Craig Zahler has no one to blame but himself for what will probably be a career of making movies that aren’t as good as Bone Tomahawk. He got off to a solid start with a formulaic, uneven, and ultimately forgettable prison yarn called Brawl in Cell Block 99. The whole thing felt like a build up to a special effect that wasn’t even that good. That’s why I watched this movie? So you could do that? Dragged Across Concrete feels like a do-over. This is what I expect from the guy who made Bone Tomahawk.
At first, Dragged Across Concrete seems like it’s setting itself up for the same fate as Brawl in Cell Block 99. Maybe not formulaic, but familiar. A guy gets out of prison. Some cops get in trouble. But hold on a second. There’s a third thing happening. Something is afoot, and Zahler is oddly circumspect. In structure and even tone, it reminds me of a Cormac McCarthy novel called Outer Dark. McCarthy follows the separate stories of two characters, but sometimes a third set of characters makes an appearance in a whole other typeface. They circle the plot, random and violent, slowly moving in, becoming relevant, emerging from their italic font into the rest of the book. Outer Dark’s three strangers are antecedants to Chigurh in No Country for Old Men, but I read a review once that referred to them as vampires. Which is an awfully trite takeaway for that book’s nasty nihilistic cruelty. There’s something much bigger here than vampires. Something apocalyptic, primeval, Biblical, a metaphor for something ineffable.
Dragged Across Concrete is a long movie, but not out of indulgence. It wouldn’t be as effective if it moved faster or played shorter. The hellish trio has to close in slowly, inevitably, in a roundabout way. They don’t just barge into the plot. They skulk and then emerge. Their almost supernatural cruelty is a counterpoint to the other relatable and relatively mundane characters. Zahler needs the running time to earn the story’s poignance and brutality in equal measure, as balanced counterpoints. It’s not called Hurtled Across Concrete.
You’ll need to cut Zahler some slack for snippets of stylized dialogue. A black thug just out of prison calls his father “a yesterday who ain’t worth words.” Also forgive him some moments of implausibility. Dragged Across Concrete doesn’t have the luxury of the Old West’s distance, which gave Bone Tomahawk so much stylistic leeway. But notice the setting. It’s a fake city. Called Bulwark. That’s not just a random word plucked from a list of fake city names.
In the lead role, Mel Gibson reverts to his deadened self from all the way back to Road Warrior. He’s an, uh, interesting casting choice considering the racial tension, and he’s part of an exchange that I consider the third best use of the N-word in modern movies, after Sorry to Bother You and Blindspotting. Among the rest of the cast members, I won’t be able to look at Jennifer Carpenter the same way anymore, which is frankly rude. Zahler’s cinematographer, Benji Bakshi, finally gets to show off. Bone Tomahawk was shot too cheaply to afford any visual snap. But Bakshi’s intentionally sickly lighting throughout Dragged Across Concrete gives it the look of a wilted Michael Mann movie.
Of course, Zahler can’t resist moments of shocking violence and gore. The fact that an old horror hound like me calls them shocking should tell you all you need to know. As one of the characters quips, “The blood is gratis.” But in the end, I’m not sure I needed it. I don’t mean the violence, which is integral to the story. I mean the whole thing. I’m not sure it was poetic enough, or even much of a morality tale. It might have been merely cruel. It reminds me of when I was a kid watching something too scary. I had the sense that I shouldn’t be seeing this, that it wasn’t good for me. “It’s not healthy for you to scuff concrete as long as you have,” Gibson’s character is warned. “You get results, but you’re losing perspective and compassion. A couple more years out there and you’re going to be a human steamroller covered with spikes and fueled by bile.” It sounds like something someone who watched Asylum Blackout and Bone Tomahawk might tell Zahler. The movie will reference bile later as part of a mindboggling racist comment. Can you feel the spikes on the steamroller pressing into your back?