far from the truth. It’s loud and clear that the characters here are horrible, detestable people in their own right. Zahler opts to include the practicalities of day to day life, aspects that many other films choose to leave out. Because of this, everyone on screen feels three dimensional and weighty – which is a good way to describe the film as a whole.
The score by Zahler and Jeff Herriott amplifies moments of pressure successfully, including one of a gestating car-tailing that provides at least some form of build up to the climactic shootout. Meanwhile classical music accompanies the officers’ travels; the mundanity of life outside of work complexly woven betwixt strings and pianos cry out for more grandiose action, yet are confined to the quieter, softer moments. Much of the film harnesses the power of silence too, both for story and even for comedic effect. With the subject matter and characters at his disposal it’s surprising to find that Zahler has crafted his funniest film yet thanks to some quasi-Tarantino-esque quips and wonderful moments of dry comedy. There’s a sequence of a store robbery that evokes the feeling of a Martin McDonagh picture and left a huge smile on my face even at such an inappropriate time.
Dragged Across Concrete is a deliberately antagonistic approach to the cop genre. It’s rough-around-the-edges approach to police brutality and political correctness are merely sprinkles that saturate a tale of violence and desperation. Whilst the pacing and politics taken from it might prevent it from winning over the majority of audience members, it’ll be a shame many miss out on a filmmaker using his talents to provoke a response through talent and acting prowess alone. If the quality of his work stays at the same quality, it’ll be interesting to see what opportunities knock on Zahler’s door.