Archive for the ‘drama’ category

Chained for Life (2018)

August 18, 2019

chained_for_life_still A little while back, Scarlett Johansson took some heat for wanting to play a transgender character. The controversy came on the heels of earlier heat attached to Johansson playing a formerly Japanese character in Ghost in the Shell. Johansson’s tone-deaf response, which she later walked back, was “As an actor, I should be able to play any person, or any tree, or any animal,” summoning an image of her as a pomeranian or as the title role in The Giving Tree. Yes, an actor can conceivably play anything, but should they? There are transgender actors, Japanese actors, not yet any tree actors, and they have enough trouble breaking through without cisgender white hetero actors enacting their experiences for plaudits and awards.

This goes double for disabled actors, and Chained for Life, written and directed by Aaron Schimberg, is an attempt to address their specific challenge as actors who are also disabled. Schimberg, himself born with a facial deformity, has lived and thought through the experiences of his characters, starting with Rosenthal (Adam Pearson), who has been hired to play a misunderstood-monster type opposite a blind character who falls in love with him. The movie within the movie is meant to be stupid, and many of the abled cast and crew say insensitive things (the script reflects Johansson’s remarks despite having been written long before she made them; her attitude is many things but not uncommon).

Pearson, who you may have seen opposite (ha!) Johansson in Under the Skin, lives with neurofibromatosis, and tumors pull and push his features out of alignment. His character Rosenthal says that he scares kids and animals, but I thought his face looked gentle — he looks kind, not monstrous. Sometimes his elongated jaw and full lips recall Fred Gwynne’s elegant mug. He speaks, with some effort but with precision, in a quiet English accent, though he gets his voice up in a roar when filming an argument in the movie within the movie. Rosenthal’s leading lady is Mabel (Jess Weixler), who plays the aforementioned blind woman. Mabel is the one who says, early on, to a reporter, “We’re all blind in some respect, aren’t we?” Well, no, Mabel, we don’t all have to contend with literal lack of sight and all the societal/political indifference, negligence, and downright violence associated with it. The movie knows this and doesn’t want to punish her for her entitled actor’s jargon — it wants to educate her, and eventually she comes to an understanding of disability that’s at least sharper than she had before.

Titled in a left-handed salute to the 1952 film of the same name starring the conjoined Hilton twins, Chained for Life brings in a group of actors with physical differences to play patients in a pompous melodrama about a surgeon who performs operations to make disfigured people “normal.” The director is an abusive jerk with a German accent — there’s some speculation on the set that he isn’t even German — called only Herr Director, strongly played by Charlie Korsmo in his first movie in 20 years (his last was 1998’s Can’t Hardly Wait, as the drunk kid who sings “Paradise City”). The performances in general are incisive, with the insecure Weixler playing deftly off the witty Pearson, who carries himself in a way that makes the case for disabled actors playing disabled characters all by itself. He simply speaks, gestures, and stands in a fashion that almost no abled actor (Daniel Day-Lewis may be the exception; most everyone else gets a side-eye these days, rightly so) could duplicate without having lived that life year after year.

It’s a fine movie, though sometimes it tests our patience with scenes in which we have to watch actors try and try again to nail a take. The film is as much about Schimberg’s chosen medium as about disfigurement and its discontents. I get the sense that Schimberg’s script consciously diverged from any clichés (he says he’s seen and mostly disliked every film he’s seen about deformity), including the one where Mabel and Rosenthal end up together. The final shot, over which the end credits appear, is one of shared, neutral-faced community — the disfigured, the tall and short, the conjoined, the folks of indeterminate gender, all sitting in the back of a moving bus. This feels right. Rosenthal doesn’t need to have his life validated by becoming part of the pretty-face world. He has his people, and they understand each other, and Mabel, however well-intentioned, can’t be on the ride with them.

Advertisements

Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

July 28, 2019

2488029 - ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood will be described by some as his best and some as his worst, and both camps will have valid points. They may even both be right. All art is self-indulgent to some extent, but Tarantino really treats himself this time. It’s an elegiac film, a salute to a dead era in its death throes, and it’s a bit more melancholy than you might expect from this puckish filmmaker. It deals with real-world events freely and perhaps with even more abandon than did Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. The movie, like most of Tarantino’s others, is drunk on movies — the famous Wilhelm scream is heard before the film is more than a minute old. Yet a powerful mood gathers in its prolonged takes and protracted scenes, an atmosphere of hope and despair co-existing in an America about as bitterly divided as the current one. Ultimately, OUATIH shakes out as an epic tone poem about dreams fed by violence and envy and credulity.

The sun-dappled yet decaying milieu of 1969 Hollywood — a year that saw the rivalry of two very different cowboys, John Wayne in the PG-rated True Grit and Jon Voight in the X-rated Midnight Cowboy — is lovingly realized by Tarantino and cinematographer Robert Richardson. Partly, OUATIH is a buddy movie about on-his-uppers TV actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double and friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Rick and Cliff are loosely based on Burt Reynolds and his stuntman friend (and future director) Hal Needham; if Rick’s career arc is to copy Reynolds’, he might end up making one comeback after another that eventually dribbles to indifference, from which Rick might emerge again, and so on. But all that is outside the movie’s scope; Rick is still in his Navajo Joe phase, and hasn’t yet had his Deliverance or his Smokey and the Bandit. These men, who love each other, talk late into the night and watch Rick on TV together; this bromance, anchored by DiCaprio’s portrait of insecurity and Pitt’s more relaxed self-assurance, enables some of the gentlest drama Tarantino has attempted and possibly ever will again.

The story of these two has-beens parallels that of an up-and-comer, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), who in our world was butchered, along with four others, by disciples of Charles Manson in the house she shared with the then-absent Roman Polanski. I don’t think Polanski even gets any (audible) lines, and Tate doesn’t get much more to say. She doesn’t really interest Tarantino as anything more than an example of movie-love and innocence imperiled. Never a feminist, though really only a masculinist on aesthetic grounds, Tarantino plays rough-house games with reality and with our expectations. He plays with our dread in ways that will bother some morally, and not entirely wrongly, either. What is he going to make us look at? In the end, he gets his bloodbath, and one can’t help noticing that the brutality against female characters is focused on, lingered on, more conspicuously than that of male characters.

Add the (ambiguous) fate of a nagging harpy in a flashback and you say, Does Tarantino hate women? Maybe not, but in a tone poem tone is everything. In scene after scene, Brad Pitt tools along in his powder-blue 1960 Karmann Ghia, down what one has no choice but to call a “painstakingly recreated” Hollywood Boulevard, the wind catching his radiant head of hair. The feel of these scenes is different from the ones where Tate is driving around town, finally pausing to watch herself in a theater playing The Wrecking Crew. I don’t think Tarantino is malicious towards women, just oblivious to their inner lives. He only has eyes for Rick and Cliff, and all the legends or near-legends he fills the margins with, and all the details and obsessively correct set design. We don’t have so many filmmakers working at this level of craft and physical verisimilitude — and who have the budget to do so, from anyone but Amazon or Netflix — that we can afford to throw Tarantino under the bus.

OUATIH may or may not spark debates about whether Tarantino is a good person (my take: he is exactly what he has always been; take that to mean whatever you want it to), but one thing beyond debate is that he’s a master. The film woolgathers and gives us scenes that seem extraneous, like establishing at length how well-trained Cliff’s dog is, but turn out not to be — and then it tightens the screws. The last half hour or so is a bravura symphony of dread and tension and release, and it simply wouldn’t be as effective were it not preceded by two hours of anecdotes punctuated by every fetish Tarantino has. It’s the donut you get after the sermon Tarantino preaches from the pulpit of his Church of Cinema. But the sermon, digressive and compassionate towards the outmoded male feeling his loss of big-dick energy, shows Tarantino at a different pitch from the revisionist pulpster who made Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight. As in Jackie Brown — which has gradually been gaining favor as many viewers’ best-ranked Tarantino film — our most visible movie geek uses movie geekdom to tell a story about human defeats and disappointments. The fact is that OUATIH may be Tarantino’s most problematic film, but it’s also full of wonderful moments that wouldn’t otherwise or elsewhere be possible.

Do the Right Thing

June 23, 2019

0703_do-the-right-thing On June 30, Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing turns thirty. It still hasn’t lost a step. Aside from some hairstyles and a few of the songs, it doesn’t read at all like an ‘80s film. It’s truly an end-of-a-decade work. In some respects it’s almost experimental; some of the scenes play like short theater pieces, and the movie is full of words — debate, disputation, denunciation, or just plain shooting the breeze — yet we never question it as a work of cinema. The way cinematographer Ernest Dickerson paints with skillet-hot colors, or the way editor Barry Alexander Brown snips scenes to release our laughter as well as to propel the story, or the way Ruth E. Carter dresses the characters to sketch them for us in an instant — these and more put Lee’s film, only his third, into the realm of art alongside entertainment. Its concerns are timeless and, as the film itself wearily admits, will ever be.

Nobody is really the main character of Do the Right Thing — the Bed-Stuy community itself is, it’s a group portrait — but Lee picks out Mookie, played by himself, as the character who interacts with most of the others. As a delivery guy for Sal’s Famous Pizzeria, Mookie sees the same faces a lot; one of the first things we see him do is direct an exasperated “Hell no” to a pair of girls who look like they want to talk to him about God, or get him to sign a petition, or something. Mookie does this as though this is far from the first time he’s waved these girls away; the same is true, mostly, of his relationship with the neighborhood disabled guy Smiley (Roger Guenveur Smith). Everyone who lives or works here is by and large tired of each other, but nobody can afford to go on a vacation away from them, and it’s going to be a brutally hot day. (The movie takes place on August 5, 1989, according to the newspapers we see.)

The only thread of narrative we get is the attempts of the abrasive Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito) to shame Sal (Danny Aiello) into putting up photos of black celebrities alongside the Italian stars on Sal’s “wall of fame.” Buggin’ Out’s logic is that Sal’s clientele is mostly black, so the decor should reflect that; like almost everyone else in the movie, he’s not wrong, but that doesn’t make him completely right, either. Buggin’ Out’s mission is debatable; the whole chatty, pop-art-colored film is. The very title has been discussed endlessly. Does Mookie, in an act of destruction that may or may not be intended to draw collective ire from flesh towards property, “do the right thing”? Lee’s line has always been that white people always ask that question and black viewers never do. Put another way, does anyone here “do the right thing”? When, to paraphrase Martin Luther King, there is no dialogue but only contrapuntal monologue, and when there are two sets of rules, one for people of color and one for everyone else, it can be nearly impossible to know if there is a “right thing.”

To Lee’s credit, he writes dialogue (or guides his actors into improv) that allows his characters to open themselves up, justify themselves, let us see how they see themselves. Even Pino (John Turturro), Sal’s rancidly bigoted son and the closest thing the movie has to a villain other than the cops, is given some breathing room to suggest why he’s so angry. (His cronies back in Bensonhurst give him a hard time for serving food to black people.) In short, everyone would like to think he or she is doing the right thing; everyone is the star of his or her drama, each of which plays itself out on the stoops and egg-frying sidewalks of New York on the hottest day of summer. Lee’s movie is as much about a community of psychically isolated people as about racial tension. Nobody can see past their own scrim of rage, sadness, regret. Everyone is irritable.

Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), one of the movie’s many great archetypes seldom seen in major films before, calls out the dichotomies that make up Lee’s film with his Night of the Hunter parable about love knocking out hate. Originally, when Robert Mitchum delivered this, it was a hypocritical little ditty that turned out to be ironically prescient. Radio Raheem looms around the neighborhood all day toting a massive, deafening boom box (playing Public Enemy’s instant classic of electric urgency “Fight the Power”) but is essentially harmless; in a way he is the film’s Jimmie Blacksmith figure, who ultimately becomes unhinged when the white power structure severs him from how he defines himself. Once he begins to lash out, he is doomed from that moment. But in his love/hate scene, Radio Raheem seems to be speaking hopefully.

And naïvely? Love, in this movie, seems short-lived, and hate persists. Mookie’s baby mama Tina (Rosie Perez in a vivid debut) closes out her time in the film cussing out Mookie. The neighborhood elders Da Mayor (Ossie Davis) and Mother Sister (Ruby Dee) — whose presence as onscreen antagonists and as real-life couple always brings a fond smile to my face — seek cover together after the climactic event. They seem sobered, though not driven into each other’s arms as a more conventional story would demand. Before that, we see Mother Sister screaming “Burn it down!” and not much later crying “No!” in despair over and over; there you have the opposite sides of the movie’s moral coin, all in the emotional inferno of an old black woman who has seen and lived great heartache. Do the Right Thing did not turn out to be the fire this time (pundits in 1989 worried about copycat violence; number of Mookie-inspired riots: zero), but the right and wrong things it deals with haven’t gone anywhere. This is, and seems more than ever like, the great American movie of the last thirty years.

Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile

May 5, 2019

extremely-wicked-shockingly-evil-and-vile-movie It’s an old ping-pong witticism: “So-and-so has a lot of charm.” “Yeah, so did Ted Bundy.” The new Bundy film Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, the second Bundy project for Netflix by director Joe Berlinger (after January’s Conversations with a Killer series), might overplay the monster’s charisma a bit. Some have charged the movie makes Bundy look better as a lawyer (he was a law student) acting as his own defense than he really was, and that’s true. What Berlinger is after here, I think, is a collective portrait of a society taken in by Bundy — and, by extension, taken in by smiling evil that makes them feel good. To come to terms with his guilt was to admit one’s own dangerous credulity in the face of Satan.

Some saw Bundy for what he was. Others did not, because Bundy had an interest in focusing all his skills at imposture onto them. Extremely Wicked is based on a memoir by Liz Kendall, the woman with whom Bundy had a live-in relationship for years, during which time he kept diabolically busy out of the house. Liz, like many in her situation, believes Bundy when he insists on his innocence. If she’s wrong, it means she endangered not only herself by being with him but her daughter. After a while, as the movie’s emphasis shifts from Liz to Bundy’s trial and escapes from custody, we begin to suspect that Bundy himself, or the part of himself that can convincingly participate in society, doesn’t want to believe he could have murdered all those women.

Berlinger spent four hours with Conversations with a Killer going over all the evidence, tapes, cold forensics. My feeling is that he then jumped into Extremely Wicked (from a Black List script by Michael Werwie) because it turns the camera 180 degrees and focuses not on Bundy but on his impact on those around him. (The classic in the genre is probably still Ann Rule’s The Stranger Beside Me, the true-crime author’s account of her friendship with Bundy before his arrest.) I also imagine Berlinger wanted to make the movie just for the scene near the end, when Bundy (Zac Efron) is about to go to the electric chair and Liz (Lily Collins) demands that he admit at least some guilt. I suspect Berlinger waded hip-deep in the sewer slime of Bundy’s case and then wanted to pull something redeeming out of it, some closure. It didn’t happen that way in life (if you want unalloyed fact, stick to the records), but dramatically and metaphorically it feels right; the entire movie leads up to this moment, and Efron and Collins don’t falter.

Indeed, Efron nails the insecure lunges at compassion as well as the glowering menace that define Bundy. We see the real Bundy during the end credits, delivering the same dialogue Efron did; Bundy shows us something Efron, to his soul’s credit, can’t show — a grotesque moral void. Efron does pack in enough ominous bits of business to give us the creeps, and Collins gives us a woman who isn’t stupid so much as self-hating. Liz needs a guy as nice as Bundy seems to be, and Bundy needs to be needed in that way — whether because being in a relationship is good cover for being Jack the Ripper, or because a small part of him legitimately wants sane love, who’s to say? Later, of course, there are giggling Bundy groupies in the courthouse and one former coworker who falls in love with him and even has his baby. Some women will always be attracted to the monster.

Extremely Wicked has a murderers’ row of terrific performers (John Malkovich, Dylan Baker, Terry Kinney, Jim Parsons, Haley Joel Osment, Kaya Scodelario, Jeffrey Donovan) keeping the courtroom cat-and-mouse games lively. It sets the tone with a Goethe quote (“Few people have the imagination for reality”) that, coming from a director with extensive cred in the true-crime documentary field, is both funny and not funny. Berlinger spent a lot of years making not one but three films about the Memphis Three and how they got railroaded for the murder of three boys, and they proclaimed their innocence as vehemently as Bundy did his. As it happens, they deserved to be believed. Bundy did not, but many believed anyway. They couldn’t imagine the reality.

========

See also: Ted Bundy, a far pulpier and pugnaciously contemptuous take.

Glass

April 14, 2019

glass When last we saw the almost-invulnerable hero David Dunn (Bruce Willis), he was sitting in a diner at the end of 2016’s Split, in a surprise appearance that linked the movie with David’s own movie, 2000’s Unbreakable. Both those films were written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, who returns to wrap up the trilogy with Glass. Shyamalan doesn’t really stick the landing, but I’m not sure he was supposed to, or was trying to. Taken in sum, the three movies are a morose meditation on comic-book tropes, and somewhat a critique of them; after all, the villains are both disabled in some way, and that’s part of the critique, that those whose minds or bodies are not “normal” are destined to turn to evil. (It’s a very Victorian notion, and the history of comics is lousy with it.)

David’s power of insight (he can tell what you’re guilty of by bumping into you) leads him to track down the serial killer Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), the mercurial antagonist of Split, who contends with dissociative identity disorder and currently has four cheerleaders stashed away in his rusty abandoned-factory hideout. When we meet Kevin here, he’s letting nine-year-old Hedwig take the wheel, but when David arrives, Hedwig tags in the Beast, who roars and bellows and has unearthly strength. Regardless, David almost defeats him, until some cops led by psychiatrist Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson) capture them both and lock them away in a featureless asylum — along with Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), aka “Mr. Glass,” who resides in a wheelchair because his osteogenesis imperfecta renders his bones brittle. Dr. Staple’s goal is to get the three men to admit their views of themselves as exceptional — superhuman — are delusions.

Currently Elijah the mastermind is zoning out in his chair, seemingly doped up to his eyeballs, but you don’t hire Samuel L. Jackson and then not let him hold forth (although the cheeky Shyamalan denies Elijah speech for over an hour of screen time). There are times when Glass appears to fall victim to the same superhero clichés it’s tweaking — there are plans, master plans, counter-plans. Everyone in the movie seems to be plotting, except for sweet Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), a survivor of an earlier Kevin/Beast incident in Split, who feels a connection to Kevin, the only reachable and reasonable personality of “the Horde.” There’s also David’s now-grown son Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark) and Elijah’s loving mother (Charlayne Woodard), who must be, what, ninety years old by now? We see that Kevin was abused as a child by his mother, whereas Elijah wasn’t, but they both turned out bad; Shyamalan seems to be saying that in some cases, it’s pain that makes the difference between a villain and a hero.

We’re told in the movie that this is real life, and Shyamalan as usual grounds everything in the gray, glum streets and hallways of Philadelphia. But he also all but promises us a climactic face-off between David and the Beast atop a new skyscraper in the city, while Elijah plans to … but why spoil it? The twist addict in Shyamalan’s own screenwriting Horde breaks free and indulges himself, tying things together with a geeky abandon that’s part sneer at and part appreciation of comic-book plotting. In brief, what we get just raises more questions, especially as regards Dr. Staple, whose name may refer to the things that hold together comic books. Shyamalan finishes on a note of half-hearted optimism that, again, is either critical or symptomatic of comic-book endings, which never really end.

Shyamalan as writer has been erratic almost from the beginning; even the now-lauded Unbreakable struck me at the time as anticlimactic, though now, like Glass, it reads more as metacommentary. It’s as a director, a filmmaker with a natural command of mood and dread, that Shyamalan excels. Glass, which cost a pittance by today’s Hollywood metric ($20 million), spends a lot more time in quiet talking-heads passages than in superhuman beatdowns. Shyamalan still, two decades later, trusts the audience to sit still and be told a story. But they wouldn’t sit still if his control over tone and pace weren’t so appealingly rock-solid — there’s something about a self-assured director that makes an audience feel secure that they’re in competent hands. That’s what happens here. Glass is the conclusion of a lumpy and weird trilogy, the cumulative effect of which inspires respect. This series is unconventional and therefore not satisfying in a conventional sense. Its strengths, and goals, lie elsewhere.

Diane

April 8, 2019

diane Some independent movies wear their miserablism as a badge of perverse pride. “We will make you look at despair, poverty, sickness, the fragility of existence,” they promise us, “for your own good. Eat your spinach and recognize our noble intentions.” These movies think being a depression delivery system is enough to qualify as art. Then there are films like First Reformed and now Diane that forge life’s intractable aspects into something greater, but quieter, than the sum of its parts. Diane devotes itself to the inner life, guilt and disappointments of Diane (Mary Kay Place), a 70-year-old woman drifting through bleak, snowy rural Massachusetts, trudging through altruistic activities in order to make up for … something. A bit of selfishness in her past, which may or may not be relevant to the pains and problems she faces now.

The literal-minded may look askance at Diane — why punish this basically good woman for a lapse decades ago? But Diane doesn’t punish Diane; Diane herself does. Mary Kay Place, a reliable and often inspired character actor for some 40 years, fills out a role written for her by director Kent Jones (in his fictional debut, after some documentaries). Place makes Diane gentle and thoughtful but with a strong prickly streak — Diane is no angel. Neither is she a devil, nor is her troublesome addict son Brian (Jake Lacy), who morphs from foul-mouthed and resentful to annoyingly pious once he gets Jesus. There are no villains here, just humans ground down a bit by the world. Even Brian’s journey isn’t as simple as it sounds. Nobody’s is.

Diane is not strictly a work of entertainment, but its level of craft and insight makes it enjoyable; the way it lingers on the subtle, the quiet, the unspoken human moment, and trusts us to be patient and adult, is refreshing. Diane sits at the hospital bedside of her dying cousin (Deirdre O’Connell), or sits across from an old friend (Andrea Martin) at a buffet. She has a support system of sorts, even if she may not feel she deserves one. As far as she’s concerned, her job is to serve and to submerge her own emotions (which bubble up unbidden anyway). Diane was executive-produced by Martin Scorsese, and in a way it’s as much about faith and its discontents as any of his own serious works about religion (Last Temptation of Christ, Kundun, Silence). Diane nails herself to a cross every day for that one time she decided to feed her hungry ghost in a big way at the expense of those who trusted her. Kent Jones feeds this to us bit by bit, in naturalistic exchanges and undramatic (or undramatically presented) incidents. Here and there we find beauty, such as the warm smile of an older fellow Diane regularly feeds at the local food pantry. Played by Charles Weldon, a journeyman actor who died last December at age 78, this fellow drops in to offer Diane some perspective on her sorrow.

One other valuable thing Diane does is to center on a woman entering her eighth decade, and to fill the frame with friends and family mostly around her age or older (such as 91-year-old Estelle Parsons, who seemingly hasn’t lost a step). These women may be closer to death than to birth but they still have some arrows left in their quivers. These characters were young and stupid once, and they regret it (or they don’t). As loneliness starts closing in on Diane, she vents about it in her journal, in short lines that structurally resemble some teenager’s emo poetry, and that’s when the full concept snapped into focus for me. David Cronenberg is worth quoting at length here: “There’s no such thing as an old person. There’s a person who has been broken on the rack of pain and infirmity, but there’s really no old person. When someone dies at eighty, it’s the death of a young person. I see that.” Diane sees it, too.

Dragged Across Concrete

March 23, 2019

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…