Dragged Across Concrete
The Dublin International Film Festival’s most enduring tradition is the “Surprise Film”, wherein audiences buy a ticket, sit down in their seats and don’t know what film they are going to be shown until it starts playing in front of them. It isn’t a bad idea, and I have been a religious attendee for several years now. There have been good films in that time – the best probably being Get Out – and some stinkers – like Good Kill – and a certain lean towards dark serious productions (not withstanding 2014’s Muppets Most Wanted). 2019 was no exception, as the choice was S. Craig Zahler’s Dragged Across Concrete, a dark (in more ways than one) crime drama due for wider release next month. So, did it join the list of good films, or did it join the list of stinkers?
After being filmed abusing a suspected drug dealer, detectives Brett Ridgeman (Mel Gibson) and Anthony Lurasetti (Vince Vaughn) are suspended from duty. Across town Henry (Tory Kittles) returns home from a stint in prison to find his family destitute. All searching for financial gain for different reasons, the three men are set on a collision course with each other, with deadly consequences.
As she demonstrates an effective brevity that surpasses my own abilities, I want to leave it to my girlfriend to offer the best review of this film that I can imagine: “I felt like I was the one being dragged across concrete”. And she was right. Dragged Across Concrete is a disaster of a film, and I struggle to understand how it has gotten critical praise thus far, and why the organisers of DIFF felt it the appropriate choice for this slot.
There are a myriad of flaws in this, but its best to start with the biggest, which is length. Dragged Across Concrete clocks in at an astonishing two hours and 40 minutes, as Zahler apparently had final cut from what I can assume was a very ignorant studio. His film is in bad need of some excising, filled with scenes that run too long and scenes that should not be present at all. Entire sequences stretch and stretch, such as when Ridgeman and Lurasetti stake-out a target (did we really need to see Vince Vaughn eat so often?), or in a totally bizarre mid-point sequence involving a character played by Jennifer Carpenter, who arrives in the movie and exits it ten minutes later, with the intervening time a ridiculous meander. Zahler, too in love with his own words and his own visual creation, appears to have been incapable of recognising when his project had gone beyond him. The end result is a botched labour of love, where all sense of cohesion, tension and narrative intrigue are cast aside in favour of needless padding.
The padding might be a partial consequence of Zahler’s script, which contains plenty of characters who expound every thought in their head, at length, to the point of absurdity. Nobody talks like the way Zahler’s characters talk: I get the feeling that he fancies himself a bit of a Tarantino in this regard, but Tarantino he isn’t, with his dialogue having none of the necessary zip, flair or sense of realism. Zahler was clearly a fan of Reservoir Dogs too, given the subject matter and scriptwork, but Reservoir Dogs’ best trait, from a film-making and production perspective, is its incredible pace and editing: it’s less than 100 minutes in length. Dragged Across Concrete does not hold a candle to it, and only looks worse in comparison.
With that out of the way, let’s get a bit more in-depth, starting with the first of the main plot forks. There’s an obvious joke to be made about Mel Gibson playing a racist, but it’s fair to say he’s probably the best part of the film from an acting perspective. Vaughn, opposite him in most scenes, looks distractingly disinterested in proceedings.
I don’t want to spend too much time on the uncomfortable issue of the film’s message on racism, as I don’t think it’s entirely fair to presume about the director’s own beliefs from what he chooses to put in his characters mouths, but there are parts of this that give you pause; the repeated racist language; how Ridgeman and Lurasetti seems straight out of a Breitbart “Blue Lives Matter” report; their terrorising of a Hispanic woman, including physical and verbal abuse; the shots taken at political correctness and society’s recent push back on toxic masculinity; how Ridgeman’s wife at one point essentially says “I’m as liberal as they come, and even I’m racist” (parroting a common right-wing idea) and the fact that, of all the leading men Zahler could have gone for, he choose the somehow still-employed Gibson, who has never adequately accounted for his past actions (I chose to stay in my seat and give the film a shot after seeing Gibson’s name pop up, to my regret; but not everyone who was in the theatre at the start were there at the end). Taken apart, it’s not so bad. Put together, and the subtext isn’t hard to spot. As one interviewer put it to Zahler recently, “the alt-right are drawn to your movies…” (and boy does Zahler come off an insufferable when he speaks on the record)
Anyway, we’ll move on. Ridgeman and Lurasetti want adequate restitution for all their hard work, and because of their personal circumstances (Ridgeman has a family he wants to move out of a bad (read: predominantly black) neighbourhood, Lurasetti wants to get married). This leads them on an elongated scheme to interfere with a bank robbery while they are suspended from duty, and I stress “elongated”, even though at times it feels as if nothing is really happening. The relationship between the two has next to no chemistry to speak of, and at times it’s almost like they shot their scenes separately, then got CGI’d in together.
On the other side of things is Kittles. Once you get past the very strange sex scene involving him that Dragged Across Concrete opens with, he becomes the closest thing we’ve got to a fully blown protagonist, without ever really reaching that height, with another recurring problem being the fact that we really don’t have anyone in the film worth rooting for, not really. Zahler sets Henry up but largely ignores him until much, much later in the film, a pity as he was a damn sight more interesting than Gibson and Vaughn’s “I’m not racist but…” stand-ins. Henry is written and portrayed too soft-spoken for Kittles to make too much of an impact, though I can’t say I can criticise him too much as an actor.
But Kittles’ part in affairs isn’t all that inoffensive, though I can’t elaborate too much since the bulk of my criticism of his plot-line is on the rather inane way it ends. Suffice to say that Zahler, in terms of tone and mood, makes a radical 180 degree turn in the final scenes that comes off like a different director suddenly stepped in at the death, and this one is a fan of unintentional comedy. If there is one thing that I didn’t expect when this started, it was that the words “Shotgun Safari” would play a crucial part in the ending.
The last great insult to the audience’s intelligence is the films visual style, which is atrocious. Put aside the effort to keep the frame as a big as possible because it doesn’t matter: Zahler lights his film so poorly I’m stunned it got the sign-off from those holding the purse strings. It’s obviously a deliberate choice, despite my sniggers that the cost of Gibson must have lowered the lightbulb budget, but it’s a terrible one. Nearly every scene, even those taking place in broad daylight, is dim to the point that things are hard to make out; interior scenes are so dark that characters’ faces cannot be seen. Zahler wants this to be moody and perhaps even noir-ish (there is a stink of Sin City here, in every bad way such a description could be used), but it instead comes off as ill-thought and cheap. Dragged Across Concrete’s director makes the baffling decision to make his film ugly at every turn.
It’s unlikely I will see a film for the rest of this year as bad as this. On every level of production it is either a failure or close to it; in performances, in script, in narrative, in editing, in pace and very much so in cinematography. Then there are the disturbing messages that the film contains which, even if the director does not see fit to condone or condemn them, make one inevitably think ill of Zahler, and of those who were happy to see this tragic example of auteur theory gone wrong be made. You should avoid this one when does go on general release. Not recommended.
(All images are copyright of Summit Entertainment).