Stop Standing There And Hit Me: Dragged Across Concrete and the Perils of Being a Pretty Bad Movie
If Vince Vaughn couldn't deliver smarmy quips in a farce like Dodgeball, I don't know why we expect him to be able to deliver them in a crime drama. Mel Gibson, who looks like he sleeps in a tub of cigarette ash and dust, was maybe good once-- he doesn't do a ton in the movies I like (Road Warrior, etc.) and I'm not itching to revisit Payback or Ransom to see if his work there, when he had to do more verbal acting, holds up. Now he makes a movie like Blood Father or Edge of Darkness every five years and then goes back to directing wildly overrated PureFlix movies like Hacksaw Ridge. Laurie Holden talks like she learned her lines phonetically and Fred Melamed overacts as always. In A Serious Man, he's given similarly over-the-top dialogue, meeting the Coen brothers where they wanted him, but here he's all breathy over-enunciation, like he's trying to channel Tobias Funke in the middle of an unsuccessful Shakespeare audition.
This is Dragged Across Concrete, the much-hyped new movie from S. Craig Zahler. Zahler, a man with a deadly receding hairline/ponytail combo, makes mean exploitation cinema that takes its time. The pace is the thing everybody talks about with Zahler's movies, and especially with Dragged Across Concrete. It's 159 minutes long. The last forty minutes or so are very good and most of the preceding two hours meander. Sometimes meandering is valuable, sometimes it's just laziness. Sometimes long pauses are just there because nobody knew how to fill them with anything better than weary staring.
I occasionally appreciated the methodical pacing. During action scenes, it works wonders for the tension. When Gibson and Vaughn perch outside a drug dealer's window, waiting to take him down, the extended set-up is thrilling. It's the ten minutes of Laurie Holden complaining about how black kids made her racist that make you wonder why Zahler refuses to edit himself.
The best hard-boiled fiction is terse, clipped. Richard Stark threw away adjectives. Jim Thompson got in and out in 200 pages. I'm not saying the movie would be on Charley Varrick's level if it trimmed forty or fifty minutes off its runtime. The bloat is too ingrained in the movie to just say "You could cut scenes x, y and z and it would be better." The bloat is the point. Zahler is trying to drag everything out. People are seeing this movie because of it.
But is he stretching anything of substance? I get why Zahler wanted a scene where Tory Kittles and his son play a fake-ass video game you would have seen in Lawnmower Man. I get why Mel Gibson and his daughter watch a nature show about lions protecting their cubs and she says "they're so cute when they're young" right before Gibson dives into a life of crime to provide for his daughter. This stuff isn't complicated. In fact, it's almost insultingly surface-level. Tory Kittles ends the movie playing a video game with his kid about hunting lions. There are Big Bang Theory episodes with more nuance than these scenes.
And I am used to the best crime writers having shitty politics. You ever read an interview with James Ellroy? He's fucking crazy. Not in an eccentric way, but in an H.P. Lovecraft way, where the more you read about him the more you realize he views the world as being as twisted and shitty a black hole as it is in his darkest work.
Because that's what I'm avoiding here. I can complain about how bad Mel Gibson is at delivering a line like a human being, but the issue is also that it's anti-Semitic, racist Mel Gibson, who beat his girlfriend so badly he broke her teeth, delivering that line. In addition to Zahler's "make every moment last" style, people are drawn to Dragged Across Concrete because it stars Mel Gibson as a racist cop put on unpaid leave for getting filmed being a racist cop.
The lion/hunter metaphor, which is as embarrassing as the "Martha" scene in Batman v. Superman, is a good example of the level Zahler's operating at. His dialogue, where hard-boiled crime is supposed to thrive, is first draft. Vince Vaughn can't talk naturally to save his life, but it isn't just his fault that "Every Martin Luther King Day I order a cup of dark roast" doesn't go over. People either directly tell each other what they're doing and how they're feeling, or they make jokes that I guess you'd have an emotional response to if you thought South Park was edgy. When a character says "This is bad. Like lasagna in a can," am I supposed to be thankful we've been given so much time to luxuriate in Zahler's dialogue? And even if the language was good, Vince Vaughn's still delivering lines like a Borscht Belt comic. When he and Gibson pull up to a bloodbath shootout between bank robbers and their getaway drivers, and there's a dead driver on the ground, and Vaughn just lost his mind that they hadn't stopped the bank robbery and saved a bunch of innocent people, and he was so shaken up he called his girlfriend and proposed over voicemail, he sees the dead driver and goes "Looks like problems with the hired help" in a Jerry Lewis voice. It's inconsistent writing for him to yoyo emotionally from "game over, man" to "take my wife, please," but Vaughn's still here making the decision to Shecky Greene it up. I don't know who to blame.
Zahler writes what he finds interesting and wants you to remove the politics, but his movie's universe proves Mel Gibson's racist cop right repeatedly. The black people in this movie are criminals and Gibson always knows what they're doing, what they're planning, the best time to strike. In this way, we're watching a superhero movie about a guy with perfect instincts. As a story about how one clear-headed cop is the only person who truly knows what needs to be done to stop crime, we're also watching a conspiracy movie. The film's defenders have argued every character here is flawed and that Kittles' character, a black getaway driver, is the only sympathetic one. They're reaching. Kittles plays a guy who takes advantage of a bad situation and profits off it. If anything, he's equally as sympathetic as Gibson's character and less so than Vaughn's. He runs away from a fight and then threatens to kill Gibson's character if Gibson doesn't help him. He survives by being lucky, and then by being sneaky. The movie isn't rewarding the survivor as much as it's saying the world is cruel and random. The last guy you expected to profit off everything gets to thrive. And making an ending that grim isn't bad at all. I only start to wince when the film's defenders use Kittles' prosperity as evidence that, deep down, Zahler is making a movie where the most prominent black character is secretly the hero.
Dragged Across Concrete is long, but there isn't much going on between the well-executed violence. If Zahler is trying to push buttons, he's doing it with a crumbling script with no internal consistency. When movies like this come out, the subtext of the positive reviews is always "If you don't like this movie, it's because you're walking in with pre-conceived notions about the people involved." I don't know about that. Zahler says he cast Gibson because he was the best person for the job. He says his movie isn't political. I don't think you always have to judge the politics of movies that aren't trying to be political. Sometimes you just want to watch mutants brutalize people in the desert, and you don't want to pick apart the implications of any of it. I like plenty of Japanese samurai movies that lean Libertarian. But this movie is political whether it wants to be or not. It's using incredibly loaded, real world things, it stars an actor who's been recorded saying things as racist in real life as his character says in this movie. This is an explicit connection. So maybe S. Craig Zahler doesn't want to make a political movie, but he made one. He's just too wishy-washy to make it a good one. He just isn't dedicated enough to think through what anything he's doing means. I liked his first film, Bone Tomahawk, but didn't like the follow-up, Brawl in Cell Block 99. Bone Tomahawk was a frightening Weird Western and Brawl was a prison movie that took forever to get to the prison and didn't do much once it got there, a decompressed step back for the auteur. Maybe he'll continue to make movies like this for the rest of his career, half-assing it as long as people keep talking about movies designed to get you talking about them. Maybe he'll pull it together and explore a theme in even the most glancing way. Or maybe he'll continue making movies Vince Vaughn could reasonably star in.