Director: S. Craig Zahler
Writer: S. Craig Zahler
Stars: Mel Gibson, Vince Vaughn, Tory Kittles
S. Craig Zahler is a new voice in American cinema. His oeuvre includes his debut film Bone Tomahawk, a sun-bleached, blood-thirsty horror western, and his last film Brawl in Cell Block 99, a rough, no-holds barred riot-fest spectacular. In these two films, Zahler – a former chef, and sometime novelist and musician – has shown a boldness akin to some of America’s most revered directors such as Sam Peckinpah, William Friedkin and Don Siegel. The commonality in these films is the unflinching vision Zahler has shown in bringing to life characters and scenarios that force audiences to bristle, but also to make compelling and effective motion pictures.
Gibson plays Ridgeman, a veteran cop who is equal parts steely and wooden, with a helmet of grey bristly hair. Ridgeman has been hardened by years on the beat, a onetime honest cop worn down by the changing landscape of the city. His partner is Anthony, played by Vince Vaughan. Together the duo proceed about their work with a carefree aggressiveness that no longer allows for complicity.
When they are secretly filmed manhandling a drug dealer on a bust, the media goes wild. Their superior, Lt. Calvert (Don Johnson) has to put up a good show and suspend the two officers. ‘Politics like always,’ Rigeman says. Later on, Ridgeman informs Anthony that a bank heist is scheduled by a gang of very nasty individuals and they should luck in on the proceeds. Both men can’t afford to be out of pocket for six weeks. Ridegeman and his family have had to move into an underprivileged neighbourhood. His daughter is often harassed by local black kids, and his wife (Laurie Holden) is battling multiple sclerosis with no job prospects. Anthony, meanwhile, is getting ready to propose to his girlfriend (Tattiawna Jones). ‘We have the skills and the right to acquire proper compensation,’ Ridgeman says, and Anthony reluctantly agrees, ‘I’m in until I’m not.’
Meanwhile on the other side of the divide is Henry, played by Tory Kittles. Just out of prison, Henry sees his mother has returned to prostitution and fallen back into a drug habit. His younger brother, (Miles Truitt) is wheelchair- bound and doesn’t need to be surrounded by his mom’s sex-pest clients. Henry quickly hooks up with his old buddy, Biscuit (Michael Jai White) for another rundown. They sit in and drive the getaway vehicle and provide the necessary lookout during heists.
What unfolds is a slow, tense, and abrasive story of people compelled to violence just to improve their standing in the world. In the film we see how the world turns precariously and with no heed to the people in it. Sometimes we have to become lethal too in order to survive in this indifferent environment. You don’t have to pick one side over the other, but you have to ask yourself ‘how would I handle this situation?’ There are many instances in the film where the characters are forced to make quick decisions or suffer dire consequences.
Zahler has said in the past that his films are not especially political. In today’s environment it can be difficult to produce a work of art without people examining it for its socio-political subtext. It is hard, however, to believe that Zahler did not have contemporary social issues in mind when he was writing this film. The characters are not politically correct. Ridgeman, in particular, mouths off casually, dealing in racial slurs and lackadaisical attitudes about people who don’t look like him. But some of the dialogue comes across as clunky and self-aware. I could almost imagine Zahler poking the audience with a pointy stick, desperate for a reaction. But he is a confident director and seeks to manipulate the audience in the way of old icons such as Hitchcock and David Lynch. After the halfway point, a new character is introduced, played by Jennifer Carpernter. Kelly, is a new mom but can’t bear to be torn away from her son before returning to work at the bank. Zahler handles this part of the story in such an ominous way, I could feel the tension slowly rising. What follows is a scene that left me genuinely shaking, and how many films induce such a reaction in audience members nowadays?
Into the final act, things slow down even more and we see the heist play out in real time. Ridgeman and Anthony, confined to a vehicle with sandwich wrappers for much of the film, emerge nervously with the gold in sight. More twists and turns follow, some gruesome and some fiery. The violence is explicit and explosive, but always realistic and doesn’t linger as in Zahler’s previous movies. The film is long (160 minutes) but it is full to its length and never overflows. Gibson, is a terrific actor, handling this role with a seriousness other stars may have withdrawn. Vaughan, too, is better than normal, and appears to have developed a good rapport with his director, working with him for the second time. Tory Kittles is a fresh face, playing his role with just enough thoughtfulness to warrant sympathy.
Dragged Across Concrete is a work that will discomfit many audiences. Just the inclusion of Mel Gibson is enough to disturb some viewers. The film also includes many racist remarks and the kind of commentary that won’t gain fans in the world of media and print journalism. Some characters also appear in white-face, and Zahler doesn’t mind manipulating the audience into feeling some sore emotion. But here is a very competent film that flouts conventional expressions and even has the guts (plenty of guts indeed) to rework an old genre and pull it off with unbridled and tireless exactness.