Dragged Across Concrete took me by surprise in more ways than one. Between its epic length, its dark, provocative choice of subject matter, its choice of star, and the admittedly dubious comments made by the director (“I’m not looking for films to express values”—yet they will, whether you want them to or not), I was primed for a potentially grueling experience, a film I might loathe or feel bad about liking. That I was relatively unenthused by Bone Tomahawk and much fonder but still not unequivocally a fan of Brawl in Cell Block 99 didn’t help.
But over the course of its 158 minutes, Concrete proved to be a thoroughly engrossing, superbly written, and very well acted film, the best of S. Craig Zahler’s young career by a mile. It’s very much not for all tastes and far from perfect, but it’s damned good nonetheless.
CW: discussions of violence, police brutality, misogyny, racism. No spoilers as such but if you’re determined to avoid them, wait until after you’ve seen the film to read further.
In the fictional city of Bulwark, veteran cops Ridgeman (Mel Gibson) and Lurasetti (Vince Vaughn) are suspended after using excessive force against a Latino suspect during a drug bust and being filmed doing so. (They also treat the suspect’s girlfriend harshly, but that escapes the public eye.) Ridgeman feels the financial pinch right away; his wife (Laurie Holden) is increasingly homebound and unable to work, and they want to move on account of their daughter’s (Jordyn Ashley Olson) being bullied by neighborhood boys.
Looking for work, Ridgeman learns about an upcoming bank robbery and decides to steal the loot from the robbers, and asks Lurasetti to help him, which he somewhat reluctantly does, as he wishes to marry his girlfriend Denise (Tattiawna Jones). Working on the little information they’re given by an underworld contact of Ridgeman’s (the great Udo Kier), they begin staking out the perpetrators.
Meanwhile, a young ex-con, Henry Johns (Tory Kittles), desperate to provide for his mother and younger brother, is recruited to assist in the robbery by his old friend Biscuit (Michael Jai White, who doesn’t seem to have aged a day since Black Dynamite). Though the robbery is masterminded by the fearsome and perpetually masked “Black Gloves” (Primo Allon), Johns and Biscuit have a plan of their own to knock off the robbers.
Inevitably, the paths of the dirty cops and the desperate ex-con will converge, and it will come as no surprise that there will be violence and even death before all is resolved. But how Zahler orchestrates all this, and the myriad touches of atmosphere and character he deploys along the way, are the real meat of the film, and I would hate to give too much away. (I will do so only if absolutely necessary.)
It’s true that the whole story could’ve been told in far less time, but Zahler’s M.O. has always been to take a deliberate approach; Bone Tomahawk and Cell Block 99 each topped the 130-minute mark, and as noted, Concrete runs nearly half an hour longer than that. And for my money it justifies its length rather more than those films. Maybe the story here is simply more compelling, or maybe Zahler has gotten better at using the time he seems determined to carve out, but he makes damned good use of it most of the time.
Consider all the smaller moments which a tighter approach would’ve lost: Gibson and Vaughn bickering about the latter’s leisurely enjoyment of an egg-salad sandwich while on stakeout (it sounds mundane; I was laughing out loud), or a new mother (Jennifer Carpenter, returning from Cell Block 99) struggling to return to work despite her separation anxiety, or Johns easing Biscuit through a tense moment by talking about a long-ago birthday party. Moments like these and others serve to make the film a richer and more immersive experience. Some might squirm at the length; I never did. Indeed, I long for epic-length films that use their running time so well.
There are other elements here which some might squirm at. The elephant in the room, of course, is the casting of Gibson, as a dirty cop no less, and with an anti-PC streak to boot. And I can’t fault those who turn away from the film simply because of his presence – and, however I feel about his performance, I can’t say that he’s the only person who could’ve pulled off this role. However, what becomes very clear before long is that Ridgeman is no hero, and hardly an anti-hero either; the thread by which he clings onto his status as a man doing the wrong thing for the right reasons grows very indeed, and whether or not you think it snaps, even the most indulgent viewer would be hard-pressed to validate him by the end.
Lurasetti occupies a somewhat grayer area, especially when he realizes (much too late) just how ruthless and amoral Ridgeman can be, but the film never turns him into a hero, either; these men may view themselves as the thin blue line, as everyday heroes undermined by the forces of political correctness and departmental politics, but by the film’s end, it’s hard to imagine we’re meant to agree with them, and even if Zahler blanches at the thought of expressing values in his films, I don’t think, based on what happens to these men, that he does either.
There’s a telling scene early on where Ridgeman and his wife are discussing the bullying their daughter faces from some local boys (we see one of them throwing a soda on her), most of whom are black, leading his wife to say
You know, I never thought I was a racist before living in this area. I’m about as liberal as any ex-cop could ever be. But now…we really do need to move.
a moment which might be on-the-nose in one sense but solidly subversive of the heroism of the blue-collar Ridgemans in another.
Really, and I can’t delve too deeply into this as I want to avoid spoilers, the fact that the black ex-con Johns is the most heroic character in the film and not the white cops Ridgeman and Lurasetti puts the lie to the idea that this is some kind of apologia for men like them. In society’s eyes Johns may firmly be on the other side of the law, but in mine at least, he’s by far the most moral, sympathetic (to us and to others) and admirable character in the film, certainly more so than Ridgeman, who’s undone by his own brutal cynicism at a crucial moment, and more so than Lurasetti, who goes along with Ridgeman’s plan, and at his own heavy price.
One element of the film which does bother me, at least a little, is the depiction of the female characters; they are almost uniformly defined in relation to the male characters (Ridgeman’s wife and daughter, Lurasetti’s fiancée), or, in the case of two characters who get caught up in the central robbery, are the focus of violence and humiliation. I don’t think the film is reveling in their suffering, but the very depiction of it will probably turn away quite a few viewers on its own, and I can’t blame those who have done with these images in film. (And the character played by Jennifer Carpenter may make some cringe as well, though I think she’s definitely meant to be viewed sympathetically.)
I hope it’s clear from all that I’ve had to say about the film’s themes and characters that I think very highly of Zahler’s script. Indeed, as of this writing, I still think it’s the best original screenplay of the year; it’s not faultless by any means, and the stylized dialogue takes some getting used to (though I will defend the line “This is bad, like lasagna in a can” to the bitter end), but in terms of telling a compelling story at great length and leaving the viewer with much to think about, it’s a superb piece of work.
Zahler’s direction matches his script in its deliberate precision and attention to detail; Benji Bakshi’s cinematography, with its neo-noir tableaux, and Greg D’Auria’s editing, which makes the considerable running time wholly digestible, provide vital support. And the O’Jay’s, who provided the great song “Buddy’s Business” for Cell Block 99, here provide the very good “Shotgun Safari.” Kudos is also due to the production design and sound teams; the chases and shootouts sound great, and the look of the film is more carefully crafted and aesthetically appealing than you might expect.
But it’s the cast that really elevates it to greatness. Kittles, for me, is the MVP, providing a charming and winning performance that keeps us on Johns’ side throughout; some might argue he’s a supporting player, but in my book he’s definitely a lead, and at the moment I have him as the best lead actor of the year; it’s really a superior piece of work on his part. Vaughn, who was fantastic in Cell Block 99, is also very good here, using his normally sardonic quality to more realistic and more effective results. And Gibson, whose very presence is reason enough for some never to see the film, also does very well, balancing Ridgeman’s love for his family and some choice dashes of his signature cockiness (especially in the running “percentage” gag) with the dark ruthlessness that, over the course of the film, is completely revealed to us.
White and Carpenter do quite well in their own smaller roles; Allon is impressively soulless as the essentially faceless Black Gloves; Kier, Fred Melamed, and Don Johnson are likewise quite solid in their respective brief turns. None of the supporting cast matches the strength of the central trio, but I can’t recall a weak link among them.
Dragged Across Concrete, like Zahler’s other films, is a long and brutal journey through a world short on hope, but one which ends on some kind of hopeful note. In his first two films, the endings were quite bittersweet, but there’s a sense of deliverance and validation here which is frankly refreshing, if maybe just a touch implausible – but hey, that’s the movies for you. For my money, it was about as rewarding a note as such a story could end on, and the film itself, as troubling and flawed as it can be, is likewise rewarding.