Dragged Across Concrete (2019) by S. Craig Zahler
Review by Nathan Smith
This isn’t the review of Dragged Across Concrete I thought I was going to write. When I purchased my ticket for S. Craig Zahler’s new cop thriller, I foresaw two possibilities: either I’d hate the film for its politics — just based on the words “Starring Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn” alone, I think you can guess where it falls on the alignment chart — or I’d reluctantly admit that this Zahler fellow has something going for him. For better or worse, my actual reaction is somewhere in between — it’s neither the totally hateful and bigoted movie you’ve been warned about nor the formalist masterpiece you’ve been promised.
If you live a normal, stable life with regular exercise and healthy amounts of social interaction, you’ve probably never heard of Zahler, a pulp fiction writer and musician turned filmmaker. But if you prowl around the same parts of Twitter where I prowl around, Zahler’s probably been on your radar since his first feature, Bone Tomahawk. The few who saw Bone Tomahawk and his next film, the brutal Vince Vaughn vehicle Brawl in Cell Block 99, were generally positive toward them, but questions have been raised about Zahler’s artistic intentions. This first came to my attention via a Wall Street Journal profile of producer Dallas Sonnier, the founder of Cinestate and current publisher of Fangoria, the company that’s produced all of Zahler’s films thus far. Whatever you think of Zahler’s own politics, which he claims are nonexistent, Sonnier’s M.O. is a little more obvious — according to the Journal’s headline, he’s making self-described populist entertainment “for the audience Hollywood ignored.” In addition to Zahler’s films, Sonnier, who got his start working with Greta Gerwig, has also produced this year’s The Standoff at Sparrow Creek, a thriller about a former cop who joins a right-wing militia, and the Nazi-themed Puppet Master sequel The Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich (written by Zahler). That Zahler is now celebrated by National Review critic Armond White comes as no surprise.
Eyebrows were inevitably raised upon the announcement of Dragged Across Concrete, which reunites Zahler with Brawl cast members Jennifer Carpenter, Udo Kier, Don Johnson, and noted Hollywood Republican Vince Vaughn. New to the ensemble is Mel Gibson. I don’t think I need to go into details about why Gibson is something of a persona non grata, although it’s only been two years since he was nominated for Best Director. Making matters worse is the alleged subject: two world-weary cops, Brett (Gibson) and Anthony (Vaughn), are caught on camera getting a little too rough with a suspect and promptly suspended by their image-conscious sergeant (though not before a mind-numbing conversation about PC culture and how everyone’s too uptight these days). Gibson’s forcefulness has suddenly cost his family their already tenuous financial stability, and he must journey deep into the criminal underworld in order to keep his household afloat.
Or at least that’s half the story — the half that feels designed in a hermetically sealed lab environment to attract a certain electoral base. The other half of the story is a little more subtle, but it’s not the image that Zahler, Sonnier, and company want to project to the world. An ex-con named Henry (Tyler Kittles) is struggling too — his mother is turning tricks, his disabled brother dreams of being a game designer, and bills need to be paid. He takes a gig as a driver on a bank job, the same one that Brett’s planning to hold up. Their two narrative threads unravel slowly, with the looming knowledge that they’ll tragically collide together before too long.
If the job of a reviewer is to provide the reader with something akin to a consumer report, there’s no point in writing about Dragged Across Concrete. You already know whether or not you’re willing to see a Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn movie that’s in part about police brutality. For those rare few who may actually be on the fence, let me say that Dragged Across Concrete is considerably less than I anticipated. It’s violent, racist, and misogynist, but it’s less violent, less racist, and less misogynist than I had presumed, if that counts for anything. Zahler’s been heralded for the pulpy lacquer his dialogue is soaked in, but the most directly “political” conversations in the movie are stilted as can be. This isn’t some covert conservative propaganda; it’s about at the reading level of Arnold Schwarzenegger's stupid crack about Boy George in Commando. Whenever the script requires Gibson to wield epithets, he sounds less like a militant racist and more like a man who just needs to go to bed.
In numerous interviews, Zahler has used Tyler Kittles’ performance and Henry’s story arc as the cinematic equivalent of “I have a black friend.” The co-lead of my movie, though he may be hardly emphasized in promotional materials, is a black man, therefore I can pay Mel Gibson to jokingly reference his own real-life racism and it’s alright. One doesn’t excuse the other, but I was surprised by the weight that Zahler gives Henry in the story; imagine the Dennis Haysbert subplot in Heat stretched out to feature-length. Gibson brings weathered gravitas to his role, but Kittles does too, and he undercuts the film with a deep melancholy Mel alone could never provide.
I suspect Zahler is more interested in Henry than Brett because he begins on the margins and slowly drifts to the center; Zahler seems to prefer the crevices of his creative worlds to the center. The best part of this movie are on the edges: the masked killer wearing an iconic uniform, the overprotective mother who is the first to die in a bank shootout. Dragged Across Concrete is 2 ½ hours long not just because it’s slow, but because it’s detailed, an exquisite tapestry documenting a history of violence. Zahler’s tendencies aren’t exactly humanist, but he has an unexpectedly large heart for the victims of his torture chambers.
But it’s not just objectionable content that there’s less of in Dragged Across Concrete — there’s also less of interest than Zahler’s previous films. Both Brawl and Concrete are long, unwinding descents into hell, but only Brawl had the audacity to imagine the pure evil at the heart of our country’s carceral system. Nothing here is ever as engaging or as unnerving, and only once in a blue moon does the film’s glacial pace actually add anything to what we’re seeing. As other reviewers have noted, the film’s hollow digital sheen occasionally approaches the uncanny valley of Twin Peaks: The Return, but mostly it just looks like someone forgot to white balance.
Yes, Dragged Across Concrete puts forward reactionary notions, but it sleepwalks through them. Zahler’s worth remaining skeptical of, but anyone worried that his films are going to turn auteurists into alt-right fanatics shouldn’t be. The most telling thing about Dragged Across Concrete is that, in the opening and closing credits, its evocative and lurid title is displayed in a lowkey and understated sans serif font. Zahler put the horrible words in these men’s mouths, but he’s also stripped away any kind of lusty style that might make their ideas palatable. It’s pulp alright, but pulp that’s wrung out and dried up.