Dragged Across Concrete ★★★★

2019: The Pieper Review -- Film #197 (3/27/2019)

S. Craig Zahler has a difficult aesthetic to pin down. Ever since 2015's horror-western Bone Tomahawk brought the writer-director into the collective film buff consciousness, Zahler has taken over as the reigning king of high quality 2010s B-movies. Bone Tomahawk proved his mastery over the great drive-in genres and 2017's Brawl in Cell Block 99 singlehandedly resurrected Vince Vaughn's career simultaneously proving that Zahler could coax career-best performances from seasoned actors. Dragged Across Concrete is Zahler's best film to date, but, as previously stated, it is still difficult to pin down what makes Zahler's filmmaking so compelling.

SCZ's cinematography and editing have a Woody Allen-esque lack of stylization. The pacing and action can have a deliberateness halfway between Robert Bresson and Michael Mann. The dialogue sizzles like it was written by Tarantino's half-brother with an occasionally higher inclination for big thesaurus-buster-outer words. And yet, these comparisons are still missing what makes Zahler stand out in the wide, post-90s sea of the exploitation genre: Unlike his recent forebearers and contemporaries, Zahler imbues his stories with both genre mastery and genuine empathy for his characters.

Despite the hardass title, Zahler's empathy is on full display in Dragged Across Concrete. Flashes of it are available in Bone Tomahawk (see those final scenes in the cave) and Brawl in Cell Block 99 (the early stuff in particular), but Dragged Across Concrete makes it into a central theme. We get a glimpse into the lives of cops whose lives have been ravaged by the media in an arguably unfair way, the daughter of one who is constantly assaulted (presumably for being the daughter of a cop), an ex-con with a crippled brother and a desperate mother, and even a bank employee who we soon witness getting robbed at gunpoint. That last one I mentioned, in particular, is a scene that I have never seen in a crime flick. It completely changed the way I look at the genre.

Without getting into too many more plot details, I will say that Dragged Across Concrete is well worth the time of any genre fan, and certainly those who have been following Zahler's budding career. Mel Gibson is perfectly cast, Vaughn delivers solid work once again, Tory Kittles steals the show, and even Michael Jai "Black Dynamite" White gets in on the action. Many critics have complained about the movie being "too long" and they may be right, but I also can't really think of a scene that I would remove from Concrete's two and half-hour running time. If anything, the criticisms are mostly coming from a place of confusion over Zahler's unique pacing and unusually un-sensationalized style. Has Zahler -- without a single wink or hint of camp -- finally ushered the exploitation genre into the realm of high art? With this level of empathy and sincerity, there is certainly a case to be made.

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