There is no time to spare once the curtain opens on Dragged Across Concrete, S. Craig Zahler’s latest gritty genre opus, his most intentionally provocative yet, slyly, his most subversive. It’s a challenging, prickly, heavy mood piece soaked in shadow and light, and it jumps right into the seedy underworld of these lost souls. Every frame seems pulled from the dog-eared pages of an underground crime comic, written in blood-soaked prose and carefully placed in position by a master craftsman looking to elicit emotion.
It also has Mel Gibson, in one of his best performances this century.
Just the inclusion of Mel Gibson, now with a face carved out of stone, is enough to ruffle some delicate feathers out there. But as Brett Ridgeman, an openly racist and soured detective who has lost sight of what, if anything, ever made him a functioning human being, Gibson embodies what so many in the media and across the country already think he is on a daily basis. Ridgeman is out of touch, jaded by his police work, and is no longer able to tuck away his hatred for the “neighborhood” in which he lives and works. His real opinions are often less subtle than this description. If the consensus is that Gibson is this person (whether that’s true or not), then Zahler casting him in the role should be free of criticism, considering the character he plays here; this is what a certain facet of cultural opinion makers want Mel Gibson to be in their head, and now here he is, being that person on the big screen. How can they be upset?
Ridgeman is paired with Anthony Lurasetti, a younger, more amused detective played by Vince Vaughn, who clearly has fun delivering Zahler’s rope-a-dope noir prose. When a rough arrest is captured on camera (“not that bad,” according to their superior, Calvert, played briefly by Don Johnson), the two men are suspended six weeks without pay, placing them both in a bind for different reasons that should be left unsaid here. Regardless, Ridgeman cooks up a plan to acquire some wealth, and the trajectory of their story eventually brings them to that of Henry Johns.
Played by Tory Kittles, Henry Johns is a man who’s been to prison, been reformed, and is ready to escape the dire situation he lives in with his drug addict prostitute mother and wheelchair-bound nephew. But it requires, yes, the acquisition of wealth. Kittles’ work is on par with the two stars, so much so that he should be the one who most benefits from this hard-nosed performance.
Dragged Across Concrete is, at 159 minutes, essentially two movies with a short film – one involving a loving mother, played by fellow Brawl in Cell Block 99 actor Jennifer Carpenter in a role that would earn her a Supporting Actress nomination in a fair and just world – sandwiched in between. The first half is primarily stakeout scenes with Gibson and Vaughn, which will test the patience of many viewers, but those patient enough will be rewarded with smart dialogue and some humor with teeth. Zahler manages to keep all of the loose scenes and unwieldy dialogue focused, despite the fact that nothing you are seeing should be working. After his previous two films, Brawl and the terrific Western/Horror hybrid Bone Tomahawk, Zahler began getting labeled as a right-wing filmmaker – whatever that means. It was a category he was placed in, so whatever. Dragged Across Concrete will certainly stoke the fires of journalists and film fans who care more about the political ideologies at stake, or the mere existence of these words Zahler’s characters speak and the ideologies they carry with them, and less about what the director is doing within these very obvious conventions.
There is a forest made up of all these trees, and Zahler has pushed the envelope even further here in terms of pacing and plotting and conversation. It may not be as violent as the previous two, but Dragged still has its moments of grindhouse catharsis tucked away in its epic run time to satisfy genre fans. In the end, he subverts everything we’ve thought about the very existence of these characters within the framework of this movie. This is a look at the poisoned rotting core of an apple. To be offended is to show your hand, that you’ve only paid attention to the areas of the film you want to, and not the entire story as a whole. It’s provocative, but with purpose beyond shock value. That’s partly why the movie is so long, or why it’s length is so crucial; it’s a challenge. Zahler is asking you to stick it out with him, and you will be rewarded; bail after a few tough words or a few uncomfortable moments, and you’ll never get the full picture.