Dragged Across Concrete

DAC_D02_00415.dng Can a noir film be two-thirds noir? If so, welcome to Dragged Across Concrete, the third movie and second noir by writer-director S. Craig Zahler (Bone Tomahawk, Brawl in Cell Block 99). This film is a bit more realistic — which is to say less baroquely pulpy and gory — than Zahler’s earlier efforts, but it’s similarly concerned with holding toxic masculinity up to the cold morning light. Why should Zahler explicitly condemn the retro notions some of its characters express? He trusts us to know those ideas are racist, sexist, homophobic. Zahler’s project, in movies anyway (he also writes novels), is to take blinkered, limited (white) men and allow them enough time to show us their humanity as well as their limits. We may not “like” them (as if drama were a popularity contest) but we understand them.

Before I get into the mainstream of the plot, I’d like to detour, much as Zahler does about an hour-twenty into the film, and consider a minor character whose presence in the narrative is not immediately clear. She is a new mother, torn apart inside at the thought of ending her maternal leave and returning to work. She is played by Jennifer Carpenter, who always seems on the verge of an epic ugly-cry, and she eventually tears herself away from her baby and goes back to work — at a bank that houses gold bullion that has attracted the attention of some armed robbers. Aside from giving some backstory to this woman, and therefore audience sympathy, before she is placed in danger, Zahler uses her to explain why things happen as they do during the robbery. What she says at the end of her scene prefigures what others will say later. A sock, a ring, a new apartment: it’s all for the family, or for the hope of one. Your morality depends on what you ask for when you think your time is up.

Mel Gibson is top-billed as Detective Ridgeman, a dyspeptic and brutal cop, and he’s very fine here, as he often has been. He gives Ridgeman an exhausted awareness of his own barbaric stink; he’s “scuffed the pavement too long,” as his boss (Don Johnson) says. Ridgeman’s partner is the younger, snarkier Lurasetti (Vince Vaughn), who denies his racism — his girlfriend (Tattiawna Jones) is black — but being decent to one person of color doesn’t mean you’re going to behave likewise towards the many other such people you run across in the line of duty, and those in the enforcement and correctional fields often see people at their worst. These two are suspended following Ridgeman’s too-rough handling of a drug dealer — it’s been recorded and will hit the evening news. They need money, and when Ridgeman starts tailing a non-local crime bigwig (Thomas Kretschmann) to see if there’ll be any ill-gotten gains in it for him, Lurasetti joins him. In a separate thread, ex-con Henry Johns (Tory Kittles) signs up as a driver for the same bank robbers associated with the bigwig. Eventually Henry, Ridgeman and Lurasetti face each other across the concrete of a junkyard.

Despite the marquee value of the two white guys, a good case could be made that the true protagonist of Dragged Across Concrete is Henry. His motives in attaching himself to the bank robbery are more poignant and urgent than those of Ridgeman or Lurasetti, whose tragic flaws are their unquestioned prejudices. That this film is being called racist, or even right-wing, is laughable; like Zahler’s other movies, it exists beyond politics in a gray area where art and reality reside. Zahler gets top-shelf performances from Gibson, Vaughn (again), and Kittles, with another fun drop-in from Udo Kier. The scenes are protracted and talky without being in the slightest boring. Quirks and revelations crop up in the long dialogue passages. We spend a full minute looking at Vince Vaughn devouring an appalling sandwich while Mel Gibson stoically endures the smacking sounds and the stench. The timing is dead-bang; a second longer or shorter and the joke would be lost.

Maybe one of the ruder, subtler jokes in the movie is that the rules of noir only apply to the white men, perhaps because the black character’s life thus far has been quite noir enough (in the classical sense meaning a world-weary fatalism). Henry’s final moments in the movie evoke a dream of literal whiteness — the walls, the decor. Henry’s character arc suggests not a corrective to racism but an acknowledgment that racism can be a tool a smart black guy can use against its wielders. As Henry says, “It’s good to be underestimated.” In Zahler’s cinematic world so far, men are trapped by the white-knight-like obligation they think they have to women, and women are trapped by the same, in the name of protection and provision.¹ Zahler lobs in racial/cultural tensions for good measure. One movie can’t resolve the issues Zahler pokes around in; a thousand movies couldn’t. But I look forward to continuing to watch Zahler try.

¹ Of course, Jennifer Carpenter’s character, the breadwinner in her family, refutes that idea. But if she had stayed home with the baby…

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