AUTHOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published on the Cinematic Katzenjammer in March, 2019.
You know what movies could benefit from more of these days? Violence.
Not the kind where human beings are made of water balloons and discharge blood like fire hoses – the kind that’s disturbing, unnerving, difficult to witness and decidedly inhumane. It is with this in mind that we can examine Dragged Across Concrete, realistic yet novel – the most affecting movie I’ve seen in months and a surefire favorite for the year.
A successful drug bust by two cops, oldie Brett Ridgeman (Mel Gibson) and non-oldie Tony Italian-Surname (Vince Vaughn), is stopped short of being hailed a victory when a video of their boots on the perp’s neck goes viral. This is a suspension-level offense. Ridgeman lives in a neighborhood where his daughter can’t walk four blocks without black guys dumping orange soda on her, and his wife, herself a jaded ex-cop, can’t do much because of her MS. So he digs up an old contact to get a tip on a forthcoming crime, and then ropes his partner into a rip & run endeavor against it. Meanwhile, Henry Johns (Tory Kittles), an ex-con fresh out of the slammer comes home to a drug-addicted whore mother and a crippled baby brother living with big dreams despite her neglect. He too turns to crime with his longtime buddy Biscuit (Michael Jai White).
“Crime” in this case is represented by a single event, all violent atrocities leading up to it, and all violent atrocities around the getaway.
Circumstances are revealed early so to draw attention to the weight they each seek to lift from their shoulders. We have before us a credible take on the nature of modern urban social relationships that defies and surpasses the superficialities of race and identity. Regular Hollywood, having in recent years re-branded itself as a cohort rabble of white knights who say the N-word, wouldn’t appreciate or bear the patience for a picture like this. Nor would the “critics” – so many of whom are trendy hipster leftists who breathe political lighter fluid and couldn’t pass a Turing Test if Edmund Burke was giving them the answers. Dragged Across Concrete will be too much for them, and it may be too much for you too if you’re going into it expecting stylized splatter and characters who study quips and comebacks in note cards before leaving the house in the morning.
Actually, this film has the strongest dialogue I’ve heard in any movie since The Death of Stalin. Characters repeat certain choice phrases at telling moments, certain lines invoke the title of the film with all the irony, and other lines even comment on the film’s deliberate pacing. “Move like you in Fast Forward,” Henry tells his mother taking too long to get dressed and evict her guest. “A single red ant could’ve eaten that faster,” Ridgeman says to his partner after a hilarious scene involving an egg salad sandwich that serves as maybe the greatest metaphor for the cabin fever quality of police stakeouts.
It makes for a movie that is – by all accounts – an epic, even though it has a plot that would normally be a half-hour sequence in most other films. Writer/Director S. Craig Zahler makes the small things feel huge as he grinds the action down to a suspenseful crawl. That is, of course, his trademark style. If you’re familiar with his debut Bone Tomahawk, where Patrick Wilson spends half the movie limping and scuffing across the desert with a broken tibia, you know what you’re in for. But instead of recreating Unforgiven with twice the Indians and half the prostitutes as he did there, Zahler has made its counterpart. Gunshots startle, even when suppressed, as do the hard knocks with baseball bats. We’re here to look around outside and inside and think about how we got here. We’re here to mire in the humanity of characters with a common purpose as events send them on a slow-motion collision course.
Now imagine my review screeching to a rude halt exactly in the middle in order to talk about a girl I’ve never met before and saw once for a few minutes. That’s what it feels like in the film when (without spoiler) Jennifer Carpenter’s character is introduced in an extended cameo, characterized in a still-extending cameo, and then tossed aside like a trash bag that solidifies her existence in the film as nothing more than an extended cameo. There is a thematically related reason for it, but structure-wise it feels like stuffing a pillowcase with a new mattress. It almost feels like a mini-sequence of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. A movie this slow can’t afford to take a break. Neither can this review, so in the spirit of things I will continue now and not mention her again.
Dragged Across Concrete features the ex-cop and ex-con in interchangeable positions and examines their morality as individuals. It’s paced in a manner so to make nearly every scene its own ethical scenario. The characters come fully formed with troublesome histories but they’re nonetheless breaking bad in front of you. Their history is teased but deliberately unexplained so you can use your own imagination even while you hear occasional lines that seem almost calculated to arouse your antennas of outrage.
Yes, the film has that ironic political “problem” of being its own police brutality video not unlike the one that gets Ridgeman suspended in the film itself. Mel Gibson, oddly enough, doesn’t appear to be the focus of it this time, even if his presence in a Hollywood movie will never not be controversial. His character has a modernity problem and he spends the whole movie grappling with it, often to the detriment of his partner who keeps refusing the way out. If that alone isn’t an obvious enough parable of life’s mistaken choices and self-alienation, the film offers two more. For one, despite his boss’s good-faith suggestion for Ridgeman to spend time with his daughter, Ridgeman spends essentially one scene with her before going deadbeat. For two, the cops speak to each other in percentage figures as a kind of RoboCop-type code for sit-rep and target/threat assessment. It’s so absurd that it’s almost hilarious to see their efforts at such blow up in their faces. And their legs. And their guts.
This is Mel Gibson’s best acting work in years, and not just because his history as both a star and artist puts a certain informative shade on his character. He speaks platitudes against political correctness with exactly the conviction you’d expect him to, but also talks multiple times about the need to resist temptation, despite the fact that he fails repeatedly at this very thing. It all puts together an image of someone who can see the objective futility of his chosen path, but pursues it anyway at modest speeds because he thinks it’s going to lead to the missing piece. It’s what makes his chemistry with the others so good, even when they’re just pointing guns at each other.
Of course, as stated before, it helps that the dialogue pops the way it does. Violence is contextualized not just by good story pacing but also with clever use of descriptions. Realistic yet novel – if Gibson provides the novelty, Kittles provides its realism. Characters discuss multiple times what something smells like, which is a sense we have yet to use at the movies except to whatever extent you have to try not to notice the smelly guy sitting next to you.
What the descriptives and half-meta commentary add up to is a kind of personal struggle against their own inhumanity as they feel its pull strengthen the further they descend. Like in other Zahler films, evil is portrayed as imaginatively familiar yet as incommunicable as the abyss of darkness. Ridgeman, Tony, and Johns never quite get there – saved and even somewhat redeemed by the very things that push them on their fated path. They are dragged by social circumstance and modernity. In their panic and desperation, they drag themselves further. They drag us with them. And then they drag each other to a happy(?) ending.
Proficient as I like to think I am with the English language, I’m lacking in words to describe how effective I found it to be. Maybe it’s because I’m pessimistic and only appreciate human virtue on the smallest interpersonal level. Maybe it’s because I’m an old man who fears the ticking clock and the reality of my age catching up with my mentality. Maybe it’s because I so often feel that real life is worth all of its difficulty for a chance to feel the joy of a moment’s escape with good company.
All of that is recognized yet cautioned here. Dragged Across Concrete reveals S. Craig Zahler as the real thing, and a filmmaking career worth following with interest. For it takes a special kind of madness and mastery to make the experience of watching such a “drag” feel like resonance found.
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