“Do not prioritize money over having a heartbeat.” An evil hitman/bank robber says that to multiple people throughout “Dragged Across Concrete,” writer/director S. Craig Zahler’s timely, complicated third film. That could be the film’s thesis; then again, maybe not.
Zahler is a divisive figure; With the brutal violence, slow pacing and sometimes far right-leaning politics of his films, he doesn’t just push buttons, he mashes buttons so hard that there are no buttons to push any more. His first film, “Bone Tomahawk,” was a violent (and some would say, racist) Western horror film about cannibals. His next, “Brawl in Cell Block 99,” was a slow, plodding exploitation film about the horrors of both the prison industrial complex and abortion, staring Vince Vaughn. And now with “Dragged Across Concrete,” Zahler’s made his most political film yet, although the ultimate message of the film is unclear.
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The style of “Concrete” is no different from Zahler’s previous films. Long, unbroken takes are the norm, as is the dime store paperback dialogue (sample line: “A couple more years and you’ll be human steamroller, covered with spikes and fueled with bile”) and brutal, unflinching and excessive violence (at one point, a dead man’s stomach is cut out of his body). It also retains Zahler’s insistence upon stirring the pot.
Here, Vaughn returns to collaborate with Zahler, this time with his “Hacksaw Ridge” director Mel Gibson. In a shrewd bit of casting, Zahler leans into Gibson’s public image as a violent racist and makes him a crooked, racist veteran cop alongside Vaughn, who plays his younger partner. When a video surfaces of them violently planting drugs on a Hispanic criminal to make a drug bust, the two of them are suspended without pay.
While watching Gibson in this film, I couldn’t help but think of his racist rants and drunken arrests, which were also caught on film and also ended his career for a time. I think that’s the point here, or else, Zahler is trolling us all.
“Like cell phones, and just as annoying, politics are everywhere. Being branded a racist in today’s public forum is like being accused of being a communist in the 50s, whether it’s a possibly racist remark made in a private phone call or the indelicate treatment of a minority who sells drugs to children. The entertainment industry, formerly known as the news, needs villains,” their chief, played by Don Johnson, tells them.
Hard up for money (Vaughn) and looking for a way out of his bad neighborhood (Gibson), the two concoct a plan to stake out some of the old criminals they once put away and steal the gold they’re taking.
At this point, “Concrete” looks like another vigilantism fantasy about two loose cannon, good-ol’ boy cops who just don’t play by the rules and have been hampered by things like “society” and “progress.” But depiction doesn’t always equal endorsement, and while Zahler’s script calls for these characters to say despicable things to and about women and minorities and calls for them to commit brutal, exploitative acts of violence, it never lets them off the hook for the consequences of their actions. These characters get what’s coming to them, although to the people who would most want these characters to succeed, it might not look that way.
But that’s not to say “Concrete” isn’t exploitative and confusing in other ways. “Cell Block 99” and “Dexter” alumna Jennifer Carpenter is in the film for all of 15 minutes, only to be written as a shocking, misogynist pawn in the plot. A side-plot involving a black man trying to also do whatever it takes to survive seemingly equates his plight with that of the crooked cops’.
But by the end, the message of “Concrete” depends on your view of these characters from the outset. You shouldn’t prioritize money over having a heartbeat, sure, but that bon mot comes from the film’s villain. Whether or not you see Vaughn and Gibson as blue-collar vigilante heroes or the embodiment of a corrupt system depends entirely on your point of view going into the film.
My rating: 3.5 egg salad sandwiches out of 5