Dragged Across Concrete
S Craig Zahler’s response to controversy surrounding his – unstated, but people draw their own conclusions from his cumulative body of work – politics is to double down. He casts Mel Gibson as a good-guy-really racist cop and has his characters, sometimes with extreme lack of finesse, espouse his own thoughts on having a freedom to traverse such rocky terrain. You might argue he’s trolling his audience, and you’d have some degree of justification there. Dragged Across Concrete shows once again that he’s a very talented filmmaker – if over-indulgent and offputtingly exploitation cinema-indebted – but it becomes increasingly difficult to give him the benefit of the doubt in the scenarios he sets up.
One might suggest his decision to include an African-American protagonist (albeit clearly secondary to stars Gibson and Vince Vaughn) is an attempt to defuse accusations lobbed his way – the same with the African-American girlfriend of Vaughn’s racial epithet using cop – or one might see it as further stoking the fire and fanning the flames (Tory Kittles’ Henry Johns is, after all, an ex-con who ends the film in the lap of luxury, profiting from multiple murders of innocents).
I’ve certainly tended to avoid jumping to conclusions with regard to Zahler’s motives. He’s clearly intending to provoke, and the exploration of characters and viewpoints, even when those viewpoints suggest a running theme, don’t necessarily amount to an authorial perspective (or cumulatively, you may conclude that he’s made a “vile, racist right-wing fantasy”). That said, it’s somewhat disingenuous of him to claim he isn’t political, as he’s evidently much too smart not to know what he’s flirting with, particularly in his last two movies (I haven’t seen the Puppet Master instalment he wrote, but enough people have cited it as a sealing the deal on his views, that it would suggest, as a Jewish filmmaker, he really is a troll supreme).
Certainly, when Laurie Holden (as Gibson’s MS-suffering wife) comments “You know, I never thought I was racist before living in this area” and their teenage daughter (Jordan Ashley Olsen) experiences continued harassment from black kids, Zahler’s very clearly pushing buttons; the question becomes, to what end? The same with Vaughn, and the aforementioned racist innuendo during a meeting with Don Johnson’s police chief.
And even if you’re crediting Zahler with nuance, it’s impossible not to get a mixed message from Mel being suspended for using undue force on a Hispanic suspect (he was filmed) and the subsequent speechifying whereby being “branded a racist in today’s public forum is like being accused of communism in the ’50s” and “There’s certainly nothing hypocritical about the media handling every perceived intolerance with complete and utter intolerance”. That sounds like Zahler responding to his critics, rather than following where his characters take him.
He’s also very deliberately loading his dice, sympathy wise – Gibson and Vaughn aren’t bent cops by nature, as Kittles assumes when their paths eventually cross; they’re “forced” into it by circumstances (now, you might argue that, if Gibson hadn’t been excessive in the first place, none of this would have happened, and again, you’d be crediting Zahler with allowing his characters to chart their courses in non-judgemental ways).
We spend more time with Gibson and Vaughn on stakeout than anyone else, so of course we’re supposed to get to know and like them, but again, that may be Zahler’s intent in asking his audience whether they want to reach broad conclusions. Notably, he doesn’t ask us to get to know Thomas Kretschmann and his duo of masked assassins, who are more expressly and overtly racist and sociopathic.
Zahler more than takes his time with the picture, unnecessarily so, I think, as one ultimately doesn’t feel it needed such an extended canvas. But he’s also remarkably confident and assured in his telling, a master of the slow-burn narrative; the tension sustained during the final confrontation between cops and robbers is almost unbearable. You also can’t really argue with his decision to include regular Jennifer Carpenter in a vignette as a new mother who can’t bear to be apart from her new born and must go back to work, not when it’s so affecting (again, her speechifying about staying at home is somewhat ungainly, and might be construed as deeply conservative in design).
On the other hand, I’ve never had much time for Zahler’s gore-hound instincts – they’re as much of a red flag as his being a metal-head, unfair of me as that may be – and I tend to the view that such indulgences do the subplot a disservice, since the main takeaway from Carpenter’s appearance is the schlock of her fingers and then head being blown off.
The cast are all top notch. Vaughn’s very much doing his laidback Vaughn thing, while Mel (in only his second cop role since Martin Riggs, I think) brings the expected intensity to bear. Kittles is contrastingly a model of measured restraint (witness his scene calming down nervy partner Michael Jai White), less showy than his more famous co-stars but leaving a more lasting impression.
As a piece of filmmaking and as a crime thriller, Dragged Across Concrete is a frequently impressive piece of work. Whatever Zahler is saying with it may at times be less so, and I may end up with hindsight wish I hadn’t been so generous with not leaping to assumptions in that regard. But then, I said much the same thing about Brawl in Cell Block 11.