Three films in, writer and director S. Craig Zahler has established himself as a thoroughly unique filmmaking voice: his movies to date, which include Bone Tomahawk, Brawl in Cell Block 99, and now Dragged Across Concrete, are a blend of the lurid and the langorous, a pulp fiction sensibility and eye combined with a thoughtful, novelistic approach toward character and motivation. The latter film is certainly his most epic in scope and as violent as his previous two, yet at the same time his most leisurely paced. And yes, it’s his most humorous offering to date too.
Not to say it isn’t also maddening at times: No studio exec in Hollywood would let Zahler keep the long, silent take in which an increasingly impatient Brett Ridgeman (Mel Gibson) listens to his partner Tony Lurasetti (Vince Vaughn) loudly chewing the last of his breakfast sandwich while the two are ensconced in an unofficial–and highly illegal–stakeout. “I’ve been listening to that and smelling it for the past 98 minutes,” growls Gibson as Vaughn finishes up, and one realizes that Zahler has kept the scene going so long for the exact purpose of having the viewer empathize with the exasperated Ridgeman.
How the two men got into that car is the basis of the first hour or so of this hefty 160-minute yarn, which tackles racism, loyalty, codes of honor, and family through a hazy right-wing lens as it glides gradually along the mechanics of its story. Ridgeman and Lurasetti are cops who get suspended for six weeks after using excessive force on a suspected drug dealer; they’re told by their boss, Ridgeman’s former partner Calvert (Don Johnson), that the racially charged politics of the day no longer allow them to use whatever means necessary to make their collars–not with the press watching, anyway.
“There’s certainly nothing hypocritical about the media handling every perceived intolerance with complete and utter intolerance,” sneers Vaughn in an exchange that may lose a few liberal-minded viewers, especially given Gibson and Vaughn’s own personal politics, which don’t exactly align with those of Elizabeth Warren or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. But the views of Ridgeman and Lurasetti are not out of line for men like them, throwbacks to a different era but still portrayed by Zahler and his actors as fully-rounded human beings, if gruff and not necessarily likable ones.
First we go home with Ridgeman, where he spends time lovingly with his wife (Laurie Holden), who’s beset by multiple sclerosis, and a daughter (Jordyn Ashley Olson) who keeps getting assaulted on the streets of their tough neighborhood. Then we follow Lurasetti as he picks out an engagement ring for his girlfriend and wonders how the hell he’s going to pay for it when he’s facing six weeks without salary. Ridgeman, however, already has a plan for keeping himself and his partner solvent, even if it’s a scheme that doesn’t precisely fall within police department guidelines.
Meanwhile, Henry (Tory Kittles) has just gotten out of jail and is looking to make money himself so that he can take care of his wheelchair-bound little brother and stop his mom from having to turn tricks. He and his old friend Biscuit (Michael Jai White) are recruited by a high-tech but vicious squad of bank robbers (led by Thomas Kretschmann) as drivers–and it’s on that job that the two storylines of working class lawmen and criminals who are desperate to get out from under finally intersect.
Along the way we sit on that long-ass stakeout with the two disgraced cops, watch one of the robbers violently take down a convenience store just because he feels like it, and meet a new mom (Jennifer Carpenter in a heart-tugging cameo) whose life is changed forever by her peripheral involvement in the plot. The movie’s final act, while never ramping up the pace, does escalate the violence to some particularly shocking levels, with one outrageously over-the-top scene involving a van key worthy of mentioning in the same breath as the infamous bisection sequence in Bone Tomahawk.
There are casually uttered racist epithets in the dialogue, as well as casual humiliation and violence along the way, and again some viewers may find themselves wanting to check out. Their comfort level may not be helped by the presence of Gibson, who was born to play roles like this–simmering cauldrons of white male rage and nostalgia for the “good old days” when that rage could be channeled without consequence. And yet, he brings nuance and complexity to it.
It may not help that Gibson’s own personal history (and that of Vaughn) brushes up against the fictional backgrounds of their characters, but at the same time, this is the world that men like Ridgeman and Lurasetti inhabit: a war zone where the only compassion they can afford is for their immediate family members. Vaughn, coming off a career-best performance for Zahler in Brawl in Cell Block 99, does more good work for his director here as a man whose loyalty to his older partner outweighs his own sense of dread about what they’re getting themselves into.
It’s no coincidence that Zahler is a novelist as well as a filmmaker; all three of his movies feel like books, with their tangents and long passages of dialogue and slow-roasted narratives, but Dragged Across Concrete feels the most like it’s been transposed directly from a thick, yellowing, well-thumbed paperback. That in itself makes his movies feel different from those of almost anyone else working today: all the ephemeral stuff that Zahler immerses the viewer in and a lot of others leave out.
Some viewers may prefer that, and admittedly Dragged Across Concrete is a slow sweeping picture filled with reactionary politics (real or fictional). But if you’ve ever enjoyed a dark , brutal crime novel where you may not like most of the people involved, but can’t help turning the pages anyway, Dragged Across Concrete will be your pulpy, perverse pleasure.
Dragged Across Concrete is out in theaters and on demand now.
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye