Dragged Across Concrete
Written and directed by S. Craig Zahler
Starring Mel Gibson, Vince Vaughn and Tory Kittles
Classification R; 159 minutes
Nasty. That is the first and last word on the films of S. Craig Zahler. Across three features produced in relatively short succession – 2015′s Bone Tomahawk, 2017′s Brawl in Cell Block 99 and this month’s Dragged Across Concrete – the 46-year-old writer and director has put an instant, brutal stamp on American genre. His work focuses on tough guys making bad choices, with the final stretch of each film delighting in a specific, extremely squishy sort of violence. The sort that gives even the most hardened of gore hounds nightmares. So, yeah: nasty.
This brutal modus operandi extends to the politics of Zahler’s work, too, whether or not he cares to admit it. In recent interviews, the director has insisted that he’s not interested in making “agenda movies” that “express values.” Rather, he lets his “characters drive my movies.” Taken at face value, that’s fair. But it is a tougher argument to square when all three of his films play out as right-wing fever dreams. Bone Tomahawk is a neo-western that depicts Indigenous people as monstrous cannibals. Brawl in Cell Block 99 focuses on a just-trying-to-get-by criminal (Vince Vaughn) who endures a hellish prison to save his wife from an evil abortionist. And Dragged Across Concrete acts as one giant, gleeful trigger warning, right from the casting of Mel Gibson as a crooked-but-righteous cop to the moment a character offhandedly complains about the smell of black men’s internal organs. (This comment arrives as one man is cutting another’s stomach open, by the way.)
If more evidence is needed that Zahler’s films are, if not aggressively agenda-driven, then at least agenda-sympathetic, take a look at a scene early in Dragged where Gibson’s steadfast everyman Ridgeman laments today’s woke culture alongside his equally politically incorrect partner Lurasetti (Vaughn, again) and their boss, Lieutenant Calvert (Don Johnson, another Cell Block veteran).
“Like cellphones and just as annoying, politics are everywhere,” Calvert says as he reluctantly disciplines his two men for an act of police brutality caught on camera.
"There's certainly nothing hypocritical about the media handling every perceived intolerance with complete and utter intolerance," Lurasetti grumbles back.
The men are talking with each other, but might as well be staring straight into Zahler’s camera, so clearly does the director want his audience to side with these rigid and upstanding guardians of law and order, these paragons of populism. Later, Calvert and Lurasetti engage in all manner of despicable behaviour, with Gibson afforded certain lines of racist and sexist dialogue that don’t so much lean into his toxic personal history as embrace it with a giant #NoHomo bear hug. Yet Zahler is careful to consistently position the two as the heroes who will make America great again. (If you’re wondering whether there’s a line midway that starts, “I’m not a racist, but …,” then congratulations, you win!)
The film’s more culturally diverse characters receive grosser depictions, notably Tory Kittles’s ex-con Henry, whose path to a new life ends up entangled with Calvert and Lurasetti’s plans for the same. Where Zahler’s cops are family men fighting for a cause, Henry is sketched as a decent but birthed-from-problematic-circumstances crook. His lines are peppered with Ebonics, his mother is a drug-addicted prostitute, and he has no compunctions about thieving his way through life. He is one gulp of grape soda away from being an intolerably racist cartoon. Zahler seems to be aware of this – there has to be a reason why the director has Henry don white-face (!) during a robbery – but he also doesn’t appear to care that his film’s scales are aggressively tipped against anyone not male, white and ready to fight for what’s right(-wing).
I hesitate to even mention how Zahler handles the film’s few female characters, notably Jennifer Carpenter’s bank teller, who gets an extended arc midway detailing her return to work postmaternity leave. Suffice to say that the film treats women either as defenceless objects to be protected at all costs or liabilities that are easily disposed of.
All this said, Dragged doesn’t, well, drag. Even at 159 minutes, Zahler knows how to command attention, even if it is by way of provocation. Like Brawl, Dragged is two films body-slammed into one: half talk-heavy character study with ambitions of European art-house grandeur, half grisly grindhouse exercise that seeks new and inventive ways of destroying bodies. And like Brawl, Zahler gives his actors the space to dig deeper than they’ve previously been afforded, even if the muck they seek, and successfully find, is putrid.
Gibson and Vaughn, two of Hollywood’s few prominent right-wingers, who previously worked together on the former’s similarly barbaric and arch-conservative war drama Hacksaw Ridge, are fascinating presences here. As their cops trade world-weary sentiments (“Is that a guy or a girl singing? Not that it makes much difference these days”) and swap ridiculously hard-boiled dialogue (“It’s bad like lasagna in a can”), a compelling push-pull tension takes hold. Nearly everyone in this movie, and nearly everything that happens in it, is awful. Vile. Nasty. But it is a nastiness that sticks.
Dragged Across Concrete is available April 30 on VOD, Digital HD, DVD and Blu-ray.