Wednesday, 13 May 2020

Thoughts on…
Dragged Across Concrete
(S. Craig Zahler, 2018)

Having initially approached it with a certain amount of trepidation, I finally took a deep breath and watched this one a couple of weekends ago. Long story short, I needn’t have worried. ‘Dragged Across Concrete’ leaves writer/director S. Craig Zahler scoring three for three when it comes to making exceptionally good contemporary genre movies. If pushed, I’d perhaps rank ‘Dragged..’ a touch below Bone Tomahawk (2015) and Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2017), but it’s a close thing. All three stand as recommended viewing for anyone who likes solid film-making and good storytelling… assuming they have a sufficiently high tolerance for testosterone and extreme violence to get to the finish line, at any rate.

In fact, each time I hear some frustrated filmmaker talking about what a nest of vipers the film industry is, and how it’s impossible to get a project off the ground these days without it being compromised into oblivion etc etc, my thoughts will likely turn to Zahler, and cause me to wonder anew at the fact that (from the layman’s POV at least), he appears to have come out of nowhere and made three relatively ambitious films in quick succession, all of which seem to 100% reflect his personal creative vision whilst simultaneously winning a more-than-respectable amount of critical and commercial success. Whatever he does next, that’s one hell of an achievement.

If anything, Zahler’s three films to date are almost too consistent for their own good. As far as the old ‘spot-the-auteur’ check-list goes, he’s got all the boxes ticked, to the extent that his scripts – heart-felt and accomplished though they may be – basically follow the exact same formula once you begin to boil them down.

In each film, we are introduced to one or more blue collar / working class male characters who do not initially appear terribly sympathetic, but, we are slowly drawn into their lives through a series of naturalistic ‘character scenes’, until we feel we know them and their families/significant others fairly intimately, and care fairly deeply about what happens to them.

At this point, professional circumstances cause our character(s) to inadvertently cross paths with a group of remorseless, psychopathic scary people, instigating a series of events – in all three cases involving the kidnapping/imprisonment of a woman – which will draw them into an inhumanly ghastly situation necessitating acts of extreme violence, during which we are forced to seriously consider the question of – to quote the tag line from a very different movie with a not-entirely-dissimilar set-up – who will survive, and what will be left of them. As far as formulas for a movie script go, it ain’t exactly reinventing the wheel, but it sure does the trick [see point # 5 below].

All the same though, I can’t help but feel that… well, you know the way that, after you’ve read any one Elmore Leonard book, you’re inclined to throw up your hands in praise and declare him the best crime writer who ever lived…? But by the time you’ve read six or nine of ‘em, you start to realise he’s basically just shuffling the same set of building blocks around, telling slight variations on the same story again and again?

Well, I’d hate to see Zahler falling into the same kind of rut. Peckinpah is a name that seems to come up a lot when people [myself included – see below] write about his films, so, sticking with that comparison, perhaps now might be a good opportunity for him to take some time out and make his ‘..Cable Hogue’ or ‘Junior Bonner’, y’know what I mean? (Say what you like about Bloody Sam, but he never made the same movie twice.)

Which seems as good a moment as any to address the numerous articles and reviews which swirled around the release of ‘Dragged Across Concrete’ in 2018, suggesting that the film harboured some kind of insidious right wing / reactionary agenda.

Well, speaking here as a card-carrying pinko, humanitarian leftie, I’m very happy to report to my local Culture War commanding officers that I absolutely do not believe this to be the case.

Insofar as I can see, the only possible crime the film commits in this regard is to take a pair of borderline-corrupt cops who sometimes do bad things or make off-colour remarks, and to present them as three dimensional characters whose life circumstances might engender a certain amount of audience sympathy. And if that’s something fiction is no longer allowed to do, then… stop the world man, I want to get off.

I mean, call me old fashioned, but I’ve always been taught that melodrama / potboiler stuff ends, and serious drama begins, at the point at which characters shed their reductive ‘hero’ and ‘villain’ identities and instead become equally relatable and morally equivalent antagonists in an unfolding conflict of some kind.

In fact, it is this queering of black & white moral certainties, the re-framing of the fictional world as a never-ending sprawl of sinister and potentially deadly greyscale ambiguity, which fascinates me above all about the crime genre, and it is in creating this kind of atmosphere that Zahler’s writing and direction excels.

(Admittedly, this may be somewhat undermined by his repeated reliance on the good ol’ ‘remorseless psychopath gangs’ to get his stories moving, but really these function more as forces of nature than anything else. In both ‘Dragged..’ and ‘Bone Tomahawk’, they are literally faceless - kinetic events which simply serve to set the human characters against each other, as impersonal as a natural disaster or pack of rabid dogs.)

Contrary to some reports, Zahler is not pulling a ‘Dirty Harry’/ ‘Death Wish’ number on us here, portraying Gibson and Vaughn’s characters as rule-breaking heroes whose quasi-vigilante tendencies should be celebrated. On the contrary, their decision-making is consistently dumb and their shady/brutal conduct achieves little, for them or anyone else. If they’d reined in these tendencies over the years and played things by-the-book, they’d probably be both better people and more successful cops at the point at which we meet them, and would not need to immerse themselves in the ugly depths to which this story takes them.

But, do these failings mean we need to jam black hats on their heads, teach them some comedic moustache-twirling and deny them the kind of respect and consideration to which all human beings are entitled..? Because that’s, like, kinda fascist, man. And more to the point, not very interesting.

Speaking of which, the casting of Mel Gibson in the modern era is admittedly a… shall we say,  provocative... choice. Personally, I’d be hesitant about spending time with or giving money to someone of his widely reported beliefs and behaviour patterns, but, fair’s fair I suppose, he does seem to have ‘turned a corner’ in terms of the crazy racist outbursts in recent years, and purely in terms of his performance in this movie, he does sterling work. I’d say pretty much career-best level in fact, speaking as someone who’s never much liked the guy, successfully sloughing off whatever remains of his star persona to play a convincingly embittered, down-at-heel cop, letting us feel the weight of each of the sixty years of drudgery which sit heavy on his character’s shoulders.

Whilst we’re at it though - deep sigh - I suppose that we probably also need to address the fact that the few female characters in ‘Dragged Across Concrete’ are defined entirely in accordance with their roles as wives, mothers, daughters or girlfriends, and that the top billed female (fifth billed overall) is served up an diet of pure, unmitigated hell by the script.

To rise to Zahler’s defence on this, I’ll simply dredge up my go-to defence of Peckinpah and point out that this is a film about men living in an unremittingly masculine world, and we see women from their point of view, waving from the margins. If you watch the relatively few scenes here in which women are given a voice however, you will not (I would argue) come away with the impression that the writer/director of this material is in any way a misogynist, or someone who wishes to revel in the side-lining or mistreatment of women.

On the contrary, Zahler’s naturalistic character scenes reek of a kind of humane, inclusive emotional intelligence which undercuts any such accusations of prejudice or thoughtlessness. Just as in ‘The Wild Bunch’, the very absence of women from the story’s centre allows them to serve as a kind of muffled Greek Chorus, emphasizing the failings of the damaged men whose warped sense of masculinity leads them to their inevitably ugly fate.

Regarding the singularly horrendous fates doled out to both Jennifer Carpenter’s character and the heist gang’s unnamed(?) female hostage meanwhile, it is worth noting that this fits into the by-now established Zahler trope of using entirely blameless characters as some kind of ‘judas goat’, serving not just to hammer home the mercilessness of the psychotic bad guys in classic drive-in fashion, but going one step further in heightening the drama by deliberately casting shade on the judgement/sanity of the writer/director-as-god.

By which I mean, if the guy who’s taking us on this ride is capable of indulging in this level of unmotivated, Old Testament cruelty, then we know that literally anything might happen next, and that our finer feelings will not be spared. Again, it may not be the subtlest way to establish nail-biting tension, but by god, it’s an effective one.

Apparently I invoked the spectre of ‘serious drama’ above, so let’s get into that a bit. One of the most distinctive elements of Zahler’s filmmaking, and the one which audiences seem to have the most difficulty getting their head around, is the way he plays with genre conventions, mixing up committed, emotionally involving, almost arthouse-ish character interactions with scenarios and plot elements which could have been pulled straight from some ‘70s drive-in beat ‘em up, or a sub-Spillane pulp detective novel.

‘Dragged..’ is first and foremost a Cop Movie, and as such, it is full of cop movie ‘bits’ we’ve seen so frequently, they feel almost like trusted old friends by this point. Our cops get the “we deserve a medal, instead we get a suspension” speech from their superior officer, who in this case just happens to be the same age as Gibson’s conspicuously under-promoted flat-foot, with a newspaper clipping pinned to his office wall no less, reminding them both of when they used to be partners back in the good old days. Or, how about the younger cop who embarks on a reckless and dangerous mission, a day before he plans to propose to his girlfriend? (Best not book that chapel quite yet, son.)

Then, there’s the ex-con with a heart of gold, who only ended up inside because he put the guy who crippled his kid brother in hospital (an excellent performance by the way from the heretofore unmentioned Tory Kittles, providing the real heart n’ soul of the movie). Plus, I’m sure we’ve all seen the “one wrong move and we kill you all” bank heist scene enough for one lifetime, and, do U.S. high street banks really still keep millions of dollars-worth of gold bullion in their vaults, to which the manager happily strides around with the key and/or passcode..? I could go on, but you get the idea.

By playing these potential clichés with resolute, straight faced seriousness however, Zahler manages to make them feel fresh as a freezing winter breeze, reminding us of their blunt effectiveness as narrative building blocks whilst also providing a powerful antidote to the in-jokey, smart alec tone which has come to dominate so much of 21st century American culture.

He is not ashamed of using these tropes, nor of acknowledging the generic lineage his work aspires to belong to. Much in the same way that he had the moxy to name a contemporary movie ‘Brawl in Cell Block 99’, delivering abundantly upon the promise of that title whilst offering not even the slightest hint of Tarantino-esque nudge-wink pastiche or retro post-modernism, Zahler here invites us to reflect upon the inherent beauty and solidity of a simple crime movie structure, testing it out as if it were the engine of some lovingly-restored vintage car.

In fact, it often feels as if Zahler is daring us here to explain to him why these stock scenarios should be treated with any less weight than those of some slightly more quote-unquote ‘original’, sui generis type material. As a lifelong fan of genre-qua-genre, I really dig this approach.

The extended confrontation which comprises almost the entirety of ‘Dragged Across Concrete’s final act proves as gruelling, intense and traumatic as we’ve come to expect from this director, amply justifying the film’s inspired title as several heavily armed factions are pitched against each other in zero sum survival game, confined within a flat, concrete parking lot, offering participants nothing except their own vehicles to use as cover. It is, of course, a brilliant set piece, but one which I sadly found to be slightly marred by a couple of niggling feasibility issues which I just can’t shake, no matter how much I think back over the film’s action.

[To spend a paragraph going into specifics for the benefit of readers who have already seen the film:
 1. That whole business with the guy swallowing the key – are you really telling us that a bunch of criminals in a hurry couldn’t simply use their semi-automatic weapons to shoot a padlock off a flipping garage door, rather than going to excessive and time-consuming lengths to reclaim the key? 2. Likewise, are we supposed to believe that Gibson and Vaughn’s characters would not smell a rat, when the merciless crooks decide, for no apparent reason, to release their hostage and send her crawling across the battlelines to hang out with them..? It’s just absurd to think they wouldn’t have remained on their guard and kept her at a safe distance until they knew what was going on.]

For a writer who clearly sweats over the details of his script to the nth degree, forging unbreakable chains of cause and effect upon which the success of his story largely relies, I find it deeply frustrating that Zahler was apparently unable to give the material another quick going-over to clarify these issues before shooting. Admittedly, we’re deep into splitting hairs here, poking at slight imperfections in what is otherwise an exemplary piece of work, but as I say – it’s an inherent rule of the ‘police procedural’ territory we’re treading that these little things kind of matter.

Another thing I’ve grown to love about Zahler’s films is their pacing. Observing ‘Dragged..’s 159 minute run-time and noting the impressive line-up of character actors in secondary roles (Udo Kier, Don Johnson, Fred Melamed – together at least) could easily lead one to expect some sprawling, Scorsese-esque underworld saga. In fact though, the script’s events take place over the course of a mere couple of days, and the film is basically content to make do with about the same amount of plot you’d find in an episode of ‘The Sweeney’.

Those august gentlemen mentioned in the above para are each on-screen for the duration of a single, short scene (they respectively play a clothes shop owner, a bank manager and a police lieutenant), and for the most part the story told here is defiantly linear – just introducing us to a handful of characters and setting them on a slow trudge down the straight path to their respective fates.

Stretching time out beyond the standard wham-bam, next-plot-point tempo that Hollywood has helped acclimatise us to since the silent era is certainly a bold move on the part of a commercial American filmmaker. Like a good doom metal song though, Zahler’s pacing may be slow, but it’s never slack. The consistent, rock steady rhythm of the film’s cutting, together with the director’s innate confidence in the strength of his cast and material, is such that you’d be hard-pressed to find time to even pause for a toilet break across these two and a half hours of thoroughly engrossing slow-burn.

Actually though, perhaps my music metaphor above is just slightly off-base. Like ‘Brawl in Cell Block 99’, ‘Dragged Across Concrete’s greyscale brutality is moderated by a beautifully soothing neo-soul soundtrack (much of it co-written by Zahler himself), but, more than anything, the film feels as if it’s been cut to the sound of Goblin’s main theme for Romero’s ‘Dawn of the Dead’. Right from the opening scenes, I could almost hear those steady, throbbing bass notes, implacably drawing us forward, closer and closer to something unspeakably awful. I love it. It almost makes me hope though that Zahler never sees fit to actually make a full strength horror movie - the sheer accumulated menace of the damned thing might just kill us all.

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