Director S. Craig Zahler Will be Huge Soon Enough
The pitch for Dragged Across Concrete feels about as worn-out as a dime-store paperback. Two financially strapped policemen, suspended for rough-but-effective tactics, decide to rob some robbers. But there’s a twist.
“Things are getting weird,” Mel Gibson’s crooked cop mutters during yet another kooky flourish. Talk about an understatement. Stylized but uninflected, arch but earthy, almost satiric in its earnestness, and defying expectations at every turn, S. Craig Zahler’s sauntering thriller is an study in paradoxes.
DRAGGED ACROSS CONCRETE ★★★★(4/5 stars)
Directed by: S. Craig Zahler
Written by: S. Craig Zahler
Starring: Mel Gibson, Vince Vaughn, Tory Kittles, Michael Jai White, Jennifer Carpenter
Running time: 158 min
Let’s start with the expansive running time: Zahler takes more than two-and-a-half hours for a story that would have filled 75 minutes in a mid-century B-movie double-bill. At one point, we’re literally just watching Vince Vaughn eat a sandwich.
And then there’s the dialogue. A self-professed fan of the baroque slang in slimeball classics like Sweet Smell of Success, Zahler here works overtime on the pithy banter. “Pops is a yesterday that ain’t worth words,” says newly released ex-con Henry Johns (Tory Kittles), in one of many tough-guy lines that border on parody. At times, the dialogue is so hard-boiled it’s inedible. This is the type of movie where people use phrases like “can I infer by your reticence” and “we have the right to acquire proper compensation.” You know, colloquial stuff. Not forced at all.
That said, Dragged Across Concrete is the most strangely impressive genre film since, well, Zahler’s exhilarating 2017 prison melee Brawl in Cell Block 99. Surrender yourself to the director’s leisurely pacing and painfully self-aware patois, and everything starts to feel downright hypnotic. His set-ups are wildly disorienting. He focuses deeply on developing one group of characters, and then joltingly introduces a whole new set. One person’s entire character arc, a wildly overwrought mini-melodrama, barely lasts 10 minutes.
So many lived-in moments bring out complexities. The cast is populated with grim-faced casualties of a broken society, doing the best that they can to survive. Are they spewing racist remarks? Definitely. Are they themselves racist? Harder to say.
In a way, Dragged Across Concrete is the perfect liberal-trolling product of the Trump era. Un-P.C. slights and slurs abound. One thug even pulls a sombrero out of nowhere and puts it on a freshly killed Latinx. Perfect MAGA fodder. And Gibson and Vaughn, as, respectively, Brett Ridgeman and Anthony Lurasetti, earn enormous sympathy for their plight as the film’s dead-end men in blue. They are the persecuted white minority. Then again, those two bad apples are still violating their life’s work. And, ultimately, one of the smartest, slyest, most honorable characters is a person of color.
Not everyone is easy to stereotype. Good guys and bad guys all operate in shades of gray. Well, maybe not all of them. There’s a trio of assault-weapon assassins literally dressed in black, right down to their ski masks and opaque round goggles. These faceless villains are especially clarifying. It’s easy to hate the guy who strafes a victim’s head until it explodes like a melon. It’s great to boo at the goon who literally eviscerates someone and fingers through his guts for the key to a solid-gold fortune. Considering all the pent-up frustrations and tensions surrounding the central heist, these pitch-black monsters are a welcome relief valve.
Zahler isn’t necessarily making a preachy social statement. He wants his movie to be fun. And, remarkably, Dragged Across Concrete has more than a few moments that are unsettlingly hilarious. A deadpan attitude is what’s operative here, just as much as the genre-hopping storytelling misdirection and explosive twists. Quentin Tarantino is Zahler’s closest antecedent, except without QT’s solipsistic pop-culture riffs, snarky provocations, and showboating camera techniques.
With only three features under his belt, Zahler is already making one of the most unique and uncompromising careers in contemporary American cinema. He’s not a highbrow auteur, and his audience is still small. But, just like the pacing in his movies, it’s only a matter of time.