Archive for the ‘one of the year's best’ category

The Reflecting Skin

July 21, 2019

reflecting skinI have been waiting for years to talk at length about The Reflecting Skin, one of my favorite movies few people have seen. Since it’s making its American Blu-ray debut in a couple of weeks (along with a new DVD), the time seems ripe. This is the feature directing debut of Philip Ridley, only 24 when he made it, and it unfolds in a distinct dream-logic world. The setting is the American midwest circa the 1950s (post-WWII, anyway), but the film exists aside from time and place. Roger Ebert’s much-quoted, accurate assessment goes like so: “It’s not really about America at all, it’s about nightmares, and I’m not easily going to forget it.”

Seth Dove (Jeremy Cooper), “nearly nine,” is a borderline monstrous little boy, though with a sensitivity that indicates redemption is possible (though perhaps not probable). We meet him when he and two of his friends are committing a particularly grotesque form of cruelty to animals, a detail that seems partly indebted to the kids burning a scorpion alive in The Wild Bunch and partly to Ridley fighting a fever and falling asleep, bathed in sick-sweat, in front of a TV playing The Fool Killer or Night of the Hunter while a paperback of Faulkner rests tented over his chest. The movie is suffused with a febrile, half-articulated aesthetic of American gothic — vampires and dead babies and maimed sheriffs and grinning hairless werewolves in a Cadillac.

A mysterious woman (Lindsay Duncan) who calls herself Dolphin Blue lives nearby, and Seth becomes convinced that she’s a bloodsucker and that his older brother Cameron (Viggo Mortensen), just returned from a stint in the Army, is about to be seduced and drained by her. Meanwhile, Seth’s gruesome and unhappy mother (Sheila Moore) resents her life with his father (Duncan Fraser), who reeks of the gasoline he pumps out in front of the house. All the adults have secrets, perhaps none more so than Cameron, who has seen what atomic bombs do — he has a photo in his wallet of a Japanese baby whose skin “got all silver and shiny. Just like a mirror. You could see your face in it.” This image is preceded by Seth’s ghastly discovery in a hayloft, a discovery he takes to be the angel of his friend Eben. Eben was kidnapped and murdered, most likely by the strange, suspiciously amiable hoodlums in the Cadillac. People keep disappearing, not just kids. 

The Reflecting Skin will enrapture those attuned to its wheatfield surrealism and repel, violently, everyone else. Upon its release almost thirty years ago it attracted unavoidable comparisons to David Lynch, but these days it seems sui generis. Ridley, sadly, hasn’t done much in films since (though he has kept his hand in creatively with books, paintings and plays). 1995’s The Passion of Darkly Noon (with one of Brendan Fraser’s finest unseen performances) and 2009’s Heartless are about it for those who want to see more Ridley cinema. But at least he batted three for three (though Heartless, while fine, is the weak link of the three). For some, the early lead performance by Viggo Mortensen (who also shows up in Darkly Noon) will be a draw; the then-31-year-old weighs in with a cloaked, edgy turn later elaborated on in Sean Penn’s essential The Indian Runner.

Mortensen fits right into the curdled nostalgia of the piece. Truly, though, the film is held together by young Jeremy Cooper. I think he’s the reason we don’t hate Seth after his first scene. Seth is in pain, and as we see more and more of his grim home life we can understand why, even if he doesn’t. The movie’s title, as I said, is given a literal explication, but it’s also a metaphor for how, when we look at others, we just see weird reflections of ourselves, or of our expectations or prejudices. So people are vampires or perverts, or they go around calling themselves sinners, or they just go around killing children — either in a Cadillac or in a United States military aircraft. A lot of The Reflecting Skin has to do with toxic masculinity — though that wasn’t a concept back in 1990 and definitely not at the time of the film’s setting. Almost every scene is creepy or morbid or painful or all three. The people, out there in the beauty of the unnamed pastoral country, are damned from birth. The whispering landscape crawls with demons, and the angels are fishy-smelling, maggoty corpses. The vision of hell is forceful and complete.

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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.

Us

June 16, 2019

us Jordan Peele has proven himself one of the most fascinating writer-directors working today — not just in the horror genre, but in general. His presence behind the camera now guarantees my interest. Us, Peele’s mesmerizing, terrifying follow-up to his Oscar-winning hit Get Out, shows that the social-horror sensibility that animated that film was no fluke. This is, among other things, a thriller that (like last week’s The Perfection) is powered by surprise and its willingness to cross genre boundaries, so it’s another one whose plot is difficult to write about — though the plot isn’t the main reason Us gets under our skin, in any case. It’s the primal punch of the images and moods that the plot makes possible. For instance, how can I explain how hilarious and horrific the use of NWA’s “Fuck tha Police” is here? It’s a joke at the expense of Siri/Alexa-type virtual assistants, but it’s also a grim warning: For real, fuck the police, they’re not going to help you here, not in this weird new world informed as much by Hands Across America and Michael Jackson as by Kubrick’s The Shining.

Has Jordan Peele ever read the snippet that Harlan Ellison once published from his unproduced The Whimper of Whipped Dogs script? There’s an image near the beginning that makes me think he has — a girl drops her candy apple in the sand of a beach, where it sticks up as ominous night rain begins to patter onto it. I recalled Ellison’s image of a knife in the sand dappled by raindrops. Even if Peele wasn’t influenced by this specific bit, it seems clear that he’s drinking from the same intoxicating and frightening well of brutal visuals that filled/fueled Ellison’s imagination. Those visuals can help an artist try to make sense of violence, and in Us Peele summons hints and whispers of the uncanny in order to make sense of, and ultimately elicit sympathy for, its mostly inarticulate monsters.

The narrative begins simply, with a well-to-do family off to kick back in their summer house. Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o), the mother/wife of the family, seems to be the main protagonist by virtue of her introduction in the opening extended flashback as a little girl. She is grown now, and a bit skittish due to her experience in a strange beach funhouse, but essentially normal. So are her husband Gabe (Winston Duke) and their two kids Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex). They all hang out at the Santa Cruz beach with their also-wealthy friends (Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker) and their twin teenage daughters, and the subtext of familial violence expressed in ironic jokes begins to surface. One night, the Wilsons are trying to relax back at their summer house, and a quartet of menacingly silent figures appear outside.

If Peele’s subversive narrative style has an Achilles’ heel, it’s that after Get Out we know to notice, and file away for future scrutiny, any number of visual, aural, or thematic Easter eggs. When a character turns up holding a sign referring to Jeremiah 11:11, and when another character not only notices that a clock reads 11:11 but calls attention to it, we know we’re meant to look up the Biblical quote on our phones in the parking lot after the movie. (Amusingly, when you google the line now, you get back a bunch of images from Us.) I’ll let you have fun with the passage, with its intimations of evil and the wrath of the Old Testament God, and what it could possibly have to do with a story that makes room for paper people chains, Minnie Riperton, rabbits, Lucas/Spielberg nods, and the discontents of what used to be called (and in the context of this movie is a perfectly appropriate descriptor) “the underclass.”

The wounded-seeming Nyong’o plays victim and victimizer with equal conviction and facility, and Winston Duke, whom I’d only seen before as the sardonic, intimidating warrior M’Baku in Black Panther, is something of a revelation here as the much less at-ease-with-violence Gabe, whom Peele almost seems to have molded in his literal image. (When Gabe is forced to grab a baseball bat and warn the interlopers away, Duke gives us the attitude with a subtle undercurrent of self-doubt.) There’s twinning all over the movie, including a real spider crawling out from underneath a toy spider, and there’s Elisabeth Moss at her stark raving scariest, staring in a mirror and rendering her face incarnadine in more ways than one (she seems ready for a David Lynch movie). The movie is spooky as hell, dealing hard and fast from a thick deck of symbolist cards, and ultimately Peele offers it as a suggestion to think about what society and prosperity are built on. It is brilliant and timely and more than a little insane in its everything-ties-together narrative sanity, which the movie also comments on. I have no idea where the actual hell Peele intends to go from here, but wherever it is, he has my eager permission to go there and report on his findings.

The Wild Bunch

June 2, 2019

wildbunch Watching The Wild Bunch, Sam Peckinpah’s magnum opus, you might imagine it should have killed off all Westerns forevermore. Or movies. The film, which celebrates its 50th anniversary on June 18, was designed to flip our violence-craving switch off by giving us splattering, gushing, slow-motion carnage. Instead, to Peckinpah’s chagrin, it fed and reinforced that craving. And yet, to modern eyes, it’s not the copious blood squibs and squirts that feel revolutionary (not when we know it was preceded by Kurosawa and Herschell Gordon Lewis); it’s Lou Lombardo’s time-scrambling editing, which glides from regular to slow motion between shots during the sequences of greatest brutality. Old-school mythmaking met new-school technique and produced, as Pauline Kael had it, a new wine that exploded the old bottle of the Western.

The basic story is older than the medium itself — a band of aging outlaws on one final score. But Peckinpah takes it and tries to strip off all the romanticism that had accumulated around the trope for the past seventy years or so. In retrospect, Gene Hackman’s character in Unforgiven can be seen as a Peckinpah figure, debunking the grand old legends of the West, replacing the pulps’ malarkey with his own cheerfully cynical version. (And I mean cheerfully; despite the gore and grime of The Wild Bunch, its tone is mostly the opposite of grim and gritty. There are a few points when characters join in full-throated nihilistic laughter.) In this savage universe, death is noted and given its due, but only briefly; life is pursuit and retreat, and innocence is represented by a group of children burning ants and a scorpion alive.

In such a godless place, only killers and thieves with some sort of moral code, however shaky, stand a chance of existing with dignity. Our anti-hero, Pike Bishop (William Holden), says that if we can’t be loyal to the men we ride with, we’re no better than animals. But no one else is obligated to share that ethos. The movie is set in 1913, possibly a surprise to newcomers, and the appearance of an automobile seems really out of place in the reality established in the film up to that point. But it’s not the car that’s the anachronism, it’s these men, who might have made their bones after or even during the Civil War, and who don’t belong in the 20th century. Moral codes are becoming an endangered species. In one short year, all the technology seen or talked about by these men — such as the machine gun that gets such play during the climax — will be put to use in the first Great War. For most of the movie, though, our anti-heroes — including Ernest Borgnine as sarcastic Dutch and Ben Johnson and Warren Oates as the loutish Gorch brothers — ride through a world of six-shooters, rifles, maybe dynamite.

The pictorial style of the film — classical, elegiac — bumps up against the technique that fractures and prolongs death. Peckinpah uses pure cinema to make his point about the world passing these men (this genre) by. The Peckinpah figure here might be Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan), formerly an associate of Pike, now deputized by the railroad to find and kill Pike and his gang. Deke doesn’t take any pleasure in violence, and isn’t like some of the human buzzards in his posse who rush to denude the dead. Deke seems to see the writing on the wall, and Ryan plays him with a sad gravitas typical of his great late-career performances. (Indeed, if not for later triumphs by Oates and Johnson, I’d be tempted to say Peckinpah got career-capping work out of everyone here.) A lot of The Wild Bunch, while working to be iconoclastic, is also archetypal. If you’re going to redefine painting, you still have to do it onto a surface, not in thin air.

And so The Wild Bunch is projected onto a big wide screen, larger than almost anything (though Peckinpah isn’t much interested in aping Sergio Leone’s near-parodic gigantism). The scale is epic though not inflated. The simpler men in the gang seem capable of joy, fleeting though it is (literally soaking in wine with topless women — the nascent second-wave feminism of its era touches this film not in the slightest, by the way). The older, wiser men can laugh ruefully at the abyss but have stared into it too often to forget it for long. That’s Peckinpah in sum. This lengthy Panorama movie-movie, with its crimson eruptions playing out in open air and sunshine, turning the dry Mexican sand into bloody mud, may be Peckinpah’s most personal film; he’s both Pike, an old outlaw feeling outmoded, and Deke, a former outlaw renouncing disorder. Peckinpah and his film are profoundly ambivalent about which is the better man, and fifty years later that may remain more of a shock than the arterial geysers.

They Shall Not Grow Old

May 19, 2019

theyshall Near the end of the immersive World War I documentary They Shall Not Grow Old, director/assembler Peter Jackson gives us perhaps the most breathtaking sound in the whole film: silence. Before that, we have heard the staccato of rifle fire, the grunts and creaks of tank treads, the death-dealing bass of artillery shells. But here, Jackson lets us hear something close to what Kurt Vonnegut described as the voice of God. “When I was a boy,” Vonnegut wrote in Breakfast of Champions, “all the people of all the nations which had fought in the First World War were silent during the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of Armistice Day, which was the eleventh day of the eleventh month. It was during that minute in nineteen hundred and eighteen, that millions upon millions of human beings stopped butchering one another. I have talked to old men who were on battlefields during that minute. They have told me in one way or another that the sudden silence was the Voice of God. So we still have among us some men who can remember when God spoke clearly to mankind.”

We don’t have them any more, of course — veterans of the War to End All Wars are long dead now, and those of WWII and Korea aren’t far behind. What Jackson has done, aided by firsthand accounts on the soundtrack from men who fought in the trenches, is to capture and modernize a period when Satan walked the earth, when weapons of mass destruction — machine guns, mustard gas, flame throwers, shrapnel — came into wide use. World War I was a bloody, filthy, diseased, maggot-ridden experience, repulsive in almost every way, and Jackson does his best to make it vivid for current audiences, using technology to slow and smooth the stuttery, farcical Keystone Kops effect you always get from early-20th-century newsreels, so that the filmed record of these muddy, exhausted men takes its place alongside footage of later wars.

They Shall Not Grow Old is probably the finest thing Peter Jackson has had his hand in since Heavenly Creatures. In both, he kicks off with deceptive old-timey footage; here, it goes on for about 25 minutes, at which point we arrive at the front and the film opens out to widescreen and blossoms into (subdued) color. After the war has ended, Jackson constricts the image back to squarish black-and-white. In a way, the film is something of a cheeky riposte to Christopher Nolan’s you-are-there WWII epic Dunkirk; Jackson could be saying “Good job, mate, but you had the luxury of stars and re-enactment, didn’t you?” As the (disembodied) voices continue on the soundtrack, our imaginations fill in a lot, and, as with many WWI accounts, we may wonder how anyone could have survived. A plague seems to have descended among men; Satan walks and God, until 11/11/18, is conspicuous in His absence.

We see many bodies reduced to ghostless meat, pale and torn apart, consigned to the mud and becoming part of the muck that drowned other soldiers who unluckily fell into it. Hell on Earth! Some of the voices are chipper or matter-of-fact — that incomparable British get-on-with-it attitude — others haunted or choked with trauma. Jackson takes his cue from the veterans’ accounts, indulging in neither rabble-rousing nor the modern privilege of hindsight. These were men who were born around the turn of the 20th century, and were not our idea of enlightened. (Jackson plays a popular bawdy song of the period, “Mademoiselle from Armentières,” under the end credits.) Still, though, there is room for compassion and even kinship between the English and the Germans. They have been trained to slaughter each other without hesitation, but near the finish, when it looks as though more killing would be beside the point, the adversaries sit and talk and eat together.            

Until then, though, the mood is dread-ridden — when it doesn’t give way to nervous giggles. They Shall Not Grow Old is as much about how men function under fire as about the fire itself. Many weren’t even men yet; many died still boys. WWI birthed the concept of “shell shock,” which became “combat stress reaction,” which became “post-traumatic stress disorder.” The constant of war — the thousand-yard stare coveted by an unwise combat photographer in Full Metal Jacket — is everywhere present in this film. In that first half hour or so, voice after voice tells us he joined because it was the thing to do, you stood up and fought for your country, et cetera. They had no idea of the infernal meat grinder they were signing up for, which would pulverize them into machinery or into parts.

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…