Truth in advertising: Bodies are, indeed, dragged across concrete in the writer-director S. Craig Zahler’s Dragged Across Concrete, but that ugly phrase could also be used as a metaphor for Zahler’s long, bumpy, abrasive thrillers. (The other two: Bone Tomahawk, Riot in Cell Block 99.) The experience of watching them is grueling — as, you could argue, it should be, given that violence is too casual in movies and TV and Zahler makes it sting. The question is, to what end?
The three main characters are two garrulous white cops and a black ex-con, none of whom is guaranteed to survive. Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn play Detectives Ridgeman and Lurasetti. They’re not by the book, but they’re not on the take. Committed is what they are. Collaring a Spanish drug dealer might involve stepping on his cabeza, but given that the scumbag deals to kids on playgrounds, that’s no biggie, right? If you think it is a biggie, this won’t be your sort of movie.
Suspended without desperately needed pay after video of the aforementioned cabeza-stepping hits the news, Ridgeman and Lurasetti ruminate on a culture of identity politics and intolerance toward people like them: “It’s only cops that the system is against,” says Lurasetti, who has an engagement ring on hold but isn’t sure, given his situation, that his longtime girlfriend will say yes. Ridgeman, meanwhile, is so poor that his family (his wife is an ex-cop with MS) has to live in a bad neighborhood. Real bad. “This fuckin’ neighborhood,” he says. “You know, I never thought I was a racist before living in this area.” After his teenage daughter is hassled by black kids on her walk home from school, Ridgeman says it’s only a matter of time before she’s raped. The badness is tactile. “It’s bad like lasagna in a can,” says Lurasetti, and that’s pretty Goddamn bad. “We have the skills and the right to acquire proper compensation,” Ridgeman tells his partner, who agrees that doing something technically illegal — robbing a robber named Vogelmann (Thomas Kretschmann) is Ridgeman’s plan — isn’t morally wrong. (Lasagna in a can — Jesus.)
Dragged Across Concrete isn’t 100 percent right-wing racist (and culinary) outrage. The main black character, Henry Johns (Tory Kittles), has a kid to protect, too. Fresh from the joint, he discovers that his mother is back on smack and taking johns in her apartment while Henry’s younger brother sits in his wheelchair playing video games. Although he has pledged to go straight (the movie opens with him and his woman in a sexy-sexy clinch), Henry needs money fast, at which point his childhood friend, Biscuit (Michael Jai White), convinces him to help out with a bank robbery. They wouldn’t be involved in the robbery itself, Biscuit assures him. They’d be drivers, lookouts. The robbers are a team led by Vogelmann — who’s under the detectives’ surveillance.
Zahler takes a long time to sort all this out. A looong time. Dragged Across Concrete comes in at a zeppelin-esque two hours and 39 minutes, about an hour longer than the average B crime movie. There’s not more action, only more talk. Small talk. Or chewing. When Ridgeman and Lurasetti stake out Vogelmann, Ridgeman spends what feels like five minutes listening to Lurasetti masticate an egg-salad sandwich that never seems to get smaller. “A single red ant could have eaten it faster,” he growls. You might be thinking of Quentin Tarantino, and that influence is certainly plain. But Tarantino’s small talk is in the tradition of the great crime novelist George V. Higgins — casual but cunningly shaped, building beat by beat. Zahler’s small talk ends when no one has anything left to say or someone opens fire. A friend compares him to Éric Rohmer, which is a stretch, but I can see how French auteurists might have themselves a new pulp-art hero. When you know that there’s violence coming, the slackness has its own kind of tension.
And it’s a distinctly cruel kind of violence, suggesting that Zahler’s god is one sick prankster. Vogelmann’s henchmen look like Marvel villains in skintight black clothing with black masks and goggles and deliver death with jokey indifference. The film’s gruesome centerpiece is the evisceration of a murdered man to recover a swallowed car key, the makeshift surgeons coolly hefting fat coils of intestines, squeamish only about the prospect of nicking the liver and releasing a disgusting smell. Midway through the film, there’s a tangent that at first made me wonder if the projectionist had put on the wrong reel, until I realized that (a) there are no more projectionists and no more reels — it’s all digital — and (b) the character, played by Jennifer Carpenter, is destined to wind up at the target bank. She’s a new mother who doesn’t want to be separated from her baby but whose husband literally locks her out of their apartment, saying she has to go back to work and that the baby will be fine. Go, he says. Go. As he closes the door, she finds that she’s holding one of her baby’s socks, which will accompany her into the inferno.
It’s hard to imagine a better mascot for Dragged Across Concrete than Gibson. He’s every inch a movie star, but one whose face (behind a mustache, under salt-and-pepper hair) suggests a man whose life is bounded by caffeine and cigarettes on one side and alcohol on the other, who’s groggy but wired and with no fucks left to give about what you think of him. That was how Vaughn looked in Riot in Cell Block 99, and I’m sad to say he’s more remote in this film, his character a sad-sack sidekick through and through. But Tory Kittles has enough charisma to hold his own against Gibson.
The climax in a remote garage/junkyard is protracted and soaked in morbid fatalism. It’s where Zahler has to make the case that he’s not just a pulp meister with pretensions but has a larger view of why people do so many bad things for what they think are good reasons and get paid back in suffering and pain. He almost convinced me. But for all the absurdist-tragic trappings (and a cool refusal to make any one characters’ point of view dominant), this is still your basic boneheaded, right-wing action movie — skewed so that its heroes’ moral relativism is meant to be a sign of their manly integrity. A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do — however shortsighted and racist and sadistic. I’ll see anything Zahler does because I was weaned on the same junk he was and find his mix of amateurism and genre smarts appealing. That’s not a sign of my integrity — a man’s gotta watch what a man’s gotta watch — but of my fundamental laziness and corruption. I hate that I can settle for Dragged Across Concrete.