You simply can never know what is going to happen next in Zahler’s pulp-fiction exploitation tale that is a brutal, uncompromising, unapologetic, and often repugnant journey that is compulsively watchable.
You can say what you want about S. Craig Zahler; His films are born with that mindset that most of his characters are a direct reflection of that concept. He doesn’t coddle you and simply shows you what the world is offering; take it or leave it. Zahler’s Dragged Across Concrete can be brutal, disgusting, repugnant, stomach-turning, and the farthest thing from altruistic as one film can be. The only problem it is so compulsively watchable, you can’t turn away, even for a second, and may start to hate yourself for thinking he may have taken exploitation films to the level of an art-form.
Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn star as a pair of detectives who take down a drug dealer, effectively removing hundreds of thousands of dollars of hard-narcotics off the city streets; the problem is, Detective Brett Ridgeman (Mel Gibson) used his foot to jam the dealer’s face into the steel fire escape, and later mocked his deaf girlfriend in front of his partner and ex-vet Detective Anthony Lurasetti (Zahler’s player Vince Vaughn), which isn’t in the handbook of proper protocols and procedure. Since you can’t Yelp your local police department with a complaint, it was, of course, videotaped from a neighbor’s phone, causing their boss (Don Johnson) to suspend them. He is worried the man he worked side by side with has lost his humanity. Ridgeman has a daughter who is being harassed daily on her way back from school, while his wife (The Walking Dead’s Laurie Holden) has multiple sclerosis, and the bills are piling up even with a steady paycheck. Lurasetti has his own issues, trying to get up the nerve and the scratch to give his long-time girlfriend an engagement ring.
What’s the next logical step? Besides fighting the complaint with his local union rep, Ridgeman uses a tip from an informant to get wind of a robbery taking place, in the hopes of intercepting the loot after they steal it. After all, he didn’t commit the crime, he isn’t a peace officer anymore, not right now anyway; he is just collecting on a robbery he had nothing to do with and has “the skills and the right to acquire proper compensation.” That’s the setup, along with equal treatment storylines that include a recently released ex-con (Tory Kittles, who is fantastic here) who teams up with his childhood best friend Biscuit (Michael Jai White) to get some quick cash. There is also a mother (Jennifer Carpenter) who is struggling to leave her newborn home and go back to work, while a mysterious man is robbing businesses with a high-powered gun, and his identity is always cloaked in black.
The script was also written by Zahler and takes a deliberately slow pace, which is needed, after several moments of excessively violent scenes that play out like a hard-boiled crime novel. His films are stylized only with the fact that his characters are all remarkably self-assured and comfortable in their own skin while making no apologies for it. Are there racists in Dragged Across Concrete? Sure. Do bad things happen to good people? Absolutely. Does he push the limits of the viewer’s ability to stomach exploitation in film? You got that right. The difference is when you compare it to others of its ilk, it doesn’t sugarcoat a single moment of it and could care less how you feel about what unfolds in front of you. It is merely allowing you to see what types of people, actions, and results subsist in a world that is constantly trying to cover your eyes from the truth, which is remarkably honest. The experience of making it through a film that you simply can never predict what is going to happen next, which is so rare since most Hollywood films play out exactly how you expect, is a joy in itself. In a way, you might wear it as a badge of honor for finishing it.
It’s almost appropriate to cast Gibson in the role of the burnt-out cop with a grudge against society, considering his own repugnant history, yet you can’t help admiring this is Gibson’s finest performance since staring in Jodie Foster’s The Beaver. Then there is Tory Kittles, whose claim-to-fame has been as a regular cast member in such shows as True Detective and Colony. He is a revelation here, as a man who, just like Gibson’s Ridgeman, is looking for a better life for his family. His character is fed up, motivated, forward thinking, patient, focused, while, in a way, the exact mirror of Ridgeman, with the only difference being circumstance and the color of their skins. Then there is an arresting cameo from Jennifer Carpenter that leaves you speechless without the ability to move for minutes; I’m still not over it.
Zahler has the innate ability to make you not want to but unable to not watch scenes that you don’t necessarily want to see without being able to turn away. There is one other filmmaker who has consistently done that over the years, and that is Martin Scorsese, who once, in Casino, had a pair of eyeballs pop out of a man’s head when it was placed in a clamp by Joe Pesci. That scene can’t compare to anything Zahler has put on film, which includes Bone Tomahawk, Brawl in Cell Block 99, and now in Dragged Across Concrete.
There is a storyline that seems to be out of place, and the result is excessive for the main purpose of being gratuitously violent. The fact of the matter is, in watching nearly 3,500 films in my time, I have never seen this done before and set up in that manner. In a way, it’s brilliant, and completely fits the tone of the film and the message behind it (while I have a general disdain for the MPAA hypocritical moral censorship that has a very little set standard, I was genuinely shocked this version didn’t get more of a fight from them), while being stomach-churning. There are so many visually arresting scenes in Dragged Across Concrete, you won’t be able to shake them from your memory anytime soon.
Dragged Across Concrete is the best of its kind since, quite frankly, Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, with several brilliant narratives that come and go as they please. While not equal to that film (minus the Tarantino dialogue that captures how people really talk, while Concrete settles into a stoic, hard-boiled approach) this is Zahler’s finest work that may be unfairly characterized as right-wing or racist for the interest of “click-baiting.” This film isn’t driving a narrative of political issues or having any hidden agendas that have to do with the issues I described above. It is simply showing you there are people in this world who you may find reprehensible, their actions equally so, while not asking you to give a care in the world of what is going to happen to any of them. You merely must coexist in the world Zahler created right in front of you.
M.N. Miller has been a film and television writer for Ready Steady Cut since August of 2018 and is patiently waiting for the next Pearl Jam album to come out.