I don’t really want to talk about the controversy surrounding Dragged Across Concrete. Not because it’s not worth talking about – the film’s precarious balance between depicting racist characters and failing to acknowledge the implicit racism in its structure is certainly worth exploring – but simply because better thinkers than I have already written better analyses than I ever could. (I’d specifically recommend K. Austin Collins’ piece for Variety.)
Director S. Craig Zahler – helming his third feature following Bone Tomahawk and Brawl in Cell Block 99 – isn’t especially interested in the controversy, either. His interest in politics is secondary to his interest in crafting a spare, stylish crime thriller (which partially explains the controversy – without a clear thesis, the film’s more problematic elements fester in a way they wouldn’t in a more overtly political film).
Dragged Across Concrete is a clear successor of dirty cop neo-noirs – think To Live and Die in L.A., Copland or Dark Blue – with the centrality of systemic corruption stripped away to prioritise the procedural mechanics. In many ways, its distancing, almost surrealistic aesthetic recalls late Michael Mann; like Mann’s later works, Concrete has a dash of the Lynchian to it, framing moralistic über-masculinity in a way that seems to pervert it.
The difference is that Zahler avoids Mann’s almost fetishistic portrayal of violence, a feature of his films that tended to keep me at arm’s length. It’s not that Zahler is averse to violence – far from it! Across his three films, he’s portrayed some of the most gruesome examples of ultraviolence seen outside of proper paracinema. But there’s an ugliness to the violence that feels cultivated rather than incidental; his bursts of gore (rarer here than his two prior films) are at once shocking and genuinely disturbing.
The gravitas associated with Zahler’s representations of violence is what sustains the film across an intimidating 159 minute runtime: an eternity for an exploitation film. As suspended cops Ridgeman (Mel Gibson) and Lurasetti (Vince Vaughn) contemplate and, eventually, enact a convoluted plan to rob a crew of nogoodniks – themselves plotting an elaborate bank robbery – the tension gradually and inexorably escalates. This is achieved without the traditional techniques. There’s no score, while the pacing and cutting remains sedate even as the stakes continue to rise. Rather, we’re just allowed to luxuriate in the filth born of the realisation that violence, death and betrayal is inevitable – and it won’t be easy to watch.
It’s hard to miss the subtext associated with the casting of Gibson, especially when a shot of the actor in his pretty-boy Lethal Weapon-era briefly appears. He was a superstar, best known for playing a cop, and today he represents the worst in Hollywood bigotry. But I don’t want to talk about the controversy. I can say that his performance here is perfectly-tuned for the film. Like the carefully-lit cinematography, on the surface Gibson’s character is organised and put together, his continual approximation of the odds of success belying an aura of supreme confidence. Yet as much as his gravelly voice maintains its authority throughout, the film relentlessly erodes his sense of supremacy as the tension counts to mount.
The film is too long. If nothing else, physiologically you can only sustain tension for so long as a viewer – after an hour and a half or so, the adrenaline fades and boredom seeps in. Certainly, a finer artist might have excised a few minutes here or there to maintain the chilly tone without detracting from the intended potency of the climax. But as much as you can critique the film’s political failings – which go hand-in-hand with narrative shortfalls, particularly in its closing minutes – you can’t deny the captivating atmosphere that Zahler has created. Racist or not, Dragged Across Concrete is the kind of compelling ordeal rare in contemporary filmmaking.