S. Craig Zahler has become something of a phenomenon in his short time in the director’s chair. Exploding onto the scene with the beautifully violent genre mash-up Bone Tomahawk in 2015, the Miami native writer and director followed up his horror-western just a couple of years later with Vince Vaughn starring Brawl in Cell Block 99 – a film good enough to put Vaughn back in the good graces of everyone bitten by the second season of True Detective. Now, after a brief stint writing the insane Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich, Zahler is back behind the camera for his third film. If you’ll allow the comparison, his Jackie Brown, if you will.
In a world where everyone has a recording device permanently affixed to their hand, it was only a matter of time before long-in-the-tooth and set-in-his-ways Bulwark detective Brett Ridgeman (Mel Gibson) was caught on video letting his old school ways get the better of him. And after an early morning raid on a local drug supplier with his partner Anthony Lurasetti (Vince Vaughn) that ends with a suspect eating bits of fire escape, that’s exactly what happens. Now suspended without pay, the partners have six weeks to kill.
Meanwhile, fresh out of prison Henry (Tory Kittles) is lured into the life of crime he’s been trying to avoid by lifelong friend Biscuit (Michael Jai White). The pair find a gig driving and playing backup to out-of-town heist master Volgelman (Thomas Kretschmann) and his crew of petty but organised thieves who are looking to subsidise their retirement plans with a big bank job.
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Getting wind of an upcoming job, Ridgeman convinces his partner that using their skills to rob the robbers is nothing more than their civil duty. A big payout is just a bonus. And so, three crooks, two police detectives and a pair of friends looking for a pay day all set themselves on a collision course with each other that is destined to not end well.
I’m going to make a bet, right here and right now. Dragged Across Concrete is going to be one of the most divisive films of the year. S. Craig Zahler has something to say with his latest work and damn it, whether you like it or not, he’s going to say it.
The film starts out innocuous enough, an ex-con getting dropped off outside his apartment by the friend that picked him up from outside prison. An early morning sting operation by a pair of quippy policemen unhappy at being up and on the street that early. These are basic additions to any crime drama since the first one was ever put to film. They are tropes of their genre for a good reason: they are effective in getting an atmosphere quickly and conveying good guys from bad just as fast. But that old pair of slippers that you’re happy to wear into the ground are about to get really uncomfortable really quickly as Zahler pulls no punches in his script.
To say Ridgeman and Lurasetti aren’t the most politically correct police officers in the fictional city of Bulwark would be a massive understatement. The pair, but Gibson’s Brett Ridgeman especially, are intolerant of pretty much everyone. This is what lands them in hot water to begin with. The degree of flat out racism on show in Dragged Across Concrete makes for tough viewing when it rapidly starts to feel like these cops are more than just a little old-school. These guys aren’t your dear old set-in-their-ways grandma who just says things about people with a different skin tone to her because ‘that’s just how it was back then’. What makes for curious watching is that the pair have disdain for almost everyone, and the racism is just how they happen to deal with that part of their job with that part of society. Zahler does an excellent job in showing just how easy it is to become like these guys though, and that’s a bravery in direction that you rarely see. In one seemingly unremarkable scene, we follow Ridgeman’s daughter, Sara, through her neighbourhood after school. As a Caucasian family in a majority African-American area, Sara is a bundle of nerves walking down the street. Rightly so, it transpires, as she’s assaulted on her way home. It turns out that this is the fourth time that this has happened, and her parents, Brett and his Multiple Sclerosis suffering wife Melanie (The Walking Dead’s Laurie Holden), feel as helpless and trapped as she does. With mounting medical costs and the need for a roof over their heads, this is a film about more than just racist police.
More obvious in the ‘product of their environment’ discussion is Henry and Biscuit’s tale of woe. Trying to keep his family in food and housing, trying to keep his kid brother on the straight and narrow, and trying to keep his mother from prostituting herself out are all on Henry’s list of reasons to do what he’s doing. With little in the way of viable opportunities for an ex-con, riding shotgun in whatever schemes Biscuit has planned is his only opportunity at making enough to keep everyone else safe. It’s a risk versus reward equation that people in his position have to make every day, with odds rarely looking to break even. But of all the characters in this little play, Biscuit and Henry are the most likeable and the ones you want to see beat the ever shrinking odds.
S. Craig Zahler has chosen an interesting time to make Dragged Across Concrete. In a world of instant social media outrage and real issues getting swallowed up beneath a sea of pointless faux anger, it seems like this script has been put together purposely to provoke. But if you dig a little and listen to what you’re being told, all that awfulness making you fidget in your seat and all that violence is trying very hard to tell you what many don’t want to accept: we are all in this same boat together. Whether we like it or not. While it’s a very different film and a completely different delivery, I’d argue that it has a similar point to Jordan Peele’s Us – it all depends on how you choose to interpret the two films.
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In a story that wears its influences on its sleeves, Dragged Across Concrete pulls elements from an entire Tarantino filmography, Heat, TV’s The Shield, you name it, in a tale of good and bad people doing bad things for good reasons and sometimes fighting for the justification. The characters live in a world where the blurred lines and questions between right and wrong are all-too-often answered with violence and bloodshed. It’s an exaggerated look at a focussed group of people that, if you let it, tells a story of struggle no matter your class or skin colour. The only ones having a seemingly easy time are the crooks brazen enough to make the public spectacle of what they are doing. Not the disgraced cops, not the small-timers looking to just survive, not those caught in the crossfire. It’s a tale that, in today’s world, needs to be told in the uncompromising and unsubtle way it has been.
Dragged Across Concrete is a tough piece of cinema to love and an equally hard one to recommend sight-unseen. The film is subtle as a sledgehammer to the testicles and as dark and gritty as its title suggests. At 158 minutes, its slow burn is exceptionally slow, but a lack of sag in its pacing leaves you wondering if there was anything that could have effectively been removed. Or if you’d want to, because Dragged Across Concrete is as beautiful in its direction and the performances it gets from its stars as it is violent and nasty. Thought-provoking and uncomfortable to watch, it is a must-see. And whether or not it gets your admiration, it should definitely get your respect.