Dragged Across Concrete and the Vile Visions of S. Craig Zahler
Near the beginning of Brawl in Cell Block 99, a mechanic and former boxer by the name of Bradley (Vince Vaughn) uncovers that his wife has been cheating on him. Through the prism of classical exploitation, the following scene would either feature a home-wrecking or a physical altercation and/or beating of Lauren, Bradley’s wife, but in the film by S. Craig Zahler, Bradley goes out and punches a car to smithereens before walking in and having a calm sit-down conversation with Lauren. It’s ridiculous but it isn’t stupid, which is what pronounces Zahler’s filmography with such vigor and grime. His three directorial efforts (he’s also written a variety of novels and screenplays, one being the recent Puppet Master) don’t exactly have a self-awareness to them, which is vital in exploitation fare, but they certainly have been birthed in the modern world, with considerations and revelations to their sociopolitical underpinnings that murk the waters of critics who want to label his work and place it in various boxes. His films frequently operate as expected, only to develop on their own wavelength. For instance, Bone Tomahawk, which calls to mind 1951’s Apache Drums (a native American siege western), is basically a ‘cowboy vs. Indian’ picture that were abundant in the middle of the 20th century, merely converted into the cannibal genre and leaving blood-streaks of horror. The tropes of a helpless woman being kidnapped by the tribe and the manly men of the western town trekking out into the wilderness to find her is all there, but the racial context is eliminated by making the tribe deliberately inhuman, prehistoric, and monstrous, which, depending on your stance, either helps or hurts matters, as well as the increased agency of the roles of the woman in distress.
It is understood that Zahler cherry-picks what is productively classic in terms of how exploitation functions and tosses the rest. Brawl in Cell Block 99 offers all the signifiers of a right-wing fantasy — a blue-collar skinhead with a cross tattoo on the back of his head is out to stop his wife’s baby from being aborted, and the only way to do that is to run through a prison system peppered with minorities. This is a pulp concept, one that could easily turn disastrous, but it isn’t as it seems. Bradley never talks down to those around him or is never viewed by others as a racist or a threat to their livelihood beyond impending physical force. He is righteous, patriotic, obviously Christian, but he also scolds a white acquaintance who uses the ‘n’ word (“Don't think someone like you can say that word any way polite.”), all that in addition to being a character driven by revenge of the system which imprisons him. It’s fascinating to see this mix of low-rent synopsis and high-brow poeticism. Zahler is writing post-modern exploitation personalities in the concepts and plots of dirt-bag crime fiction and cinema, and his latest, Dragged Across Concrete, is no different. It’s a grab-bag of flowery language and formal ingenuity that will most definitely divide his audience even more so than usual, primarily because his tightrope over controversial topics is shrinking by the hour, and by the end of the picture, practically nonexistent. And all that’s peering under is an existential void.
Following two racist (I’m sure Zahler would refer to them as ‘old-fashioned’, although maybe that’s projecting too much) police officers after being removed from duty due to a strong-arming incident of a Latino suspect, Dragged Across Concrete stumbles and sits with these characters for each and every word, never commenting or pointing its finger to a moralizing conclusion, condemnation, or sympathy. Their issues of lower-middle-class poverty, which one of the two cops (Mel Gibson, in a stunning role) blames on the neighborhood in which they live, suggests a deeply rooted racism that has been muffled by the inclusivity of modernity. These are not narrative elements that are yearned for, especially right now, but they are depicted with the same detail as the rest of the ensemble cast and their plights, even if it is the main focus. Zahler provides such characters and scenarios in contrast to a (secretly deployed) black protagonist played by Tory Kittles, as well as a constant undermining of the police officers’ attitudes so that their journey is rendered sad, helpless, and incomprehensible in the face of their actions. As soon as Zahler drops moments of shocking, cringe-worthy incident, he moves on, but not before basking in the silence and the reverberation of what was shown. Whether the lingering quiet is accepted as acknowledgment or ambiguity of those values is almost beside the point. This is a vicious, grimy, vile stakeout picture ripped from the ‘70s that nonetheless is set in today’s world, and Zahler never seems upset about the fact that these characters can’t have it the way they want — whether through their occupation, personal/familial ties, or their place in America’s class system. As a filmmaker, he’s only neutering the fantasies of the characters in which he’s writing for and observing their reactions to a world leaving them in the dust. Less sympathy, more pity, even as the film is offering a platform for their ideas and actions. It’s what propels Dragged Across Concrete into a post-modern reflection of a dying generation, and their recognition is as bitter as it is accepted, Mel Gibson included, reminding the viewer of what we used to love about him, why we hate him, and why the two are so frequently intertwined.