S. Craig Zahler doesn’t care for norms, whether it be in filmmaking or culture. His first film, a horror/western hybrid that grossed out and thrilled fans in equal measure, was followed up by an exploitation film set in the world’s most brutal prison. For his latest effort, Dragged Across Concrete, he’s gone to extreme lengths to get a rise out of his audience. By choosing Mel Gibson to play a racist cop who’s taken off the force after a citizen catches him on tape assaulting a suspect, and the resulting footage puts his career in jeopardy – the parallels are obvious – Zahler is provoking the audience, but the reactions he’ll get are far from certain. “Depiction isn’t an endorsement” is a phrase used to combat criticism that events in films are glorified by their creators. Zahler goes out of his way to explain that Dragged Across Concrete doesn’t tell viewers how to feel about what is happening on screen, using the absence of a score as proof. However, much of this film’s considerable efforts to troll (casual racism, misogyny) makes that difficult to believe.
Perhaps the director just enjoys thumbing his nose at a time when movies have never been more crowd-sourced and focus-tested. In making Dragged Across Concrete, it feels like Zahler’s arguing that Sam Peckinpah and Don Siegel wouldn’t be able to make it in Hollywood if they worked today. One could argue they absolutely would succeed because those men knew how to pace their exploitation. When Brett Ridgeman (Mel Gibson) is suspended without pay by the chief lieutenant (Don Johnson), Zahler buttresses the scene with a leisurely chat about breakfast specials at Bert’s diner. The pumpernickel bread, specifically. When talented actors exchange well-crafted dialogue, small moments can be a pleasure but Dragged Across Concrete is deliberate to the point of being ponderous. No creative oversight can mean wonders for writer-directors, though for Zahler it results in a three hour film with an entire act begging to be left on the cutting room floor.
It never occurred to Ridgeman to become a criminal, but when circumstances change, he starts scouting drug deals to make some quick cash. Ridgeman spent years maintaining the thin blue line, but that line has now blurred. If you suspect that Zahler’s about to make a statement on the American Dream, think again, his thesis is that the wrong people keep getting ahead. Ridgeman’s partner Anthony (Vince Vaughn) is reluctant to start skimming off drug dealers, no matter how low his cash flow, but his obligation as a partner carries him in just as deep as Ridgeman. Stake out a hotel room for a few days and make enough money to change their lives, that was supposed to be the deal. When Ridgeman, Anthony, and Henry (Tory Kettles) collide, the consequences are far worse than any man imagined. The dominating theme of Zahler’s filmography is chasing morally-ambiguous characters down rabbit holes. Each time I’m a little surprised at how much darker the hole can get.
Watching Dragged Across Concrete, you get the sense that Zahler intended for his large ensemble to click much better than the final product. The film begins with an extended prologue with Kettles’ Henry out of prison and with his home in disarray. Henry needs a big job to put everything right. When he and Biscuit (Michael Jai White) are given the offer to drive some heavily-armed bank robbers out of town, he doesn’t even hesitate to accept. Henry was created as a foil of sort for Ridgeman, and Kettles does well with his material, but Henry’s character feels like Zahler attempting to back out of his earlier button-pushing dialogue. Worse yet, are the presence of Jennifer Carpenter and Fred Melamed, though, are marked by wanton cruelty and gruesome violence, but not any purposeful reason to be there. By doing so, Zahler undercuts all of his effort to establish the players that matter. The film desperately tries to provide background context for the motivations of everyone involved, and while that’s commendable, where does it end? Does the grocer being held up by a psychopath covered head to toe in tactical gear (Primo Allon) get his screentime extended 20 minutes too?
Once the film reaches its harrowing third act, the earlier issues of inconsistent pacing can almost be forgiven. The tension is escalated to painstaking levels that will leave viewers shaken. The climactic finish makes one wonder why the rest of the film couldn’t be so taut and effective. Despite the loathsome characteristics of Ridgeman and Anthony, Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn can still draw reserves of sympathy. Extended stakeouts, featuring a lot of waiting and egg salad sandwiches, almost rival The Nice Guys in terms of levity and repartee. Vaughn may get some of the best lines in the film, but Gibson carries the film through its many doldrums. In an age where intellectual property is king, Gibson’s performance is proof that stars still matter. Ridgeman isn’t redeemed by his actions, but his arc is still fascinating to see develop.
Cut down to a manageable length, inside of Dragged Across Concrete is a subversive thriller about the survival of the fittest, and the types of monsters that benefit from such a worldview. If the film weren’t so frustratingly abstract for its own novelty, it would be easier to recommend Dragged Across Concrete. As it’s constructed, this one is a little too lazy and pleased with itself to be anything other than fodder for Mr. Zahler himself.