Dragged Across Concrete (2018)
S. Craig Zahler's third film casts a net that is, at once, wider and deeper.
Zahler's last film was a brutal pulpy piece that included just enough character details and development for you to sink your teeth into (and get broken later). His new film is bigger - both in its length and its budget.
Brawl in Cell Block 99 was made on a 4 million budget, his latest has 15 million dollars. Not a huge budget when compared to many Hollywood releases recently, but yes, much bigger than his last.
Luckily for us, Zahler does not go all indulgent. The threat of perverse violence here has the same perverse pull, the characters mouth the same elaborate dialogue that surprises that it is coming from this person, the viewpoint is as apolitical as it possibly can be. But it's as if the bigger length of the film, at more than 150 minutes, has more room for humanity in all its stinking glory.
Since these films, in a lot of ways, are quintessentially American, Zahler knows the allusions are enough to make the politics sharper without any preaching.
In Brawl in Cell Block 99 , the images were enough to evoke a darker American realm: Vince Vaughn being introduced to instruments of torture beneath a hidden level of an American Prison, evoked the Abu Ghraib cells.
Here, in the opening scene, two White cops, Brett Ridgeman (Mel Gibson) and Anthony Lurasetti (Vince Vaughn) use excessive force while arresting a Hispanic drug dealer. A neighbor films the whole interaction on his cellphone, the video goes viral and the cops are subsequently suspended.
Though the action against the cops is deserved, Zahler, from this very first scene manages to make them come across as likable. Consider this a deliberate provocation or a comment on how characters in buddy cop films are casually racist anyway and here they are simply being presented as they are without the genre thrills attached. He seems to say that the buddy cop is already a tainted domain that has been loved and enjoyed by all. So why fret when some details are sharpened?
Cinema (read American) audience has forgiven a lot worse than an arrest with excessive force. It just has to be tempered with with wit, entertainment, and engaging stars . Dirty Harry series, anyone? Or how about Gibson's own offerings like the Lethal Weapon series.
The footage filmed by the neighbor of the cops is only half of the story as they later proceed to torture the arrested man's girlfriend, Rosalinda (Lianett Borego). They don't allow her to dress and make her stand under a shower in just her underwear to elicit more information. Their witty banter notwithstanding, these are some repulsive people.
They are also compelling to watch.
The two partners display no regret as they are handed unpaid suspensions. In fact, their superior Lt. Calvert (Don Johnson) sympathizes with them and blames "the times".
Zahler not only gets us to enjoy these cops' company but also manages to evoke some sympathy for them.
Ridgeman lives with his wife, Melanie (Laurie Holden), an ex-cop who suffers from multiple sclerosis, and his daughter, who is harassed on her way to school by colored juvie offenders. Melanie says that she never knew that she was a racist until she moved to this neighborhood. Zahler's cinema is engaging because he can make his characters say what his audience have probably thought in passing but have been too ashamed to admit. It is often a cry against the "woke" sentiments of today that are often revealed of hypocrisy. In this sense, this film reminded me of the politics of Get Out. But whereas the latter stressed this element by making a part of the plot, Zahler's film stresses it by omission.
Here, the tensions that just simmered beneath the pulp of his earlier films are allowed to come out at the forefront.
Poor and feeling wronged, the two cops decide to rob a bunch of robbers - a particularly cruel bunch being led by Voggelman (Thomas Krestchmann).
As the deliberately paced narrative progresses, we realize that the angst shared by the two cops at the center of the film actually American working-class discontent that does not discriminate between skin colors. Henry (Tory Kittles) shares the same sense of wrong treatment when he gets out of jail and has no intention of "going straight". He shares a special bond with his wheelchair-bound little brother.
Despite meticulous attention to detail, the film feels tight and tightly wound. As Zahler brings the two parallel stories together he ratches up the suspense and the only thing the audience is aware of is that things will end up bloody.
Gibson gives one of his best performances in a character that seems to be an almost mirror-image of his more recent antics. Zahler invites him to find injustice in the way he was treated in Hollywood and Gibson delivers in a tough, yet moving performance. Vaughn, who was excellent in Brawl gives a strong performance here as a man divided by love for his girlfriend (whom he is considering proposing) and loyalty towards his 'pardner'.
Along with Vaughn, Udo Kier, Don Johnson, Thomas Melamed. The most memorable is the track of Jennifer Carpenter. She plays a mother suffering from debilitating fear that if she joins her job back, something would happen to her newborn baby. The inclusion of this brief track is powerful and made me think that, Zahler has a terrific Lovecraftian horror film inside him.
How do you recognise wasted moments in a film as wilfully slow-burn as this? Everything seems a build-up to the long climactic shoot-out that dramatically forges new alliances and further stresses the racial paranoia that has engulfed everyone. This leads up to a conclusion that is hopeful but also provides one of the leads with a dangerous lesson: crime pays.
It is this cyclical nature of greed and redemption that fuels crime, but luckily for us, it is this duality and conflict that also energises Zahler's work.