To label the films of writer-director S. Craig Zahler as “not for everyone” would be a vast understatement. His previous efforts, Bone Tomahawk and Brawl in Cell Block 99, are shocking works of hard-boiled exploitation. They’re movies made for a very specific type of film nerd: intensely gruesome, morally reprehensible and, at 132 minutes each, languorously paced. Zahler’s characters are unsavory people who inhabit ugly, unforgiving worlds. Now we have Dragged Across Concrete, whose 159-minute runtime and repugnant violence will make this feel like an endurance test for some. Those with less-conventional pallets will be rewarded with a downright strange, sprawling piece of pulp. It’s a bit like an Elmore Leonard crime novel crossbred with Twin Peaks: The Return.
Whereas Brawl in Cell Block 99 followed a violent brute toward whom one could at least garner some sympathy, viewers will have a tougher time identifying with crooked police officers Brett Ridgeman and Anthony Lurasetti (played by Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn, respectively). When we first meet them, they’re arresting a Latinx drug dealer with casual brutality and tormenting his nude girlfriend to get information. Their strong-arm tactics are caught on camera by a civilian, and soon the two are facing suspension without pay.
Gibson and Vaughn’s desperation eventually leads them to cross paths with the recently paroled Henry Johns (Tory Kittles) and Biscuit (Michael Jai White), who are planning a bank robbery. The disgraced police officers plan to hijack their heist and keep the loot for themselves. Of course, this is the type of movie where things must continually go south, and the intense final hour details the disastrous results of both parties’ plans.
“Being branded a racist in today’s public forum is like being accused of communism in the ‘50s,” Don Johnson’s police lieutenant tells them both. That dialogue is sure to produce annoyed murmurs amongst the critical community and to be fair, it’s often hard to gauge the sincerity with which Zahler writes these lines. He’s been charged with pandering to the worst tendencies of the MAGA crowd, but Zahler plays things close to the vest in terms of his actual beliefs; these are bad men doing bad things, so it makes sense their worldview might be a little troubling.
That said, the writer’s ear for dialogue remains as impeccable as ever. Since Reservoir Dogs in 1992, countless filmmakers have tried to imitate the verbose flourishes of Quentin Tarantino’s dialogue, and almost none succeed. Tarantino’s influence here remains undeniable, but Zahler’s wordplay is more blunt and hard-edged; they’re literary without coming off as overwritten. Gibson especially has a field day grumbling the fanciful noir one-liners he’s given. While his casting alone may (understandably) cause some to avoid this film, it’s easily his best performance since he’s started acting again.
True to form, Zahler takes his time getting to the film’s main conflict, as he’d rather go on weird digressions with his characters than get straight to the ultraviolence, like when Gibson and Vaughn go on about egg salad sandwiches during a stakeout. There’s no way a major studio would release Dragged Across Concrete without hacking it to bits in the editing room. Scenes go on far longer than your average genre picture, and Zahler stages these sequences in long, static takes devoid of music. It’s an odd effect that recalls late-period David Lynch.
Before Dragged Across Concrete culminates in a bloody, night-time showdown (drenched in striking, piss-yellow fog), Zahler does just about everything he can to provoke his audience. Despite it actually managing to earn an R rating (unlike his last two features), the violence depicted here is empty and cruel. That’s extremely true for a certain female character introduced two-thirds of the way into the film. Her arc could come across as particularly mean-spirited trolling, yet it’s entirely consistent with the rules of the film. In Zahler’s world, human life has little value, and even the virtuous can’t escape the hell we’ve created for ourselves.