S. Craig Zahler is one of our most fascinating working filmmakers, crafting genre pictures on the margins of Hollywood while seemingly utilizing a playbook he's re-writing with every work. Some critics liken the budding auteur to a Quentin Tarantino clone, thanks to his verbose scripts and unique narrative rhythms. Meanwhile, Zahler himself doesn't even think of his films as "genre", but rather hybrid movies that toss everything but the kitchen sink into the mix, depending on what they specifically call for. He's mostly right; though this writer would argue he operates in a mode similar to old school exploitation forefathers (but that's a whole other article). Bone Tomahawk starts off as a Budd Boetticher Western before descending into Hills Have Eyes-esque cannibal horror. Brawl In Cell Block 99 is a melodramatic prison movie sporting extreme gore. Even Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich and Asylum Blackout (both of which he penned but didn't helm) contain as much comedy and pathos as they do splatter.
"Most of my work has horror in it, and most of my work has comedy in it," the former Metal Manaics journalist told Riot Fest in a March interview. "To me, [the aforementioned Bone and Brawl shock set pieces] were just the horrific extremes I wanted those scenes to go to. If Bone Tomahawk were a Horror Western, there would’ve been many more horror sequences." Granted, authorial intent is a flimsy foundation to critically stand on (as a movie's text is all that truly matters), but when you sit down with one of Zahler's pictures, it’s pretty clear he’s not exactly bullshitting, either. This is outlaw cinema at its very finest, operating on a wavelength outside of the norm, dictated by a director who owns a distinct point of view, and doesn't seem to particularly care if you're 100% on board with his art or not.
Now comes Dragged Across Concrete, Zahler’s neo noir dirty cop movie, which sees Mel Gibson join the established "Zahler Players" from Cell Block 99 – Vince Vaughn, Don Johnson, Udo Kier, Jennifer Carpenter – for a lurid slice of pulp fiction in which two detectives charged with police brutality (Gibson and Vaughn) are the heroes (but not really). At the same time, an ex-con (Tory Kittles) is tangled up in a heist that finds the clever criminal slowly slipping into the deep end (yet still manages to keep his head above water at all times). In-between these bad hombres is a mysterious masked gunman, shooting up convenience stores and executing marks in non-descript vehicles, as he puts the pieces for a large job in play (becoming an iron-toting master chess player). Like strands in a dime store mystery, each plot is given a significant amount of screentime (seeing how the movie runs nearly three hours long), as these separate factions all spit knotty, heightened barbs at one another. In short, this is the filmmaker dialed to eleven, brazenly delivering another work that could only come from his hyper-precise design.
Zahler's vision of modern America is one of bitter divide, where life is almost inherently and belligerently unfair. Henry Johns (Kittles) would love to have a straight job that pays him six figures, but recognizes re-entering that world is impossible once you fucked up and ended up a number in the system. Now, the only way for him to get his mom to stop tricking and his wheelchair-bound brother (Myles Truitt) a better life is to take part in some clandestine operation his main man Biscuit (Michael Jai White) is setting up. On the other end of the city, Detectives Tony Lurasetti (Vaughn) and Brett Ridgeman (Gibson) just stopped another load of dope from hitting their local schools. Only, while restraining a suspect with a bit "too much iron" – a direct quote from their Lieutenant (Johnson) – they were caught on camera by a civilian. "Politics and cell phones, they're both annoying and everywhere," the boss says, as he collects their shields before a six-week suspension without pay.
Problem is, Ridgeman's got a wife suffering from MS (Laurie Holden) and daughter who keeps getting attacked by the local creeps. "I was never racist until we moved into this neighborhood," Brett’s wife tells him, and she's probably only relaying half the truth. They were probably bigoted before they settled in to Death Wish ‘Ville, but the family’s economic situation only heightened their deep seated frustrations. Tony's got it a little better, with his posh loft and successful girlfriend. Even with the suspension hanging over his head, he picks up a ring from his jeweler, with the intention of asking for her hand in marriage. However, Tony’s terrified he’s never going to be able to provide her with a future better than the present they're currently living in, and seeing how his old-timer partner hasn't been bumped a pay grade in twenty-seven years (thanks to his refusal to evolve with the times), it doesn't look like he ever will on a civil protector's salary.
Just like in Cell Block 99 – which saw Vaughn's bald, tattooed, blue collar lug turn dope runner in order to elevate his ass out of "white trash" status – Zahler sees his modern outlaws as noble figures, no different from Matthew Fox's posh gunslinger in Bone Tomahawk, who rides out with a search party after savages snatch the town doctor. These are cops built on antiquated masculine principals, established way before it was difficult to tell if it was “a man or woman singing on the radio”. They provide at any and all costs, as Ridgeman calls in a favor from an old criminal associate (Kier), who informs them of a safe house, where bad dudes might be stashing some dirty money from their latest off-the-grid endeavor. As any astute student of paperback noir can predict: these dicks are on a collision course with both the masked killer, and whatever shady business Henry's got himself mixed up in.
Contradictions are also what dominate Dragged Across Concrete, as not all the men in this movie are weathered, manly archetypes. A languid bit of melodrama that suddenly drifts into the picture's middle – as loan officer Kelly Summer (Carpenter) struggles to return to work after three months of maternity leave – brings a truckload of tension along with it. Another confounding injustice of existence seems to be postpartum depression, as a mother wants to do nothing but be by her new baby's side, yet because she makes more than her pretty, manicured husband, she's forced to go back to work. So, while his characters may see and comment upon this world in black and white, fate's guiding hand is rarely trustworthy. By the time Kelly arrives at her ultimate destination in this cautionary tale of hard men fighting for what they think they deserve, it’s just another brutal illustration of Zahler’s unyielding worldview.
Dragged Across Concrete is mostly a stakeout movie, which basically means it's also a weird hangout movie, where you're stuck for an abundance of time in Tony's Cadillac, as these two blue mugs try and spot their chance to swoop in and fleece these crooks of any cash they may not need. For some, this is going to be too much to ask, as Gibson leans into his gruff, leathery machismo, practically exhaling cigarette smoke with every line, even when there isn't a butt in his hand. Riding shotgun next to him, Vaughn is almost always eating (warning: there's a near two-minute unbroken take of him enjoying an egg salad sandwich), fretting about the morality of their current mission, or side-eyeing some chumps outside the car. It's like spending a working holiday with the gnarled, racist, sometimes charming uncles you never had, so admittedly an individual’s mileage may vary.
There's something almost Lynchian about Zahler's static camera set ups, as he often lets scenes play out in long takes, with the actors assuming a distinctive tough guy affectation when delivering his tangled dialogue. After all, even the savage beat downs in Cell Block 99 were captured via very direct angles. The central set pieces in Dragged Across Concrete are no different, as the majority of a bank heist is delivered via simplistic shot/reverse shot medium-wide language, and a sniper showdown in the film’s final act is drawn out to near unbearable levels of tension (as Zahler’s consummate DP Benji Bakshi gorgeously accents his frames with shadows, blue light and drifting fog). When the violence does pop off, human bodies are remorselessly mangled, heads and hands exploding due to large caliber gunfire, before one man’s stomach and intestines are removed in order to retrieve a valuable key. Though the extremity is somewhat toned down compared to Zahler’s previous works, SFX artist Tate Steinsiek is still happy to provide the splatter when the scenarios call for it.
When Dragged Across Concrete premiered at this year’s Venice Film Festival, some took rather intense issue with the movie’s odd point of view (with one review even going as far as labeling it a “vile, racist, Right Wing fantasy”). In fairness, Zahler doesn’t pick a side in this picture, but rather presents these characters as they are, and a few are vile racists. To indicate that the movie somehow glorifies these views feels like it isn’t taking the entire text into account, as throughout the film, several characters are punished for the actions and suffer for the despicable beliefs they hold. Granted, the casting of Gibson is a rather brash - some might even say "trollish" - choice (and a political act unto itself), there’s also judgment being doled out upon all, regardless of race or creed. If anything, the only guiding ethos that Zahler holds dear is nihilism, and how the struggle to succeed despite one’s station in life is often an intrinsic impossibility.
Yet this is what marks S. Craig’s Zahler’s movies as undeniably special. In an era where the vast majority of our entertainment is designed to check a number of boxes in order to be deemed “safe” for mass consumption, he’s not afraid to present us with characters whose belief systems collide with possibly the majority of the audience's. He pushes buttons and boundaries, knowing that there are going to be folks who storm out of auditoriums, thinking that just because you confront an audience with contemptible characters, that somehow instantly means that the author endorses their methods of existence. By placing these players at the front of morally hazy genre (excuse me, “hybrid”) cinema, it forces the viewer to parse intent and truly consider the violent happenings laid out before them. In short, Dragged Across Concrete is sure to piss off people who go in looking for an excuse to be mad, but it also has a lot to say about the current sociological state of America. We need more artistic renegades like Zahler, because movies would be boring without them. All hail the current king of outlaw cinema.
Dragged Across Concrete was presented as part of this year's Beyond Fest.