I sometimes imagine S. Craig Zahler’s fetal development to have been identical to that of the alien fetus in The X-Files, except the cryogenic gases were replaced with thousands of genre, grindhouse, and exploitation films. There’s no other way to explain how effortlessly Zahler speaks the language of that type of cinema, except for some kind of filmic alien gestation period. No one working today does it better than him, and no one does it with such a singular, distinctive voice.
His first two films, Bone Tomahawk (2015) and Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2017) took ready-made elevator pitches—horror, cannibal western and man in prison reverse siege film—and elevated the exploitation elements into David Mamet-levels of craftsmanship, while embracing the pure trashiness inherent in the genres they exist in. So…perfect films.
And luckily, Dragged Across Concrete, his newest offering, doesn’t abandon that formula. However, that it is not to say this is more of the same. Gone is the simple hook that the first two films had, and in its place is a sprawling, meditative crime film. Oh, don’t fret, you’re gonna get the gore, violence, and overall nastiness of yesteryear, but you’re also going to be treated to a more mature, focused Zahler. “Focused” seems an odd choice to describe a movie that’s two hours and thirty-five minutes long, yet you will be hard-pressed to find a recent film that has a stronger grasp on its vision.
The film stars Mel Gibson and Vince Vaugh, but we open with the character, Henry Johns (Tory Kittles), getting released from prison and coming home to find his mother using needles and selling her body to fund the habit. He plays video games with his wheelchaired-bound little brother, who dreams of going to school to become a game designer. Determined to provide for his family and rectify their shitty living conditions, Henry teams up with lifelong friend and small time criminal, Biscuit (Michael Jai White) for a job that’s going to get both of them set.
When we get to Gibson and Vaughn, two detectives waiting outside a fire escape during a drug bust, they immediately get into trouble. Video surfaces of Gibson’s character, Brett Ridgeman roughing up the suspect, giving their captain (Don Johnson) no choice but to suspend them six weeks without pay. The captain is sympathetic to their plight, but tells Ridgeman he has only gotten rougher and more jaded over the years and that soon, that edge will consume him entirely. He reminds him that he didn’t get promoted over him because he was a better cop, but because he was able to evolve with the times, while Ridgeman has not.
Jobless and penniless, Ridgeman returns home to his wife, Melanie (Laurie Holden), who is riddled with MS. His daughter is routinely accosted on her way home from school by the hoods in their shitty neighborhood, the only place the family can afford to live, because Ridgeman, now 60, hasn’t been promoted since he was 27 years old. Pressured by Melanie to find money to move before something truly awful happens to their daughter, Ridgeman ropes his partner, Anthony Lurasetti (Vaughn), into some less-than-legal extracurricular activities, where they will, of course, cross paths with Henry and Biscuit.
But the less you know about the plot, the better. You just have to sit back and let this movie take you on the ride. As always, the scenes play long and slow, with brilliant dialogue that ranges from hilarious banter to elegant street philosophy to the surprisingly emotional.
Gibson and Vaughn are a dream to watch. Their characters kind of remind me of Marc Porel and Ray Lovelock’s characters in Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man, just older, more jaded, and way fucking out of time. They carry the non-PC baggage that comes with being old school, and they become isolated as a result. Zahler consistently takes heat for the racism and misogyny in his films, but here we need not confuse the film’s lack of judgment of the characters for sympathy towards them.
And the intersectional arguments we’re all going to have about Dragged Across Concrete are going to overshadow the fact that this is an unabashed liberal critique of the failures of capitalism. Zahler shows us how the structural problems with modern capitalism create the environment that breeds characters like Ridgeman and Lurasetti. Therefore, I think the fact that the film makes us uncomfortable means it’s doing its job. Perhaps we’re better off understanding how the system produces racism and misogyny instead of superficially attacking its byproducts?
Indeed, the film actually uses these environmental factors (à la literary Naturalism) to tie into the same themes of Bone Tomahawk and Brawl in Cell Block 99, both of which concern complete and utter perdition. Each of these films, including Dragged Across Concrete, depict characters on a figurative journey to Hell. In this case, the moral degradation (or relativism, if you're into that sort of thing) is precipitated by the noble effort to provide for one’s family within the confines of a system that makes it virtually impossible.
But sheesh! Enough with all this pretentiousness. This is an exploitation film after all. And Zahler delivers the goods. Again, like his earlier films, the runtime doesn’t blunt the pure entertainment value contained within. There is a deliberate momentum to the whole affair, sprinkled with set pieces that marinate for minutes, ratcheting up the tension until it’s unbearable—before that satisfying and cathartic explosion of violence. Yet here, it’s not the rah-rah, fist-pumping violence of Brawl or gag-bag gross out of Bone. The violence in Dragged Across Concrete is brief, confusing, and unsettling. This is less titillating, more detached and cynical. However, we still get a fun scene involving the retrieval of a key from the stomach of someone who ate it.
For my money, S. Craig Zahler is the best director working today. We haven’t seen such an individual, singular voice arrive on the genre scene since Tarantino showed up in the early 90’s. There is no mistaking Zahler dialogue or a Zahler scene for anyone else’s. He’s one of a kind, and just like Tarantino, has the uncanny ability to bridge that gap between obscure genre cinema and mainstream Hollywood filmmaking.