Below the surface

Patrick Mulcahy on a slow burner about have-nots

When it comes to the work of American writer-director S. Craig Zahler, I have arrived late to the party. Having seen his monumental third feature, Dragged Across Concrete, a film about American have-nots that has the pulpy depth of an Elmore Leonard novel, I am prepared to hand out flyers and put up the bunting. Set in the fictional city of Bulwark, it is a multi-character drama in the liberal tradition of John Sayles. Sayles privileged story structure, character and dry wit above flashy set pieces. In Dragged Across Concrete, Zahler does the same, but, with the artist cunning that Sayles lacked, he adds something extra: guts. Towards the end of the film – be advised it is a long one, almost 160 minutes, but I wouldn’t change the pace – Zahler shows one man fishing through another man’s intestines. Zahler’s world view is anti-kitsch, the opposite of ‘without shit’, to paraphrase Czech author Milan Kundera. However, the violence isn’t gratuitous. On the contrary, it is brutally functional, reflecting Zahler’s critique of American society.

Zahler casts two right-wing stars, Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn, who are renowned for speaking their minds – in Gibson’s case in a career-destroying manner – and contains them. They play two cops – Gibson the veteran Brett, Vaughn his protégé, Anthony – who get the job done, if not exactly by the book. Brett subdues a suspect by putting his foot on his neck, but is filmed doing so. The opening set piece isn’t full of pumped up violence, where the audience is sucked into the cops’ seething righteousness – it is perfunctory.

Brett also persuades a naked woman to reveal the location of a stash of guns, but reneges on letting her go. He gives the speech about getting through his questions quickly so he and Anthony can catch the breakfast special at Bert’s – a local diner, but not the best. Zahler is really interested in digestion, how we consume information, but he slows it right down. In one scene, Brett describes Anthony as taking 98 minutes to finish a sandwich. ‘A red ant could have eaten it faster.’

How do you get an audience hooked into anti-glamour? Zahler, playing a series of B-movie tricks familiar from exploitation films of the 1970s and 1980s, gives us a sex scene involving a newly released ex-convict, Henry (Tory Kittles). He returns home to find his mother (Vanessa Bell Calloway) prostituting herself – he threatens the customer with a baseball bat, but doesn’t swing it – while his younger brother is in his room playing video games. His favourite is ‘Shotgun Safari’ which the siblings play together. Wildlife is a recurring motif: Brett also watches lion cub documentaries with his teenage daughter, Sara. Henry is not so good at the game because, as it turns out, he hasn’t used a gun. ‘I’ve never killed anyone,’ he says.

Zahler entirely understands why right-wing populism has taken hold in the US. The left-wing response, also marked by outrage, isn’t proportionate or forgiving. Zahler isn’t interested in figureheads or symbols of polarised views, rather how behaviour manifests itself in shared spaces. As the daughter of two cops, Sara is assaulted by a passing cyclist who pelts her with soft drink. Brett worries about the long-term psychological damage done to her, the result of living in a poor neighbourhood on the wages he earns – his wife also has multiple sclerosis. Zahler puts loving relationships right at the centre of the movie – Brett’s partner loves his girlfriend who is ‘smarter than him by a yard stick’. The ex-con loves his mother and brother. Two-thirds of the way through the movie, Zahler introduces a young mother, Kelly (Jennifer Carpenter) who recently has given birth and is returning to work for the first time. That moment is wrenching. Her boss (Fred Melamed) is florid in his appreciation. He gives a workplace speech of the type that we are not used to hearing. It is – and we know it – the lull before the storm.

Zahler does not pretend that there is equivalence between cops and career criminals. The bad guys are remorseless. They state their intentions using a distorted voice played on an old fashioned tape recorder during a robbery and follow through brutally. Significantly, as the opening set piece proves, the cops have to lie to achieve results. It is a necessary tactic. This isn’t to say that lying is presented as a virtue. At various points, Brett doesn’t say what he has in mind – and his wife knows not to ask – so as to limit complicity.

Although the film is a slow burner, it is not without entertainment or a moral compass. Playing the percentages means that Brett doesn’t always play safe. The film is about the unlikelihood of hope – or, if you prefer to quote former US President Barack Obama – its audacity. The final image is of a face looking at us, a redeemed face that tells us that the odds can be changed. Dragged Across Concrete is a genuinely radical film.

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