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The Director Who Doesn’t Care What You Think of His Movies

S. Craig Zahler’s movies, including his latest, ‘Dragged Across Concrete,’ have been labeled unwoke racist fantasias. But he’s not making them to get universal approval.

Lionsgate/RLJE Films/Ringer illustration

S. Craig Zahler doesn’t care if you don’t like his new movie.

That’s a relief, because many of you won’t. Like Zahler’s previous films, Brawl in Cell Block 99 and Bone Tomahawk, Dragged Across Concrete is a fifth of genre rotgut, an agonizing and corrosive journey into hell, punctuated by spasms of extreme violence. The title is a warning. The running time, 159 minutes, is another warning. Add to that the casting of Mel Gibson, persona non grata in many circles, and a solid percentage of the moviegoing public won’t make it past the right column of the film’s Wikipedia page. And this is before grappling with Zahler’s politics, which may be significantly more fraught than his harshest critics contend, but nonetheless drift into Breitbartian sentiments about police brutality, racial tension, the scourge of inner-city neighborhoods, and other issues likely to bubble up on grandpa’s Facebook page. Even for those who can stomach Zahler’s work, which can be as challenging in their unusual longueurs as they are in their shocks, a film like Dragged Across Concrete is contentious viewing, especially if you’re not on its ideological wavelength.

But consider it from another angle: How often are American viewers confronted by a movie that doesn’t need to be liked? With its nine-figure budgets, Hollywood literally can’t afford to make movies that aren’t for everyone, and a streaming service like Netflix actively collects data on what its subscribers like and gives creative notes based on that algorithm. A major studio in the late ’60s and ’70s might have produced something like Dragged Across Concrete, a hard-edged thriller about two desperate cops (Gibson and Vince Vaughn) who use a six-week suspension to plot a heist of a heist. Zahler’s style is a throwback to pitiless genre specialists like Don Siegel or Sam Peckinpah, who worked within a system that was more content to turn small profits off modest budgets. All three of Zahler’s films have been relegated to the no-man’s-land of day-and-date releasing, and opened on a tiny number of screens while collecting most of their money on home video rentals. There’s no place for them in the monoculture: If Zahler weren’t such a singular, dangerous talent, no one would talk about them at all.

That theme came up consistently in my conversation with Zahler. He imagines a studio might want a version of Dragged Across Concrete that was an hour shorter, but it would need to move faster to keep people from getting bored. “Some people can get bored,” he says. “That’s fine. But that’s not what studios want to hear.” And he rejects the suggestion that he might be misunderstood or that his critics might be missing something. They bring their own interest and viewpoint into his films, he insists, and they’re not wrong. “Certainly I’m not making movies and writing books and doing all these things to become popular or for people to like me,” Zahler says. “I hope people enjoy them, but I’m not going to make different creative choices so that more of them do.”

Not that he’s particularly respectful of that point of view, mind you. “If you come into a movie and you’re very focused on one thing—like you’re very interested in how people of this ethnicity or people with this belief system or women or children or people from Canada are treated in this movie … that’s your viewpoint,” Zahler says. “And you’re entitled to it. If the most important thing for you to get out of the movie experience is to see a reflection of your personal beliefs, you probably won’t get that with any of my movies because they don’t even consistently line up with themselves.”

Take an early scene from Dragged Across Concrete in which partners Brett Ridgeman (Gibson) and Anthony Lurasetti (Vaughn) are called in for a meeting with their superior officer, Lt. Calvert (Don Johnson), after doing a rough collar on a drug dealer. On the fire escape outside the suspect’s apartment, Ridgeman had caught the man trying to flee and pinned him down hard with a boot to the back of his neck—an incident caught on video and due for broadcast on the evening news. Calvert wants both of their badges for a six-week police brutality suspension, though the feeling in the room—and, frankly, from behind the camera—is that the perceived offense is mostly bullshit. What Ridgeman did wasn’t that bad, the men seem to agree, and it’s typical namby-pamby political correctness that the officers are viewed more dimly than a lowlife dealer pumping poison onto the streets and into the schools.

It’s possible to read the scene simply as an airing of white grievances—Calvert whines about how being called a racist in the ’00s is like being called a communist in the ’50s—but it’s also loaded with ambiguity. Ridgeman and Lurasetti have gotten in trouble before, and they relinquish their guns and badges so casually that it feels like routine, as if suspensions were in the flow of the workday. When Calvert gets Ridgeman alone, he reminds him that they were once partners and there’s a reason why he’s the one sitting behind the big desk in the corner office and Ridgeman is outside crouching on fire escapes for hours. “I watched that video a couple of times,” he warns Ridgeman. “You threw a lot more cast iron than you needed to. When we worked together, you weren’t that rough.”

There are plenty of opportunities to read Dragged Across Concrete as a right-wing screed, but it doesn’t always line up with itself. Sometimes a few middle-aged cops grousing to each other behind closed doors is exactly what you’d expect it to sound like in real life.

Zahler has grown into a sophisticated genre filmmaker and novelist with side ventures in heavy metal music and composition—he’s scored all three of his films—but he considers himself a “child of Fangoria.” (Indeed, Zahler is part of the writing staff of the revived Fangoria, which was bought by the Dallas-based Cinestate, the same company that produces his films.) After getting his first VCR at age 13, the now-46-year-old director remembers beelining to the horror section at Videos R Us in Kendall, a Miami area that’s basically a dense suburban sprawl, far from the sleek art deco of South Beach. (Videos R Us had to change its name to Videos 4 U when a prominent toy store chain complained.) The young Zahler was not yet an aesthete: “The more violent and gorier, the better,” he says, “Maybe not a surprise to someone who’s seen my movies.”

In Zahler’s telling, he backed into cinephilia. Those clamshell boxes of slashing and dismemberment eventually yielded the pearls of Sam Raimi, George Romero, and Tobe Hooper, and a longstanding obsession with Japanese culture and animation led him to Akira Kurosawa. After he picked up a video camera at 14 or 15, Zahler’s homemade shorts were quickly banned at his high school (“People getting their throats cut and heads crushed,” he says. “That apparently started very early for me”). He caught up on directors like Peckinpah and plundered the pulp horror and fantasy of H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and, eventually, the crime fiction of Jim Thompson. His precociousness eventually earned him a spot in the film program at NYU, but with no clear route to make the types of films he wanted when he graduated.

It took more than a decade in the screenwriting wilderness until Zahler finally got a chance to make Bone Tomahawk, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. He was (and remains) an astonishingly prolific writer, with more than 20 screenplays to his credit, many in various states of turnaround, but only two ever made it to production—one is a 2011 Belgian prison horror film called The Incident and the other is last year’s Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich, an indie horror-comedy about Nazi puppets that revels in tastelessness. (In a typical scene, our heroes try to lure these anti-Semitic monsters out of hiding by lighting a menorah.) His name has been attached to one nonstarter of a project after another, including an ultra-violent Western, The Brigands of Rattleborge, that made the prestigious Black List in 2006 and is now reportedly being revived by the Korean director Park Chan-wook.

While cranking out screenplays, Zahler turned out three heavy metal albums with his friend Jeff Herriott as one half of Realmbuilder, and played drums and contributed songwriting to the black metal band Charnel Valley. Gently described, these bands are an extension of Zahler’s interest in dark fantasy and world-building, with ominous song titles like “Advance of the War Giants,” “The Beast of Six Thousand Bones,” and “Carry Their Bodies to the Horizon.” He’s also written five novels in the last nine years, starting with the dark Western horror A Congregation of Jackals in 2010 and Wraiths of the Broken Land in 2013 before moving on to Corpus Chrome, Inc. and the hardboiled crime fiction of Mean Business on North Ganson Street in 2014. His latest book, Hug Chickenpenny: The Panegyric of an Anomalous Child, centers on a misshapen orphan with crooked eyes, wild tufts of white hair, and a scream so piercing that he’s isolated from the other inhabitants at Johnstone’s Home for the Unwanted. It gets considerably darker from there.

Zahler’s aggression and creative restlessness even manifest themselves in our interview. He’s currently working on his first graphic novel, which he estimates will take him six months of 10- to 12-hour days to finish, and doing press “will suck up the two hours” he would have had to himself at the end of the day. Yet the quality that most defines his films, other than perhaps their extreme violence, is a willingness to take their time. The logline on Bone Tomahawk is simple enough: An 1890s sheriff (Kurt Russell) and a posse strike out to a craggy, godforsaken terrain to rescue two people from a clan of cave-dwelling cannibals. Yet it unfolds over 132 minutes and carefully sketches the relationships between the men in pursuit while soaking in novelistic details, like a conversation about the impossible logistics of reading in the bath or the reasons why a bar pianist charges three cents for one song and a full dime for three.

His 2017 follow-up, Brawl in Cell Block 99, is more pulp in slow motion, a two-fisted prison thriller about a blue-collar type named Bradley Thomas (Vince Vaughn) who loses his job as a tow truck driver and takes work as a drug mule for local lowlifes. When he’s imprisoned, his former associates kidnap his pregnant wife (Jennifer Carpenter) and order him to assassinate an inmate who happens to reside in the worst section of the worst prison imaginable. He has to maim several guards and inmates just to get downgraded enough to do the job. Again, Zahler stretches a 90-minute exploitation movie into a 132-minute descent into hell, because he wants to marinate in the difficult choices and consequences that Bradley has to face, and because he gets hung up on those evocative particulars. Before the extortion plot kicks in, for example, Zahler gives a full tour of what life is like for a new inmate at a medium-security prison, from processing to orientation. It’s mesmerizing and utterly defiant of genre norms.

“To me, that’s a really good use of the movie,” says Zahler, who ran his research through a friend who works at Rikers Island. “It’s not just telling you a story, but it puts you in that space. I hadn’t seen a movie that quite gave me the experience about relinquishing your belongings. Now these guys are checking you up. Now this person’s your orientation adviser. Now this person is your work resource manager. All of that stuff you’re experiencing with the character, and I think it really grounds the film, especially for how stylized and baroque the later part of the movie gets.”

In the lead-up to the bank robbery in Dragged Across Concrete, Zahler again stops the movie cold to stage a mini one-act drama around an employee whose role in the larger story is so insignificant that 99 percent of other filmmakers would have hired an extra for the part. Instead, it raises the stakes on Ridgeman and Lurasetti’s decision-making, and the culpability of a third major character, Henry Johns (Tory Kittles), an ex-con who turns to the robbery for the same reasons they do. But Zahler also soaks in the tedium and loose talk of Ridgeman and Lurasetti on a stakeout, and devotes a full minute to Lurasetti eating a sandwich as lustily as Adèle Exarchopoulos devours spaghetti in Blue is the Warmest Color.

“When you’re building out all of these different situations and then adding to it and then elaborating on it and then elaborating on those elaborations,” says Zahler, “you get a sense of all these pre-existing relationships and complex relationships. As much conversation has been devoted to the violent aspects of my pictures, all of that stuff is at least as important, if not more important. You can get a better understanding of these people than a scene of carnage and violence.”

Not that there isn’t plenty of carnage. In their way, the extraordinary real estate given over to the minutiae of setting and performance is a primer for a generous allotment of gruesome bloodletting on the back end. Bone Tomahawk is a Western that takes the old-fashioned characterization of Native Americans literally as “savages” by separating a primitive clan of “troglodytes” from humankind. (Zahn McClarnon turns up as a local Native American who gives the posse directions, but makes it absolutely clear that these cannibals are not to be confused with a tribe.) The film leads to the most shocking act of violence in recent (and not-so-recent) memory, one certain to cleave even stout-hearted viewers down the middle. (Those who have seen Bone Tomahawk will groan at the pun.)

Nothing in Brawl in Cell Block 99 has quite the visceral impact as the succession of prison toilets that Bradley encounters as he beats his way down the ladder, but Zahler has a yen for skinned knuckles and faces that cave in like soft clay. Dragged Across Concrete trades hand-to-hand combat for the pyrotechnics of assault weapons and armored vans, and gives itself over to the tension and tactics of a prolonged shoot-out. Absolute evil is a presence in all three films—these men, however flawed, are up against forces of imposing and nearly subhuman darkness—and Zahler commits himself to whatever effort dispelling that evil is going to take. This child of Fangoria will deliver for that audience every time, however repellant non-subscribers might find it, but gory juvenilia for its own sake is never the goal. Though it’s probably a goal.

It should go without saying that getting to know these characters deeply heightens the effect, and makes it possible to get titanic lead performances out of Russell, Vaughn, and Gibson, whose work as a diminished veteran seething with rage and regret is a classic example of steering into the curve. The process of understanding men like Ridgeman and Lurasetti can be as ugly in its way as any of Zahler’s explicit bloodletting. That’s both a virtue and a sticking point, depending on your point of view, and it circles back to the politics and attitudes that are running closer than ever to the surface of his work.

“I am not looking for films to express values,” Zahler says. “That’s getting dangerously closer to an ‘agenda movie,’ which is a movie in support of its thesis statement. My characters drive my movies.” But Dragged Across Concrete reveals that it’s not an either/or proposition: A character-driven movie can express values, too, and Zahler’s unquestionably does, despite his caginess. When Ridgeman’s daughter suffers her fifth assault and his wife talks about not being racist until they moved into a bad neighborhood, Zahler does absolutely nothing to refute her statement. Yet he works overtime to carefully delineate the moral distance between Ridgeman and Lurasetti, suggesting their difference in age explains why the younger cop hasn’t yet sunk into toxic prejudice.

These are the contradictions that underpin Zahler’s films. He’d be the first to say that it’s up to you if you can live with them.

An earlier version of this piece misspelled Jeff Herriott’s name.

Scott Tobias is a freelance film and television writer from Chicago. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR, Vulture, Variety,and other publications.


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