The use of English has become much more terse in recent times - not just in literature, where "spare prose" is invariably seen as a virtue, but also in public speaking, journalism, movies (where the amount of dialogue per minute has, on average, halved in the last fifty years), and even everyday conversation. There's no sense bemoaning this, yet I love the more elaborate use of language in the older style. I love reading it and hearing it.
So, it seems, does prolific, multi-disciplined director, novelist, screenwriter and musician S. Craig Zahler.
Having watched and devoured Zahler's two previous films, 'Bone Tomahawk' and 'Brawl in Cell Block 99', I was eagerly anticipating 'Dragged Across Concrete'. I'm happy to report that Zahler hasn't mellowed - his latest film, a throwback police potboiler about a couple of racist loose cannon cops, is incredibly mean-spirited and provocative to the tenth degree. Zahler wants to press your buttons and he wants to do it in the most unsubtle ways possible.
Brett Ridgeman (Mel Gibson, 'Hacksaw Ridge') and Anthony Lurasetti (Vince Vaughn, 'Fighting with my Family') are a pair of police officers working the urban beat in the fictitious city of Bulwark. Older and more prone to doing "whatever it takes", Ridgeman becomes unnecessarily rough with a suspect during a drug bust, using his foot to jam the man's face into a fire escape. They also pour cold water on and mock the suspect's partially-deaf girlfriend. The former act is caught on video, and the two men are called before their superior, Lieutenant Calvert (Don Johnson, 'Book Club'). Both men are suspended without pay in order to appease the media. With Ridgeman's wife unable to work due to illness and Lurasetti preparing to propose to his fiancée, the men resolve to use their criminal connection, Friedrich (Udo Kier, 'American Animals'), who they have developed through their time in law enforcement to make cash that will sustain them until their suspensions are lifted.
Meanwhile, recently released ex-con Henry Johns (Tory Kittles, 'Olympus Has Fallen'), hoping to finance a better life for his drug-addicted, prostitute mother and his video game-playing wheelchair-bound little brother, joins his childhood friend Biscuit (Michael Jai White, 'The Dark Knight') as getaway drivers and lookouts for a gang of ruthless bank robbers. Ridgeman and Lurasetti tail the crew, quickly identifying the telltale signs of the planned bank robbery; though Lurasetti considers calling the robbery in, Ridgeman convinces him to allow them to carry out the job before robbing them in turn.
Despite these crisscrossing plotlines, 'Dragged Across Concrete' is actually a rather straightforward film, albeit one filled with eccentric choices: talky Tarantino-esque monologues; slow, rambling scenes punctuated with explosive gore; and a whopping 160-minute running time. In theory, that sort of dawdling ought to be a drag. Who wants their trash delivered at the glacial pace of an art film?
Zahler is such an imaginative writer and skilled director, however, that his films feel exactly as long as they need to be. About 85% of 'Dragged Across Concrete' is just one or two men sitting in a car talking to each other, and yet it never becomes tedious or dull. It's the 'Before Sunrise' of dirty cop films. It's genuinely thrilling. Then, when the action does start, it's so involving that the tension spikes (and it's not mindless action either).
'Dragged Across Concrete' boasts a capable, experienced cast, without whom the already-slow pace of the film would feel interminable. Zahler takes his time with almost every scene - for example, letting a sequence of Lurasetti noisily chomping on an egg salad sandwich during a stakeout play out in its irritating entirety ("A single red ant could have eaten it faster," his partner rasps). What makes this movie work is the stillness the characters inhabit. We can see their whole lives - these men are broken, and all they've ever known is violence. "It's bad like lasagna in a can," says Lurasetti.
Zahler's script is a strange hybrid, combining anachronistic formality with a modern penchant for non-sequitur. There are a bunch of terrific, laconic one-liners but the role mostly requires actors who can convey stoic calculation. The entire cast delivers, with Tory Kittles turning in the most charismatic performance.
About 85% of this film is just one or two men sitting in a car talking to each other, and yet it never becomes tedious or dull. It's the 'Before Sunrise' of dirty cop films. It's genuinely thrilling.
Gibson tears into the juicier dialogue with relish, waxing eloquent about the logistics of his predicament and the percentages of every outcome. 'Bone Tomahawk' had a similar way of delivering setups and payoffs in the dialogue, such as nifty language callbacks for every character - in 'Dragged Across Concrete' we hear Vaughn's Lurasetti using an insult that we later learn he got from his girlfriend. His warm relationship with Gibson's Ridgeman brings depth to both of their characters, something that the antagonists could perhaps have used a little more of.
The bank robbers are a lot like the cannibal tribe from 'Bone Tomahawk' or the bikers from Panos Cosmatos' 'Mandy'. Zahler is great at depicting menacing villains who are about as inhuman as humans can get, more like robots or literal killing machines. The movie always keeps them at arm's length, but what you see and hear from them gives the strong impression that watching a day in the life of one of these guys would make you vomit. There is something extra-menacing about their sophisticated speech and strict adherence to proper grammar. "The blood is gratis", one robber remarks upon handing over the gore-stained money he stole after blasting a convenience store clerk with a machine gun.
When the violence does appear, it's stark, visceral, and harrowing - Zahler both lays on the gore and captures it with dispassionate medium-take clarity and zero background music. In 'Dragged Across Concrete', yes, people are dragged across concrete. It literally happens several times. The title's metaphorical meaning is spelled out explicitly in dialogue when Lurasetti says: "Right now, we're heading into new territory. Foggy grey landscape, but I know all of my limits, but maybe not yours. So, before I build a killing instrument that I last used in the army, I wanna hear that you don't plan on executing a human being to facilitate a robbery. That boundary is reinforced in steel concrete."
The most controversial aspect of the film is the way it handles race relations and plays off Mel Gibson's toxic reputation. The two policemen lament a world where "political correctness" runs amok, where men sound like women, where being labelled a racist can ruin your career. "I don't politic, and I don't change with the times, and it turns out that shit's more important than good, honest work," Ridgeman complains. This could be interpreted as Zahler attempted to lionise Gibson, but the film makes it clear that the inability of these men to adapt to change is a fatal character flaw, rather than a virtue.
There is a scene in 'Dragged Across Concrete' where two characters are in a car, listening to music. Some people might describe the music they are listening to as "smooth jazz", which is definitely unsavoury and unpleasant, but also a disservice. "Modal jazz" would be the descriptor I'd use: sour, dissonant and discordant stuff that invokes neon-lit city streets and dingy, smokey bars and whiskey. Only jazz fans will be able to tell the difference between the two styles, in much the same way that people familiar with Zahler's films will more easily be able to differentiate his latest from the milieu of modern B crime movies.
With its moral ambiguity and explicit violence, 'Dragged Across Concrete' is ugly, bleak, brutal and vile in the best ways possible. The film's true target audience, though, is patient connoisseurs of highbrow-lowbrow combo platters who are eager to watch a cast of bad men navigate a slow-motion descent into hell. Understandably, it's not everybody's cup of tea, but if you're already a fan of S. Craig Zahler's oeuvre, elaborate dialogue and exploding heads, you're in for a treat.