Director S. Craig Zahler makes movies that drag across the screen. They are nasty, brutish, and long. Of all the skilled, interesting genre auteurs who have emerged at the turn of the 21st century, a post-Tarantino epoch when slathering a high-art gloss on low-down tropes is as much a prerequisite for film festival invitations as it is for cult popularity, Zahler has distinguished himself for his willingness to push things to the breaking point. Quite literally, when it comes to protruding bones and splintered limbs, but also in terms of his audience’s attention span.
It’s not just that his films, including the new two-and-a-half-hour drama Dragged Across Concrete, have elongated running times, but that they’ve been designed and paced so that you feel the weight of every passing minute. Zahler’s specialty—and it’s a strange one—is cultivating an almost narcotic sense of boredom and then puncturing it with startling, hairpin turns into obscene violence, like jabbing a strung-out junkie with a shot of adrenaline.
This willingness to alienate viewers in two different ways at once—daring them to tune out and then punishing them for sticking with it—is one reason that Zahler cuts a controversial figure. It’s not the only reason, however. What has led some critics to wish a plague on both his art- and grindhouses is the way he seems to adorn his deliberately over-the-top genre exercises with sociopolitical subtext that dangles, like low-hanging fruit, to the right. A feature in The Daily Beast brazenly described him as “The Hollywood Filmmaker Making Movies for the MAGA Crowd.”
The overt, vicious racism of 2015’s Bone Tomahawk, which stars Kurt Russell as a small-town sheriff leading a posse against a clan of cannibalistic Native Americans, was rationalized (if not ignored) by critics as being tied to retrograde conventions—as if the director were just playing an old-fashioned game of cowboys and Indians. Less a spaghetti Western than a pulled-pork horror movie, Bone Tomahawk is a terrifically effective piece of filmmaking whose ugliness, including not only death by scalping and vivisection, but also images of blinded, amputated, pregnant indigenous women, is deliberate and self-conscious.
That same feeling of a director on the attack energized 2017’s Brawl in Cell Block 99, which plunged Vince Vaughn’s stone-fisted, thick-headed drug dealer into the Inferno of the prison-industrial complex. There, he is manipulated by heartless villains into breaching a maximum security ward and assassinating a high-profile inmate, lest his pregnant girlfriend be handed over to an unscrupulous—and foreign-born—abortionist. When I saw Brawl at the Toronto International Film Festival, I was overpowered by the fast-twitch muscularity of its hand-to-hand combat and laughed, inwardly and a bit contemptuously, at the clash between the story’s spiraling body count and ostensible anti-abortion message.
Entertainment value is subjective. For some viewers, the sheer depravity of these movies is not a bug, but a feature. For others, it’s a deal breaker. What’s worth pondering is whether Zahler is a sensation junkie getting high off his own supply, a sly genre satirist à la Brian De Palma or Paul Verhoeven, or an authentic conservative ideologue peddling rebellion against showbiz political correctness. Zahler is in no way responsible for the fact that alt-right websites have stumped for his work, which also includes the script for the ostensibly ironic Nazi-marionettes-on-the-warpath comedy Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich. That said, such patronage is hardly a badge of honor.
In theory, it is the presence of so much evident moviemaking savvy—the stark, minimalist compositions that transform caves and cells into murky, abstract canvases; a knack for choreographing carnage; that drawn-out pacing, less Tarantino than Michelangelo Antonioni—that ask questions about artistic intention. Whatever else Zahler may be, he’s not a hack, and Dragged Across Concrete, which premiered last fall at a series of European film festivals, is even more of a conversation piece than its predecessors, laying its cards on the table and prodding us to read ’em and weep.
For instance: It’s one thing to tap Mel Gibson for the lead role in a film about a pair of LAPD officers—Ridgeman and Lurasetti, played by Gibson and Vaughn—who are operating outside the law. The role of a loose-cannon cop is in Martin Riggs’s wheelhouse. But hiring Gibson to play a guy who earns a suspension for being videotaped while roughing up a suspect, and then complains to his boss that a culture of political correctness and media scrutiny is keeping guys like him from doing “good, honest work,” is not a casual gesture. The multiple allusions to Gibson’s personal history can’t be laughed off, nor can the fact that the actor gets so deeply inside this character’s persecution complex that he approaches greatness. Gibson is, for many of us, a toxic figure, but his wary, textured performance here is a stark, uncomfortable reminder of how good he can be when he commits to a part.
The challenge with Gibson’s presence in Dragged Across Concrete (and to a lesser extent Vaughn, who is a Hollywood Republican but not nearly so polarizing and guilty a figure as his costar) is not to “separate the art from the artist” but to deal with them as an indivisible whole. This is, I think, how Zahler wants it, and the decision to leverage Gibson’s real-world pariah status as a form of shorthand for the frustration and alienation felt by his onscreen alter ego is ingenious casting, in a Tarantino sort of way, which is why Zahler’s claims that such resonance wasn’t purposeful read like dissembling.
It’s been said that if you admire a filmmaker, you shouldn’t read their interviews, and Zahler is a good case in point. Whenever he goes on the record, he sounds caught between trying to own his work’s subtext and passing the buck to his characters, as if their attitudes were somehow autonomous. “There are a lot of characters that have a lot of different viewpoints, and I don’t go out of my way to say some are wrong and some are right,” he told Yahoo, sounding as evasive in conversation as he is boldly-on-the-nose in his filmmaking. “There’s stuff that will trigger certain people, and that’s fine,” he added. “I’m interested in writing things that make me uncomfortable.”
That may be true, and yet there’s still something slick about his approach, and about insisting to Riot Fest that he’s “not a political person” when he’s eager to push hot buttons with his characters’ fingers. I was taken aback when, in the same interview, he described 12 Years a Slave and Moonlight as being not only “pretty good movies” but also “having an agenda driving both of them. What he seemed to mean was that both Best Picture winners contained “messages,” whereas Dragged Across Concrete does not, to which I would say: not so fast. Ridgeman’s hyperarticulate carping about the neutered, identity-politicized world around him makes him sound like a mouthpiece for both his creator and the guy playing him, or at least we’re being dared to hear it that way—as a semirighteous outpouring of white-male grievance. And, in the absence of other compelling rhetoric—Gibson and Vaughn are onscreen for most of the film’s running time, and the characters they end up clashing with appear as blank and implacable as Bone Tomahawk’s marauding cannibals—their point of view winds up going unchallenged. This imbalance may not equal strict endorsement, but it doesn’t exactly suggest any sort of perceptive critique, either.
Does it have to? It’s not as if the action genre—and even more specifically the cop movie—hasn’t yielded its share of reactionary masterpieces. When Pauline Kael called Dirty Harry “fascist” in 1972, she wasn’t necessarily wrong, but the combination of Don Siegel’s electric direction and Clint Eastwood’s dead-eyed charisma were impervious to such scolding. The case for Zahler’s film is less airtight, partly because of his insistence at every turn on narrative bagginess. There’s a lot of downtime in Dragged Across Concrete, and while I still dutifully noted every careful camera set-up or color-coded bit of mise-en-scène, I spent most of it trying to figure out whether this heavy, spacious, pungent movie was just full of crap.
I suspected this might be the case in the opening scene, when ex-con Henry (Tory Kittles) walks in on his mother turning a trick in their run-down apartment and chases the (white) john away with a baseball bat. So much of genre filmmaking is a matter of rearranging clichés, but Zahler’s set-up of a frustrated African American criminal trying to pull his family out of poverty by agreeing to play getaway driver—one last job before going straight—feels like it’s received wisdom at best and phonily appropriative at worst. By contrasting Henry’s desperation with Ridgeman’s own desire to provide for his household, the film is placing both men (black and white; crook and cop) on shaky but common ground, except that the particulars of the cop’s situation are somehow even less believable and more loaded. We see Ridgeman’s teenage daughter bullied by a group of black kids who douse her with orange soda as she skateboards home; his ex-cop wife (Laurie Holden) makes dog-whistle-pitched remarks about a “bad neighborhood” and moans that they need to move immediately. Meanwhile, light streams in beatifically through their living-room window, illuminating the size and sprawl of their apartment. The contradiction between what we’re told and what we see doesn’t appear to be purposeful, just lazy.
There’s a fine line between truth-telling and trolling, and what Zahler is doing in Dragged Across Concrete seems closer to the latter. He’s protected to some extent by the pulp fiction format, which has a prerogative for obnoxiousness. Using the format of an XXL B movie, he’s rubbing our noses in unpleasantness in the hopes that it’ll disarm our bullshit detectors. In theory, the script leaves enough room to support his statement that we’re free to judge Ridgeman and Lurasetti as creeps, but their abuse of a pair of racialized suspects—breaking a male drug dealer’s face and then subjecting his naked Latina girlfriend to an ice-cold shower as they interrogate her—is played for grim humor. It’s also presented as more or less justified in the context of their jobs. Even as he dresses them down, McGarnagle-style, their boss (Don Johnson) acknowledges their methods are effective. And their transgressions pale next to those of the masked thugs who emerge as the film’s true villains. The bank robbers employing Henry aren’t just bad, they’re straight-up evil. Even when they’re operating off-duty, the cops are holding the thin blue line.
Machismo and sentimentality often go hand in hand, and in an interesting parallel with Netflix’s new thriller Triple Frontier, Dragged Across Concrete concerns the back-against-the-wall tactics of brave, principled men whose disillusionment with the institutions they’ve put their lives on the line to serve transforms them into mercenaries. To offset the financial losses of their suspension and take revenge against the system, Ridgeman and Lurasetti surveil a group of criminals and make plans to shake them down once they locate their stash. The way that their plan ends up intersecting with Henry’s narrative represents Zahler’s most elegant narrative twist ever, but the filmmaker also works against his own structural cleverness by indulging his bad-boy side, at length and more than is necessary. The villains’ willingness to kill innocent people is emphasized in introductory sequences that are a bit too playfully nasty for their own good. An extended cameo by Jennifer Carpenter, Brawl’s put-upon but resourceful heroine, culminates in a moment so gratuitous and grotesque that it’s like the cinematic equivalent of a severed, bloody middle finger pointed at the audience. Her role is also astonishingly misogynist, and I haven’t even gotten to the consistently abject treatment of another traumatized female hostage, or Gibson’s slinging a racial epithet as a laugh line, or the minor but striking detail of having Henry and the other getaway driver (Michael Jai White) decked out in white-face makeup during the heist (shades of the Safdies’ Good Time). These things are, as Zahler says, “triggering.” But are they anything else?
In the end, I don’t think that they are, and I don’t know if the superb, ferocious, single-location set piece that serves as a drawn-out climax—a surreal stand-off pitched somewhere between a first-person-shooter video game, miniaturized military campaign, and a Mad Max movie (with the real Mad Max on hand, of course)—or the weirdness of the soundtrack, which features a series of ’70s soul pastiches cowritten and in one case sung by Zahler himself, was enough to offset my skepticism. Watching Dragged Across Concrete, I thought about Joseph Kahn’s Bodied, a movie whose politics and point of view are at times insidiously slippery, but which builds to a thunderous and cogently subversive punch line. I also thought about The Hateful Eight, which felt indulgent and pointless right up until Tarantino introduced the gimmick of the “Lincoln Letter,” a forged document aptly symbolizing certain counterfeit aspects of the American dream. Zahler may imitate QT’s profane dialogue rhythms and goldbricking narrative sensibility, but for all his skill, he doesn’t have the same imaginative capacity. At the end of The Hateful Eight, there is a sense of poetry, and tragedy, and terror for the future—on and offscreen. The best Dragged Across Concrete can muster is a bitter, cynical chuckle about how crime really does pay. It’s the perfect sentiment for a filmmaker who, more than anything, seems pleased to be getting away with something.