Synopsis – Once two overzealous cops get suspended from the force, they must delve into the criminal underworld to get their proper compensation.
My Take – Ever since he burst into the scene with his 2015 horror western, Bone Tomahawk, and followed it up with the brutal 2017 thriller, Brawl in Cell Block 99, novelist/writer/director S. Craig Zahler has been making quite the name for himself as a distinct storyteller. His films are slow-paced, character-driven exploitation movies that are peppered with eruptions of brutal violence and questionable politics.
It goes without saying that they aren’t for everyone, but like most unique filmmakers he too has garnered a dedicated fan base (including myself). And with his latest film, he’s delivered another slice of slow-burn pulp that’s bound to divide audiences and cause some controversy.
Like his previous films this too is painted with his signature elements: laconic dialogue, remorseless violence, a muted color palette, and the absence of anything resembling sentimentality abound. Here, these elements are elevated by career-best performances by leads Vince Vaughn and Mel Gibson.
However, with a 159 minutes, the film might not seem as accessible to everyone, considering it’s mostly centered on conversations between the characters, but rest assure you won’t get bored a second.
The story follows detectives Brett Ridgeman (Mel Gibson) and his partner Anthony Lurasetti (Vince Vaughn), who find themselves suspended without pay by Chief Lieutenant Calvert (Don Johnson) for six weeks after a video of them strong-arming a Latino perp finds its way to the media. Brett seeks to provide for his family as his wife (Laurie Holden) is suffering from multiple sclerosis and his daughter (Jordyn Ashley Olson) is continually bullied and assaulted in the neighborhood in which they reside.
Bitter due to his low position on the police totem pole and not wanting his family to suffer, Brett decides to move from upholding justice to thievery. Through an old contact, Friedrich (Udo Kier), he becomes aware of an upcoming score planned by a sociopathic drug dealer named Vogelman (Thomas Kretschmann). Together with Anthony, his ex-military partner, they decide to follow Vogelman and his associates, hoping to rob them and share the riches between them.
However this act puts them on a collision course with Henry (Tory Kittles), who has just returned from prison, and in order to provide for his mother, who has been prostituting herself to pay for the rent, and his paraplegic but intellectually gifted younger brother, joins his old neighborhood friend Biscuit (Michael Jai White), in helping to carry out a criminal score with Vogelman and his masked and murderous henchmen (Primo Allon and Matthew MacCaull). Nothing goes to plan however and soon the bodies and bullets begin to pile up.
If you’re aching for some mindless action, this is not the film for you. Unlike other films that feel the need to explain every little angle, this film lets the viewer fill in the blanks, and I found that very refreshing. From its very foundation, the film presents a multidimensional narrative featuring an array of protagonists and antagonists who all receive ample attention. The plot isn’t complex at all, but the filmspends the majority of the running time getting to know its characters in-depth, including those who add no real significance to the overall story.
Some throwaway characters are given a big introduction only to be met with a swift, sudden, merciless demise, but moments like this are what makes the film so compelling: even the bit-part members of its populace feel like three-dimensional human beings, and their brief stories are worth our emotional investment. Here, Zahler’s writing is equally as powerful, with themes coming full circle in an extremely nonchalant manner. And with director Zahler having a pension for excess in his films, it’s refreshing to understand his sly writing through dissection rather than exposition. He is also a master when it comes to humanizing some pretty morally questionable folks.
Every backstory here is a tale of people trying to escape a rut, and the actions and motivations of these criminals are given strong justification and sympathy. In one moving dialogue scene, we also become aware of the bond between Henry and his old friend Biscuit. Relationships are calmly defined, motivations are understood. We understand the stakes. I also can’t imagine any other filmmaker devoting so much emotional energy to a sequence featuring Jennifer Carpenter as a new mother reluctantly returning from maternity leave on the day her bank gets robbed. This is a filmthat wants us to root for two opposing factions who will eventually come to blows with each other.
Don’t be surprised if you find yourself hoping that everyone finds their happily ever after. The film takes many interesting approaches to what could have been a typical buddy-cop film. Yet what is most daring about this film is how intentionally slow it feels. Director Zahler fully embraces its quiet moments, and whenever we expect chaos to ensue in his typical fashion, it’s rather brief yet powerful.
Like its predecessors, the gore and violence here also feels visceral. However, this film portrays its bloodshed in a much different light. It is greatly toned down from that scene in Bone Tomahawk, yet it somehow holds similar impact. For the violence in this film is no longer out of pure savagery, but instead out of greed, which feels much uglier in the grim world portrayed.
The much talked about social commentary in the film is also Zahler’s most prevalent to date, and it is very poignant at times. At first, it remains unclear whether or not director Zahler agrees that adapting to the times is necessary. There are points that could even be taken as satirical from both perspectives, and it truly allows the viewer to make the decision for themselves rather than follow along. The final moments reveal his ideals in the context of the film, and it is an expertly crafted callback to an earlier moment in the film. It’s the embodiment of a filmmaker in full control of his work.
Yes, the run time is rather long, yet the film has plenty of comical moments littered throughout. Aside from character building, it allows the film to not come across as a fully drab look at reality. The performances are also excellent across the board here.
Whether or not you like Mel Gibson’s personal beliefs, there’s no denying his screen presence and range. Whether as a goofball, a heartthrob or an action hero, Gibson has succeeded in all areas. Currently he’s become quite adept in playing growling anti-heroes — such as in the underrated Blood Father. Say what you will about the man himself, but few actors play tortured and worn out as well as him.
Vince Vaughn has long strayed away from his goofball persona. Here he’s equally reliable as Ridgeman’s reluctant partner. Tory Kittles is another standout, and he’s also given some terrific novel-esque dialogue to chew while stealing every scene he’s in. Jennifer Carpenter, might be introduced later in the film but you immediately feel for her. In supporting roles, Laurie Holden, Michael Jai White, Thomas Kretscmann, Tattiawna Jones, Don Johnson, Udo Kier and Fred Melamed also excel. On the whole, ‘Dragged Across Concrete’ is an intense, brutal and gritty thriller that is both wildly unique and extremely entertaining.
Directed – S. Craig Zahler
Rated – R
Run Time – 159 minutes