One thing that can be said definitively about director Craig S. Zahler is that he wants to challenge you. If anything, his dense, 2015 western drama Bone Tomahawk was a test both in terms of patience, empathy, and stomach strength. His films are measured, calculated dives into the psyches of complicated people whom we are forced to see ourselves in. And while it is fascinating to reckon with our proximity to his conflicting protagonists, it’s also difficult, as noted by film critic Karen Han, to ignore the impartiality attempted to be presented in his latest film, which utilises two right-leaning actors in the roles of corrupt, prejudiced, SJW-decrying police officers. Watching Mel Gibson, in particular, play the role of a racist, conservative misogynist with a cloudy sense of morals is like a direct line to our outrage receptors.
But despite how arduous it feels to be forced to find understanding for two cops who bemoan the latest trends of moral sensitivity (and say things like “every Martin Luther King Day I order a cup of dark roast” in a facetious attempt to excuse racist tendencies), it never truly feels like an endorsement of their views; simply another challenge Zahler has imparted upon us to find empathy for those who feel virtually irredeemable. It’s true that film is about finding yourself in diverse perspectives, but it feels like even more of an intentional task to find this empathy in such a character played by someone with a virulent history such as Mel Gibson. Thus, Dragged Across Concrete does find itself working on multiple levels in its quest to unearth compassion for characters without any, but as thought-provoking as it is, its own cinematic emotionlessness often feels as sterile as the two lead characters’ endeavours.
Brett Ridgeman and Anthony Lurasetti have a history of violence and utilising unorthodox methods in their police work. The film begins with Mel Gibson’s Ridgeman aggressively confronting a Latino drug dealer, and continues on as both Ridgeman and Vince Vaughn’s Lurasetti force the man’s near-naked girlfriend to spill the location of hidden drugs. They do this to her while under the icy chill of a ceiling fan and the false pretence that they’ll let her go. Soon after, while Ridgeman and Lurasetti are receiving suspensions for this behaviour – caught on camera by a vigilant passerby – newly ex-con Henry Johns (Tory Kittles) is strategising the terms of his next illegal means of income with his cohort, Biscuit (Michael Jai White). Henry’s mother does drugs, prostitutes herself to pay the bills, and has a history of being neglectful; Henry’s wheelchair-bound kid brother Ethan (Myles Truitt) dreams of going to school to become a video game designer.
Ridgeman, wife Melanie (Laurie Holden), and daughter Sara (Jordyn Ashley Olson) live in a poor, mostly black neighbourhood that has forced Melanie – an ex-cop with crippling multiple sclerosis – to reconsider her previously non-racist leanings, as Sara endures frequent assaults-by-soda on her way home from school. The family yearns to leave for a more upstanding neighbourhood, but are hampered by the middling pay from Ridgeman’s police salary; something Ridgeman assumed would increase, he laments, from his consistent hard work, in favour of actually evolving with the changing times. In the meantime, Lurasetti has plans to propose to his live-in girlfriend Denise (Tattiawna Jones), purchasing an expense ring that also comes greatly at odds with his current finances. Thus, while civilians under their suspension, Ridgeman consults Lurasetti to join him in intercepting the plans of a suspected heroin pusher and rob him of what he feels he and Lurasetti are “earned.” It’s the same job that Henry and Biscuit have gotten hired to do as drivers on behalf of the drug pusher, and both pairs of men soon find themselves at the crossroads of an ugliness they were far from expecting.
It’s important to note that no character in Dragged Across Concrete is portrayed as wholly good – save for, perhaps, the ones that are killed off too soon, like the new mother slaughtered viciously in the middle of a bank heist following a long scene in which she pleads with her partner that she can’t bear to be away from her newborn. Henry Johns, though well-intentioned, is shown to harbour his own homophobic prejudices, held by both him and his mother after his father left them to be with a man. It’s admittedly fascinating to watch a film largely through the eyes of three characters who hold views one might vehemently disagree with, but must reckon with the compassion that can be welled for them all the same.
At the same time, it’s interesting to question why we even need these perspectives; especially, to watch a film in which we must understand why two racist cops are racist, and search in our hearts a means to empathise with them. Are these the perspectives necessary in the current social and political climate in America? If they are, then why? Zahler doesn’t show his hand in this respect, but it feels like he’s prodding you to ponder it all the same. And one of the greatest strengths in Zahler’s film is that everyone is granted a perspective. From the prolonged shot of the black teenager gearing up to dump soda on Sara, to the distraught young mother caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, to the killing machine named Lorentz Vogelmann (Thomas Kretschmann), we are allowed time with characters who might not normally receive it, and it facilitates our connection to the narrative.
There are small touches to the film that further enhance its own perverse charm, like how Henry likes to say, “it’s all cotton candy,” and Lurasetti’s pronouncement of “anchovies” instead of “damn”; or when Ridgeman and Lurasetti are on a stake-out and Ridgeman endures what feels like a lifetime of Lurasetti’s visceral munching sounds. There’s even a scene which in which Zahler seems to comment on the repressed nature of straight, male friendships, when Ridgeman and Lurasetti find themselves at a loss to process their own necessary emotions, yet it is shown that Ridgeman knows Lurasetti’s phone password by heart. But Zahler has a penchant for starkness, and the emotional ambiguity of his film-making intertwined with a lengthy run-time leaves a certain emptiness after everything’s done, even with the unflinching brutality.
“It’s not healthy for you to scuff concrete as long as you have,” says Don Johnson’s Lieutenant Calvert to Ridgeman, in the process of administering suspensions to both him and Lurasetti. And despite Calvert’s own resistance towards these pesky, SJW-driven times we live in, he expresses a disappointment in Ridgeman’s inability to progress; to continue dragging himself through the darkest corners of civilisation and finding himself less in touch with humanity because of it. Dragged Across Concrete is very much an exploration in finding the humanity in those we might not otherwise think deserve it – a challenge for us to meditate on perspectives we’ve deemed unworthy of exploration. But it’s true that the film’s impartiality leaves us wondering how that can be possible; in a film where women and people of colour are those chiefly brutalised, while Mel Gibson can be seen embedding his heel into the neck of a Latino man.
Dragged Across Concrete wants to ask if we can sympathise with the unsympathetic. But it also might leave you asking if we should.
by Brianna Zigler
Brianna Zigler is a graduate in Film-Video and Writing from Penn State University with big plans and not a lot of planning. She is passionate about film and writing about film and also talking about film but can’t really decide which she wants to do with her life, but it’s not a big deal (that’s future Brianna’s problem). She loves horror, absurdism, Twin Peaks, is a die-hard Wes Anderson fan, and currently has almost 250 movies in her watchlist. Her favorite films are What We Do in the Shadows, A Serious Man, Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Swiss Army Man, and Suspiria. She met Greg Sestero once and it was weird. You can follow her on Twitter @briannazigs