S. Craig Zahler is in the business of misery, and business is booming. The director, writer and composer’s latest pulp and grime exploitation discourse, the aptly titled Dragged Across Concrete, is precisely as its label suggests: brutal, honest, eloquent and incendiary. Zahler, who has fashioned a cultural predisposition towards his methods of mayhem, pushes buttons with his deliberately paced throwback films, appearing to care as much for subtleties as he does the run-time of his work (or what you think of it).
At 159 minutes, Dragged Across Concrete has ample leg room to stretch and unload about the pressing times of our seemingly PC-culture, the socioeconomics of efficiency – both its key players gripe about the financial sum of their results on the streets – and the politics of brutality. All waxed upon in between confrontational violence that erupts like a palmed firecracker, deafening the dissertation with Zahler’s trademark bravado of bloody stumps and abrupt gunfire that attempts to harken back to the glory days of 42nd Street lowbrow. Except if you’re willing to confront the directors racist, bigoted and excessively relevant police officers, played by Vince Vaughn and Mel Gibson (punctuating racial epithets with experience), then you’ll uncover a clenched jaw of conflicting ideologies clawing at the surface of Dragged Across Concrete; a gripping piece of bare knuckle cinema unrestrained in its misery.
“..a gripping piece of bareknuckle cinema unrestrained in its misery”
When officers Ridgeman (Gibson) and Lurasetti (Vaughn) are caught on camera applying excessive force to a restrained Hispanic on the fire escape of his home, they are given a six-week suspension – a slap on the wrist for Ridgeman who has applied this technique of panacea before – and forced to cobble together whatever means necessary in order to stay afloat. Ridgeman’s wife (Laurie Holden) has MS, and his daughter is harassed in between her four block walk to school by a group of black kids. Lurasetti wants to propose to his girlfriend (who’s black, despite his muddy racial outlook) and who seems to live within the plush confines of a high-rise apartment adorned in an inordinate amount of Jazz memorabilia. Elsewhere in the fictitious city of Bulwark, Henry (Tory Kittles), newly released from prison, must find a way to help his wheelchair-bound little brother and drug addicted mother, who turns tricks for a dime in her own home. Enlisting the help of his friend Biscuit (Michael Jai White), the two team up on a bank heist that will converge with Ridgeman and Lurasetti, who plan on lifting their score in order to make ends meet.
After pressing the imprint of a street worn boot into the back of a cuffed (and complying) man, Ridgeman and Lurasetti proceed to interrogate his Hispanic and hard of hearing girlfriend, drenching her topless body in cold water before turning the fan on high. S. Craig Zahler, working with a formula applied to the grizzled marrow of Bone Tomahawk (2015) and the appendage snapping fights of Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2017), stretches the sinewy muscle of Dragged Across Concrete real thin, flexing each minute of its excessive build as if it might be its last. Deliberate pacing matches deliberate racism, as the two members of law enforcement mock a woman cornered by the ugly side of the law. Real discomfort is drawn out, forcing audiences to sit with conflicting characters enacting noxious methods. Zahler isn’t telling you to laugh at the belittlement of a minority under the thumb of law and order, only inviting you to, just as Scorsese never tells you to agree with Travis Bickle’s violent means to an end in Taxi Driver (1977).
Rather, it suggests just how difficult it is to laugh with the brutality and unpleasantness of cops these days, and Dragged Across Concrete understands this to a fault. After all, the cultural grandstanding of Gibson in the Hollywood light – whose standing ovation at Cannes after Hacksaw Ridge shows just how dismissed his antisemitism, sexism and abuse really is – only further exacerbates the disapproval of his actions by many, who rightfully refuse to adhere to the forgive and forget rhetoric of the white male actor. When Ridgeman cracks wise and taunts the minorities he so quickly labels as criminals, one might find it difficult to separate the creature from the character, whose repugnance wrapped around ill-comedic timing has never been clearer. It’s easy to label the films jocular ridicule as forcibly played for laughs, yet it never quite acknowledges it against the discomfort of its victims. Rather, Zahler pressure-cooks Concrete’s toxic environment with unabashedly vile lines delivered by men who we aren’t suppose to like, even if we might sympathize with the collateral damage of their lives.
“..Zahler pressure-cooks Concrete’s toxic environment with unabashedly vile lines delivered by men who we aren’t suppose to like..”
Henry and Biscuit, while working on the opposite side of the law, are the film’s moral compass – though it hardly ever points true north – digging into a heist in order to provide for the ones they love. While their actions run parallel to Ridgeman and Lurasetti, eventually converging in a prolonged stand-off outside a desolate warehouse under the cover of night, their brutality against man runs perpendicular, giving us clear distinction between who the films true blue heroes are.
Henry and Biscuit represent the new American Dream, one that’s diverse and self-aware, knowingly living a life of crime under the shadow of a hood rather than behind a badge. When waiting at the entrance of a high-end clothing store to meet with a criminal associate (Udo Kier), Ridgeman asks a store-clerk how much a particular suit is, and upon hearing of its $5,000 price tag, balks and asks if it’s bulletproof. It’s an astutely ironic scene, given how frequently law enforcement wield their badge as if it’s bulletproof in order to prevent any sort of media maelstrom against their cheap street tactics. Within Dragged Across Concrete, contradiction and criminality are one in the same, carving out characters lined with more moral leaks than bullet holes.
It’s a world that Zahler is known for capturing, one that reveals the many discomforts and truths that lie in wait. Hot button topics that, on the surface, seem to be deliberately pointing a loaded weapon, forcing you to accept what the right is violently preaching. However, if you lean in with Zahler’s 3rd feature-length film, you’ll find that it knows it stands on uneven ground, stabilizing itself on reprehensible characters in a savage world that has resorted to brutal, violent ways as a form of expression. Luckily, Dragged Across Concrete is immeasurably more entertaining than the perceived politics of its brutality will ever lead you to believe, and its discomfort more revealing than our fantasies might ever care to admit.
Dragged Across Concrete is available now on Blu-Ray, DVD, and VOD. Share your thoughts on the film with the Nightmare on Film Street community over on Twitter, Reddit, and the Horror Movie Fiend Club on Facebook!