Dragged Across Concrete

Dragged Across Concrete ★★★★

I have no idea why this was my first movie of 2021 but here we are

Let's call myself a Zahler novice. I should probably rewatch Bone Tomahawk at some point; I did see it once years ago and remember it mostly as "fine." Apparently it's one of the most gruesome movies a lot of people on here have ever seen but I don't recall being as put off by the gore as everyone else. Granted, this also happened to me with The Nightingale, another movie where I was able to just go with it rather than feeling brutalized like the rest of the audience. I don't know what that says about my psychological makeup or my viewing habits, but extreme violence in film rarely has any kind of lasting effect on me. I have not seen Brawl in Cell Block 99, although a friend of mine whose opinion I trust said it doesn't work at all.

But Dragged Across Concrete? This never should've worked for me. Mel Gibson is an awful person, Vince Vaughn has never been a favourite actor of mine, and the screenplay is riddled with unquestionably Problematic™ actions, dialogue and philosophical musings from its main characters. Many of its excesses have been described by reviewers as borderline edgelord trolling on the part of the director. It's a three hour long crime saga starring mostly terrible people that starts with two Latin characters getting violated by openly racist white police officers. As a Latino with no love for the police, this is not what I think of when I think "entertainment."

But I guess that's the power of quality filmmaking, because the simple fact is this movie is really good. By any reliable metric, Zahler's technical craft, screenwriting skill and stylistic flourishes are finely tuned to the point of his crass tendencies and ambiguous political leanings no longer mattering, at least to me. I had a conversation recently (with the same friend who didn't care for Brawl) where we discussed how ridiculous it was that a movie like Hacksaw Ridge was nominated for Best Picture, and I said that "Mel Gibson is simply not a good enough filmmaker to make up the difference for how toxic he is." Well, I have no clue what Zahler's like in real life, but he does make up that difference here.

And honestly, in reading reviews for this movie, it feels like way too much time has been taken up talking about what the filmmaker may or may not believe versus what the film actually does, and I believe that's to the detriment of the discussion. Maybe I'm just getting grumpy in my old age, but the "depiction equals endorsement" line of thinking has so poisoned film discourse that I've barely talked about movies openly for several months now. Content is shoved into our faces as soon as it drops and we're faced with immense pressure to immediately have not just A Take but The Take: the single, correct, morally righteous judgement upon The Art that will stand the test of time and the Twitter outrage machine. Heaven help your notifications if you get it wrong, or if you ever want to, oh, I don't know, change your mind.

And if you're thinking "hey wait, that sounds a lot like the way the Bad Cop Protagonists in this movie talk about facing consequences for their police brutality being caught on tape" then congratulations, you've equated grievances about how we discuss movies online with being an unflinching member of an oppressive, racist system that ensures ethnic minorities are violently disenfranchised. Because that's where we are now. Two things that don't have anything to do with each other and are nowhere close on the tier list of How Bad Things Are have been mushed into a glob of putty by algorithms and fifteen year olds who have been empowered by the internet to think that reading one article on Marxism and harassing anyone who disagrees with them is the peak of social justice activism.

But back to the movie. As I said, it's really good. I've never been on the "vulgar auteurism" train, because you'll catch me dead before I start praising Michael Bay or the fucking Resident Evil movies (I swear, the things people try to reclaim on here are beyond absurd), but if there's been a movie that fits that bill for me, it's this. Zahler points his camera at the brutal piece of the world he's selected and just holds still. His long shots are sublime, and his patience with staging and dialogue gives his scenes a nearly poetic level of flow and rhythm. He understands the value of stillness and silence, and weaponizes both to great effect. Anyone who can make a nearly three hour movie feel like less than two knows what he's doing.

The choice of protagonists was always going to bristle folks, but noxious casting aside, I personally found that the screenplay allows the characters dimensionality without demanding any kind of overt sympathy. Some of the actual words and expressions are certainly choices, but they're choices that tend to feel like they were made for the purpose of honestly portraying people who do indeed exist, regardless of how unpleasant they are. This is obviously a huge mileage may vary thing, and I can't blame anyone who is put off by the cavalier attitude the film has towards some particularly charged subjects, or who just doesn't want to spend this amount of time with characters they cannot or will not be able to empathize with.

If I have issues with this, I'd say the ending is a bit too neat and tidy; I can't help but feel that an ending of that last character just driving away would be a more natural conclusion. The time jump necessitates an amount of sentimentality the rest of the movie doesn't really share. The same can be said for Jennifer Carpenter's character, who feels incongruous with the rest of the film to the point of what happens to her coming off unnecessarily sadistic. Neither of these are dealbreakers in any respect, but they do clash with what appear to be Zahler's general sensibilities.

I don't know what else to tell you guys. It's good. Guess I'm out here taking another strike on my POC card

The Wild West never went away.
We just got better at dressing it up.