Dragged Across Concrete [Review]
The log-line for Dragged Across Concrete will be as much as many people ever experience of it. As a languid, talky thriller about two racist cops attempting to knock over a criminal enterprise and a newly-released ex-con trying to get his family out of the gutter, there are a lot of stumbling blocks for the average audience member. Some will be turned off by the idea of watching two bigoted cops (one of whom is played by real-world flash point Mel Gibson) do anything; others will balk at the idea of devoting that much time to what is ostensibly a pulp genre flick; while others may have heard rumblings about the possible politics of its creator. Dragged Across Concrete gives plenty of reasons for people to turn their eyes to something else—and that’s before the first frame has even flashed across the screen.
For those with the grit, the time, and the curiosity, however, Dragged Across Concrete is one hell of a ride, with all the patience, style, and vibrant detail one would expect from writer/director S. Craig Zahler.
The movie opens by introducing us to Henry Johns (Tory Kittles), a man fresh out of prison enjoying an assignation with a prostitute who used to be a classmate. Upon returning to his mother’s apartment, he finds her turning tricks while his crippled brother is locked in his room playing video games. Something has to change, Johns knows, and he can’t wait too long to make it happen.
Next, we meet detectives Brett Ridgeman (Mel Gibson) and Tony Lurasetti (Vince Vaughn) as they perform a routine drug bust, exercising some excessive force along the way. Facing an unpaid suspension for their tactics, it doesn’t take much for Ridgeman to convince Lurasetti that their best option, if they’re going to get punished for upholding the law, is to break the law for a quick payday.
Each of these story threads unfolds in slow, patient detail. Henry Johns’ return to life on the outside and his slow easing back into the waters of criminality is full of smart, catchy dialogue and intelligent, empathetic observances. Given the situation he walks back into, it would be easy to imagine Johns responding with anger and violence; instead, he calmly and with a level-head begins to build a plan motivated by care and affection for his family. A man who is comfortable with who he is and what he has done, his cool demeanor slices through the simmering frustrations of those around him like a knife.
Tory Kittles was the more sharp-edged of the two interviewers roasting Rust Cohle and Marty Hart in the first season of True Detective. With his narrowed eyes and no-bullshit mask of cool contempt, he was a surrogate for an audience who might not have been ready to swallow Hart’s dissembling and Cohle’s meditations on time and its supposed shape. Here, he’s an immediately engaging and sympathetic figure, a nucleus of bruised decency and street-honed cool in a world full of monsters. Without his measured gaze and tempered voice to occasionally offer an everyman reprieve from the darkness that surrounds him, the murk of Dragged’s narrative might have been too much to handle.
The bulk of that murk and mire comes in the form of Mel GIbson’s Brett Ridgeman. As a man who claims “I don’t politic and I don’t change with the times,” Gibson might be accused to taking a role that requires little in the way of actual acting from him. What he brings to the role, aside from his bearded, grizzled visage and his rumbling voice, is a weariness and familiarity with being on the wrong side of a public relations crisis. Whether his lack of care is a dark-mirror reflection of his actual shame or a cathartic excuse to act how he really feels is up for debate. However, his flippancy and his roiling hatred of the world around him makes him a compelling and repelling presence to watch.
Lurasetti, meanwhile, with his more humorous approach to his bigotry, is a perfect glimpse into Ridgeman’s possible past, making Ridgeman a view of Lurasetti’s own probable future. Vaughn puts his frat-boy posturing to good use here, showing the way that brothers-in-arms bon homie can be a pleasant cover for deeply-held prejudice. His prickly chemistry with Gibson goes a long way toward making their many stakeout scenes pop, with their varying levels of fuck-the-world energy and complimentary styles of bigotry waltzing elegantly. As with all of Zahler’s films, there is as much reward in the dialogue and character moments as there are in the bursts of climactic violence. Sometimes more so.
Kittles, for instance, gets a standout scene wherein Johns and his friend Biscuit (Michael Jai White) recall a moment from their childhood together. Not only does the exchange give the two a fun scene following a harrowing experience, it also informs both their past history and their current dynamic. It is a moment of layered development and revelation that most films would shoehorn into the first act and hope to have out of the way. Zahler, however, knows that characters never cease to be people, even if modern plot demands might request that at some point they simply become avatars for violence and action.
That’s not to say that the film isn’t violent enough to satisfy those who might be coming just for the pyrotechnics, though it is markedly less so than Brawl in Cell Block 99 or Bone Tomahawk. Here, in keeping with those two previous films, Zahler makes sure that the violence is shocking and distressing in addition to being visually compelling, ensuring that rather than becoming a reward for the reptilian brain after exercising the audience’s patience, the promise of harm becomes a palpable motivator in the plot. Scenes take longer, people react harder, and the moral implications of certain choices become much more extreme.
There will be a battalion of culture critics who will see Dragged Across Concrete as a sort of celebration of its characters’ worldviews. They will watch scenes of barely-closeted bigots defending their own mentality and see a writer/director and possibly an actor writing their own right-wing fantasies and arguments to life. They will consider the act of watching two racist cops to be somehow endorsing their worldview, and assume that anyone who would make a film about them must believe that they are in the right. What they will miss is a cool, mature potboiler loaded with excellent performances and directed by someone who understands the importance of blocking, pacing, and narrative breathing room. Dragged Across Concrete might have the earmarks of a gross, taunting provocation, but beneath that skin is a raw, beating heart and a wily, captivating mind with real empathy for its characters.
It is this certainty and confidence in his writing and in his characters that allows Zahler’s films to be more than the vessels for violence and fun dialogue. Dragged Across Concrete could be content with simply being that, but to watch the way its characters speak to one another, the way they constantly defend their own views and choices, the way they lie to themselves and others, is to see a movie with much more on its mind. One could make a compelling argument that Johns, Ridgeman, and Lurasetti become personifications of different kinds of criminality—of wrongness—with their attendant outcomes being the moral sentence for each of their sins. On a broader level, the film as a whole could be seen as a statement on how systems and society keep all different kinds of people down, and how their reaction to that fact is informed by their class, race, and gender. Take a close enough look at that spatter pattern on the screen and you’ll find plenty of brain mixed in among the blood.