Exploring the Dragged Across Concrete Director’s Hard-Hitting Action Movies
Dragged Across Concrete's S. Craig Zahler made three of the toughest, most violence-fueled movies around in less than a decade. Where is he now?
Dragged Across Concrete is currently the number two streaming movie on Netflix, meaning that an entire potential new audience is discovering writer-director S. Craig Zahler’s rough, take-no-prisoners 2019 crime epic. The film’s two problematic leads, Vince Vaughn and Mel Gibson, play longtime friends turned cops Anthony Lurasetti and Brett Ridgeman, who get involved in robbing a professional thief after being suspended from duty for viciously beating a drug dealer.
Desperate for money after their suspension, the two cops are soon in the midst of a disastrously escalating battle with the thief and his henchmen, with allegiances switching throughout. Through it all only Lurasetti and Ridgeman remain steadfastly loyal to each other, even as they descend into an extremely murky moral gray zone that leaves no one—not even the ostensible “good guys”—untouched.
We say “ostensible” because Lurasetti and Ridgeman are far from heroes. Reactionary cops who long for the good old days when they could get away with police brutality, their dialogue is riddled with casual racial slurs. In that sense, they may seem only truly heroic to those who prefer to live in a merciless authoritarian state. Controversially at the time of the film’s release, Zahler doesn’t offer his own view on their behavior either, preferring instead to let the saga—all 169 minutes of it—play out while viewers judge for themselves.
What makes this all the more jarring, and perhaps too upsetting for some viewers, is that Zahler also injects humor and glimpses of humanity into the film, which for the most part is a bleakly unsparing portrait of a hellish landscape of lawless actions and violent consequences. It doesn’t help that Vaughn and Gibson’s own personal beliefs and histories hang like shrouds over their heads, even as both deliver two of their best late-career performances to date. Is Dragged Across Concrete a reactionary film, the kind of right-wing entertainment that MAGA acolytes can enjoy without having some “lib social justice message shoved down their throats?” Zahler says his own politics are “in the middle,” and that he prefers to create good art without a political message. The protagonists of the film are certainly reactionary, and seem unable to adjust to changing times, although the film does seem to suggest that the brutality of the modern world needs to be met with an equally brutal response. Although the men who make that response pay dearly for it.
There’s no question, however, that Dragged Across Concrete is a bracing, unflinching film, both for its portrayal of deeply flawed characters and the director’s insistence at letting the events of the narrative play out at the pace he deems appropriate. Its worldview is nihilistic and deeply cynical, with only a few rays of hope shining through. It’s also, as anyone who sees it knows, quite violent: a new mother is brutally gunned down, a bank manager is castrated, and a man’s stomach is sliced open (although he’s fortunately dead by then), in addition to numerous point-blank shootings. But Dragged Across Concrete is practically a PG-13 romp compared to Zahler’s two previous outings.
If you haven’t seen them, here are yet further glimpses into the abyss…
Brawl in Cell Block 99
About as authentic a grindhouse movie as one could make in the year 2017, Brawl in Cell Block 99 is Zahler’s deliberate, ultra-violent homage to prison movies. Vince Vaughn stars as Bradley Thomas, a low-level drug trafficker thrown in jail for seven years when a deal goes wrong. Once there, he is informed by his drug lord employer that he must find a way to get himself moved to the maximum-security Redleaf facility and execute someone who’s incarcerated in the notorious Cell Block 99. If he doesn’t, his wife and unborn child on the outside will be slaughtered. Once he gets to Redleaf, however, nothing there is what it was made out to be.
Although known primarily for comedies, Vaughn had flirted with serious roles before, most notably in Mel Gibson’s 2016 war drama Hacksaw Ridge and the somewhat disastrous second season of HBO’s True Detective in 2015 (and well before his comedies, he even tried a stint at playing Norman Bates in Gus Van Sant’s blessedly forgotten Psycho remake from 1998!). Here, Zahler simply gets the best performance of Vaughn’s career out of the actor, whose imposing size and presence (he trained and exercised before taking the role) make him a formidable killing machine. And kill he does: Brawl in Cell Block 99 is full of extreme, unvarnished violence and torture, culminating in a brutal decapitation.
Once again, Zahler works in the moral gray zone that is his wheelhouse: Bradley may be remorseless in his actions, but they all serve to protect his family. He only goes back to the drug trade when he loses his job in an auto repair shop. He’s a fully rounded character (backed by a superb supporting cast) and makes Brawl in Cell Block 99 an entertaining, gripping film that truly corrals the tone of the films it pays tribute to.
Zahler’s first feature was released in 2015 and is that special rarity: a hybrid of the Western and horror genres that actually works. Also a novelist, Zahler had written several Western books but elected to pen an original screenplay with this one. In it, a sheriff (Kurt Russell) leads a posse to rescue three townspeople who have been kidnapped by a clan of cannibals so awful that even the other local tribes avoid them.
The sheriff, his deputy (Richard Jenkins), a local gunslinger (Matthew Fox), and the injured husband of one of the hostages (Patrick Wilson) head into the valley to confront the so-called troglodytes, As one might imagine, not all of them are going to make it back, and a number of people die in hideous ways.
Bone Tomahawk is incredibly gruesome—the film became infamous for a scene in which a man, still alive, is first scalped and then split in half by the genuinely frightening cannibals—but it’s also a lot more black and white than Zahler’s later films. The troglodytes are not meant to represent a real Indigenous tribe, so there’s less moral complexity about what the posse sets out to do. And none of the main characters have the kind of murky moral background that defines the leads of Zahler’s other films.
The pacing, at 132 minutes, may throw some viewers off, but Zahler takes his time to build up to the main clash and also let his characters develop, with the cast responding in kind. Everyone is excellent, but the affectionate if exasperated rapport between Russell’s Sheriff Hunt and Jenkins’ somewhat more dim Deputy Chicory is outstanding and builds a lot of good will for these men who face an unimaginable horror. Despite a few wobbles here and there, Bone Tomahawk is an amazingly confident debut.
S. Craig Zahler has not directed a film since principal photography on Dragged Across Concrete was completed in September 2017. Although he says that he’s had numerous other screenplays optioned over the years, he’s only gotten screenplay credit on two films outside his own directorial projects.
A new film was announced in 2022, titled Hug Chickenpenny and based on Zahler’s own 2018 horror novel, Hug Chickenpenny: The Panegyric of an Anomalous Child, with the film reportedly envisioned as a three-hour, black-and-white, animated effort involving puppets. According to World of Reel, Zahler was working with The Jim Henson Company on the project, although it was reported earlier this year that financing had fallen through for the movie (in addition to this and his other prose books, Zahler has also written and illustrated several graphic novels).
Although Zahler has said he has a handful of other movies and TV shows in development, none seem to have reached official greenlight status. One problem may be that his main backer on his previous films, a production company called Cinestate owned by Zahler’s manager, Dallas Sonnier, collapsed in 2020 following accusations of sexual assault against one of its producers as well as other reports of abusive behavior on film sets.
Sonnier later launched a new production banner called Bonfire Legend in 2021, which began partnering on the development of new films in conjunction with far-right extremist Ben Shapiro’s Daily Wire website. Although Zahler told The Daily Beast in 2019, “I’m not politically driven; I’m not very politically interested,” his association with Sonnier—and indirectly with MAGA garbage like Shapiro—might certainly unsettle a lot of folks in Hollywood.
As an unabashed lefty, it frankly unsettles me, but there is validity to Zahler’s claim that he does not seek to push a political agenda through his movies. Their use of multiple viewpoints, harsh violence, and morally complicated characters are bracing, intense, and visceral, and don’t lend them easily to superficial reads as right-wing screeds. But they don’t pull their punches either in terms of their characters’ actions or ideologies. S. Craig Zahler makes gritty, unadorned, unapologetic films about exceptionally imperfect people and scenarios, and that’s a voice we need more of.
Dragged Across Concrete is streaming on Netflix now.