Where most filmmakers would cut, Zahler keeps the take rolling, to ratchet tension and (perhaps thanks to his novelistic leanings) to shift the tonal gears to a degree that’s cinematically inspired…
S. Craig Zahler is no slouch when it comes to creation: he’s published six novels, performs in metal band Realmbuilder (and black metal band Charnel Valley) and he’s sold or optioned twenty-one completed screenplays.
Since his directorial debut with the brutally lyrical western-horror Bone Tomahawk, Zahler has also tackled prison drama Brawl in Cell Block 99, displaying a penchant for infusing genre staples with a steely sense of B-movie exploitation, languid character development and graphic violence.
This continues unabated with Dragged Across Concrete, telling numerous inter-locking character arcs stitched together in a larger story, like an exploitation-infused version of Heat.
Henry Johns (Tory Kittles) has just been released from jail. His friend Biscuit (Michael Jai White) attempts to recruit him for a crew who are about to pull a bank job. Meanwhile, two ‘old-school’ police officers, Brett Ridgeman (Mel Gibson) and Tony Lurasetti (Vince Vaughn), struggle to make sense of political and social cultural shifts, and of what is acceptable in the line of duty.
Ridgeman is filmed on a phone using excessive force while arresting a suspect, and the pair are placed on suspension without pay by their Chief Lt. (Don Johnson).
Ridgeman fears the financial pinch: his wife Melanie (Laurie Holden) suffers from multiple sclerosis, while daughter Sara (Jordan Ashley Olson) is bullied by local black kids, motivating Ridgeman to find cash for medical expenses and to move his family to a better neighbourhood.
Lurasetti has plans to propose to his girlfriend Denise (Tattiawna Jones), but this seems jeopardised by the uncertainty of being laid off from the force.
In need of fast money, Ridgeman pitches his partner a heist. The plan? Stealing from bad guys. Although in this case the bad guy is a little more than the pair have bargained for – euro-trash crim Lorentz Vogelmann (Thomas Kretschmann) and his brutally psychopathic hired goons.
The setup is pregnant with potential, the execution is a little more problematic.
Zahler’s strangely formal and stilted dialogue worked brilliantly framed against the western genre setting, it works less so here.
Gibson is especially low key and nuanced in what amounts to one of his better turns of recent years. Our knowledge of his real-world, tabloid-strewn past sits a little weirdly against his character’s casually racist, misogynistic and world-weary manner. As a result, his performance vibrates with meta energy.
It’s no accident that Gibson’s gearing up to helm The Wild Bunch remake, as the ‘old school machismo out of step with a changing world’ thematic clearly resonates with him.
Vaughn is in the same territory he was in with True Detective season two, staring intensely and delivering mouthfuls of word-salad that even Tarantino would’ve probably binned after the first draft. “This is a bad idea” Tony says at one point, “It’s bad for you and it’s bad for me. It’s bad like lasagne in a can.”
We’re sure Zahler thought that was a great line while sitting at his writer’s desk but the musicality of it leaving an actor’s mouth is jarring.
All that said, Zahler IS a talented filmmaker, there are artfully directed robberies and tense atmospheric shoot outs that impress, all capably captured by Cinematographer Benji Bakshi’s camera and its unflinching, static gaze.
Overall, the only pressing issue with Dragged Across Concrete is that there’s a lot of fat that could’ve been cut; it’s an unwieldy two hour and forty minutes in duration. Where most filmmakers would cut, Zahler keeps the take rolling, to ratchet tension and (perhaps thanks to his novelistic leanings) to shift the tonal gears to a degree that’s cinematically inspired; at other times though, it’s a tone-deaf editorial middle-finger to the audience.