London Film Festival 2018: First Look Review – Dragged Across Concrete

With his first two films, writer/director S. Craig Zahler established a distinctive voice. Working in exploitation cinema but unbound by the genre’s usual brief running times, he has stretched out his narratives, using the extra running time to dive more deeply into his characters than is typical in exploitation and to play with the genre. In Bone Tomahawk he morphed The Searchers into Cannibal Holocaust, with Brawl in Cell Block 99 he spent a good deal of time building both sympathy and rhythm before delivering on the title’s promise. Dragged Across Concrete is his longest film to date, and another expansive telling of a fairly simple tale.

Cops Ridgeman (Mel Gibson) and Lurasetti (Vince Vaughn) are suspended from duty for excessive force, but Ridgeman needs money to move his wife (Laurie Holden) and daughter out of a bad neighbourhood. Acting on a tip, Ridgeman convinces his partner to help him rob what they believe is a drug dealer, instead they stumble into the aftermath of a bloody robbery.

Where Zahler is all but unique in exploitation cinema is in the way he takes time to set up his characters both minor and major, so many characters here feel like they have a life outside the film. Ridgeman and Lurasetti are pretty similar to each others, their relationship as partners is clearly longstanding and their understanding and friendship obviously runs deep. Both are nonchalant about breaking excessive force rules, casually racist and otherwise politically incorrect. Lurasetti counts as the morally upstanding one because he doesn’t want to kill people on this unofficial job unless absolutely required. More surprising is the amount of development afforded to the likes of Tory Kittles and Michael Jai White as childhood friends who end up as getaway drivers in the robbery. The reminiscence between them of a childhood birthday party is almost incongruously touching in the middle of this dark and violent film. The long interlude to introduce Jennifer Carpenter’s character may be an obvious baiting of an emotional hook, but it humanises a character we would never usually think of as a full person in one of these films, and it also provides the bulk of a gloriously funny performance from Fred Melamed as the over-effusive bank manager welcoming her back to work after maternity leave.

The people Zahler is least interested in here are the bad guys. Most of them have neither faces nor names (Black Gloves, Grey Gloves). They speak the same terse, stylised and highly entertaining dialogue as the rest of the characters, but they are essentially bodies for Ridgeman and Lurasetti to face off with.

As Ridgeman, a grizzled, ‘tache wearing, Mel Gibson is better than he’s been in years, decades even. He clearly sees that this is a juicy part; a chance at the kind of career relaunch he’s been waiting for in front of the camera but, while he grabs it with both hands, he’s careful to underplay the role. Ridgeman is a dinosaur and a corrupt cop, but Gibson plays him not as some kind of crazy or reactionary figure but, as the dialogue says, as a man who doesn’t change with the times. There’s a measured approach to the performance – exemplified in the many dialogues about the percentages of situations – that shows you how Ridgeman would have been an effective cop for 30 plus years. If Vince Vaughn, while he’s excellent, isn’t as revelatory here, that’s for two reasons; first he’s ceding much of the spotlight to Gibson (which is entirely appropriate for the characters) but secondly he already had his redefining moment with Zahler in Brawl on Cell Block 99.

For the most part, Gibson and Vaughn are adept at making us root for these characters despite ourselves. The only time that changes is in a couple of moments, addressed almost directly to camera, that touch either on Gibsons own personal troubles or on politics and ‘political correctness’ more generally. I’m not quite sure how to interpret this. Is Zahler merely stating his politics, outright telling us what we should take from the film, or is he winking at us, stating down the barrel of the camera the most objectionable things his characters believe and daring us still to like them? Either reading is valid, but whichever is correct these moments, unsubtle even for this film, are a problem because they are such naked commentary and so directly addressed to us that they lift us out of the film’s world for a while. From its title on down, Dragged Across Concrete is a dark vision in all ways, including visually. On occasion the visuals are so dark that we’re straining to see, it’s as if Zahler and DP Benji Bakshi have elected to paint exclusively in the blacks and greys that represent the film’s moral tone.

For about an hour, Zahler sets his pieces and develops his characters, but it’s in the film’s second half that everything kicks off, drawing the characters together and escalating both tension and violence. Again, the time taken is striking; where another film would have a car chase, Zahler has several long sequences of Ridgeman and Lurasetti following behind the people they are tracing, for a long time completely in the dark about what they are walking in to. The action does occasionally delve into the staggeringly graphic violence for which Zahler is known, notably in a sequence in which a swallowed key has to be recovered, but what’s really notable about how he treats violence here is the impact of a single bullet; we’re used to characters who can say ‘it’s only a flesh wound’ and shrug off injury, here we see the sheer damage that a bullet can do, impacts are felt viscerally.

I don’t think Zahler intends Dragged Across Concrete as some sort of state of the nation statement (at least, I hope he doesn’t, given the politics here). However, even if he does, it’s easy enough for me to put that to one side and enjoy the film as a dark, nihilistically violent, and uncommonly character driven exploitation crime drama. It’s a furrow that Zahler has now ploughed three times and has made completely his own and I can’t wait to see where he takes us next.

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