I entered this year’s London Film Festival greeting the news that S. Craig Zahler’s third feature, Dragged Across Concrete which he’d teased during the post-Brawl in Cell Block 99 Q&A as something that would make Brawl restrained by comparison, was going to screen during the period of the Festival where the energy flags with unbridled glee. Hells yeah, I wanna see what a director as self-assured, technically accomplished, and viscerally captivating as Zahler considers worthy of an epic!
Turns out the answer to that question is Jackie Brown. Quentin Tarantino comparisons are inevitably the first that appear whenever a critic starts discussing Zahler. They’re not exactly unfounded; both Bone Tomahawk and Brawl in Cell Block 99 have a Tarantino feel to them and Zahler’s dialogue at times is uncannily Tarantino-esque, but they’re still somewhat lazy shorthand considering that both directors start from the same base of inspirations – 70s New American Cinema, exploitation films, B-movies, the works of Paul Schrader – but spin off in different directions. Zahler being more willing to cross-pollinate genres than Tarantino, playing up more extreme gore than Tarantino, and is better at balancing dynamite dialogue exchanges with the momentum required to cause the entire film to feel fit-to-bursting with tension rather than just a few pockets.
But Dragged Across Concrete? Yeah, that’s totally Zahler trying to make his Jackie Brown. This is the film where a celebrated off-colour genre filmmaker deliberately downplays the parts of his brief filmography that other people predominately identify him via (the extreme violence, tight focus, and third-act turns towards horror) and instead makes a slow, expansive, dialogue-driven crime epic that wants to tackle big topics like living in America, racism, capitalism, and human nature, all designed to show that he’s here to stay.
If you need any further evidence of that, I can provide it by telling you that the title, Dragged Across Concrete, is a metaphor rather than a promise/threat like his previous titles were. Concrete even opens on a moment of borderline tenderness, recently released convict Henry Johns (Tory Kittles) enjoying some post-prison sex with a girl he’s had an apparently-mutual crush on since elementary school, and her being a prostitute hired by Henry’s friend Biscuit (Michael Jai White) doesn’t undercut or negate the strange sweetness of their post-coital conversation.
Of course, that tenderness doesn’t last, it never does in Zahler’s worlds, and soon enough we’re knee-deep in shit and scum once more. Henry’s the ex-con whose need to provide for his mother and disabled brother (Myles Truitt) that are six months behind on bills causes him to take up jobs in the criminal underworld that rely upon his capacity for violence. Detectives Brett Ridgeman (Mel Gibson at his most subdued) and Anthony Lurasetti (returning Zahler collaborator Vince Vaughn) are racist hyper-macho cops who get suspended once video of them engaged in police brutality is leaked out, forcing them to turn to more dangerous and illegal pursuits to provide for their families. There are a bunch of masked robbers running around with silenced MP5s leaving trails of dead bodies in their wake, hilarious bank managers, drug barons maybe, and all of these disparate threads (plus more) converge in a confrontation that reveals the whole film as a parable to the fable of The Scorpion and The Frog.
In reality, Concrete is not as complicated as that last paragraph makes it sound. In fact, it may be the simplest of Zahler’s works up to this point in purely plot terms, but the difference is in Zahler’s decision to flesh out every single character no matter how minor their role in the story, to such an extent that the first half of Concrete is almost vignette in nature.
Ridgeman’s wife and Lurasetti’s girlfriend are given extended scenes and speeches in an attempt to counter the fact that they still don’t have much of a use in the story otherwise – Zahler has never been great at handling female characters and Concrete does not change that – Henry spends a lot of time with his brother whom we learn that he wants to be a game designer when he grows up, and best of all is a detour explaining why it was a very bad idea for a bank clerk (Jennifer Carpenter) to go back to work the day she did. Very few people in Concrete are fully good, and those that are quickly get mowed down, but all of the people in the film have lives and reasons for behaving the way that they do, and Zahler’s commitment to dramatizing this fact is becoming the distinctive hallmark of his filmography.
That said, he may also be falling a little too in love with the sound of his own voice. Few writers today have dialogue that instantly and recognisably snaps like Zahler’s does and he’s not lost his touch with Concrete – its third scene, where Henry returns home to find his mum in bed with a man in the other room, instantly proves that much – and he is gifted at writing awful prejudiced characters that never actually become a drain to be around. But he does occasionally let Concrete fall into a rut in order to allow a few more of those exchanges to fill up his movie, most prominently during a stretch at the film’s midpoint when Ridgeman and Lurasetti are on a stakeout that feels like it goes on for longer than most actual real-life stakeouts.
His touch on wider social issues, meanwhile, is far less assured and kind of embarrassing. Ridgeman’s ex-cop wife (an otherwise great Laurie Holden) actually says out loud that “you know I’m the most liberal cop there is, but living in this neighbourhood is making me more racist by the day,” whilst I found myself cringing in pain at an extended conversation between Don Johnson’s police Lieutenant and Mel Gibson’s detective about racist actions that occurred 10 to 20 years ago and how “even accusations can end careers nowadays” for exactly the reasons you’re thinking of.
But when Concrete finally moves into its climactic confrontation, everything slides into place like the finest of jigsaw puzzles and Zahler’s commentary about the predatory nature of capitalism, racial power dynamics between cops and civilians, and the predictably self-centred and untrustworthy nature of human beings finds a more natural mode of communication. It’s a thrilling three-way standoff that Zahler drenches in foggy atmosphere and carefully-held tension, paying off every previous element of foreshadowing in a manner that’s spectacular to see unfold, even if his signature extreme gore (though less pronounced than in prior films) actually feels kind of forced-in and awkward this time around.
Meanwhile, Kittles is the latest beneficiary of Zahler’s penchant for giving aging underrated actors the chance to surprise everybody with their talents, providing a charming and empathetic centre that makes his bursts of violence and joy in partaking in criminal activities all the more surprising, and Michael Jai White also gets a rare chance to flex his dramatic muscles.
Upon this initial viewing, I feel that Dragged Across Concrete easily ranks at the bottom of Zahler’s three features to date, mainly because it’s nearly three goddamned hours long and has many individual scenes and exchanges that could have been cut or reworked without losing anything from the film as a whole (unlike Bone and Brawl). But not only does it still greatly entertain (Zahler’s pitch-black sense of humour hasn’t deserted him) and excite regardless, I get the feeling that Concrete has been built for repeat viewings.
As a film that can irritate and occasionally mildly-bore upon first viewing, but over time a greater appreciation sets in for all the little detours and idiosyncratic conversations Zahler takes, and, before you know it, the film suddenly stops dragging and you wouldn’t change a single thing about it. It took me two viewings to get Jackie Brown, after all, and that’s now my favourite Tarantino film, so if Dragged Across Concrete also copied that part of Brown’s playbook, then let’s just say this grade is going to become outdated soon enough.
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