“Im not a racist,” says police officer Anthony Lurasetti, with a sneer. “Every Martin Luther King Day, I order a cup of dark roast.”

If he says it like a class clown whos been called down to the principals office a few too many times, thats because Lurasetti (Vince Vaughn) and his partner, Brett Ridgeman (Mel Gibson), have been here, in the office of Lt. Calvert (Don Johnson), a few too many times. At the start of S. Craig Zahlers Dragged Across Concrete, which is now in theaters and on V.O.D., these two cops handcuff a Latino drug runner to a fire escape by his ankle—but not before smooshing his face into the stairwell grate with their heavy boots. Then they harass his girlfriend, who happens to be nude, buxom, and barely able to cover her chest, and who suffers being taunted and lied to by the cops before giving up the goods: a bag of money.

Unfortunately for Ridgeman and Lurasetti, someone catches the fire escape incident on video, which means they get the boot themselves until the bad press cools down. Thats time enough for both of them to respectively panic over their prospects. Lurasetti wants to propose to his (black—dont ask) girlfriend, but doesnt love the future hes got cut out for them on his cop paycheck. Ridgeman, meanwhile, has an ex-cop wife whos living with multiple sclerosis, and a daughter who keeps getting taunted by black residents in their predominantly black neighborhood—people who for some reason dont know and barely worry that the one white teenager walking around their neighborhood, the one girl they see fit to bully, is a cops daughter twice over.

Temporarily unemployed, with money woes and a presiding sense of having been stiffed of better pay by a corrupt system that wants to fashion itself politically correct, Ridgeman and Lurasetti decide to go rogue, getting a tip on an upcoming bank robbery masterminded by a guy name Lorentz Vogelmann (Thomas Kretschmann), an international criminal whose face we hardly see. It turns out to be more than they bargained for—making for a fair setup, as hard-boiled cop movies go. These arent exactly people we should aspire to be, but theyre people who exist, most pointedly as fictional archetypes in movies like this one. Theyre the sort of people who make crime fiction—stories about bad apples, dark underbellies, and other guilty pleasures—worth consuming. Their personalities are half the crime.

But Dragged Across Concrete, of course, has a more complicated narrative than that. Its stars, Gibson and Vaughn, are, in one case, a former Hollywood outcast known for making anti-Semitic remarks, and, in the other, a gun-friendly conservative, which for some people will make it impossible to watch this movie without it feeling ideologically biographical or, at the very least, too close to home. It cant help that Zahler has already gotten a reputation for making MAGA-bait films in which “irredeemably evil minorities” get slaughtered by white heroes in the name of saving white heroines in distress, or that hes too-willfully embraced the sophomoric position of expecting his film to “trigger” people. Cinestate, the Dallas-based, low-budget production house that has released all three of Zahlers features (including 2015s Bone Tomahawk and 2017s Brawl in Cell Block 99, of which I am fond), is getting a reputation for backing projects otherwise deemed too risky to make, ideologically speaking; earlier this year, it released The Standoff at Sparrow Creek, a film about militia violence thats curiously disinterested in the specific political underpinnings of militia warfare to begin with. Suffice it to say, its become easy to oversimplify whats at stake in Zahlers work while not exactly being wrong about it, in the abstract.

What this conversation frequently overlooks, to its detriment, is Zahlers style. But the style is where the juice is—where the tells are. Dragged Across Concrete is a more accomplished movie than Zahlers previous films, while offering the same doses of extremely graphic violence (when an arm gets blown off, its as disgustingly chaotic as it is satisfying), the same attentively slow-dripping pace, the same interest in hard-won, tempestuous conservatism—even nativism. All three of his films are too long; Concrete is 159 minutes, and you feel every minute, while also sensing that youre meant to.

Zahler has a knack for wrenching all the mystery and misery he can out of his otherwise overtly controlled images. Kubrick comes to mind in some of his visual setups, but only barely, as Zahlers got a different endgame. Deceptively static, lengthy shots are somehow as keyed in to the deadpan of Zahlers writing and the actors performances as they are to the splashes of extreme violence that threaten to throw it all out of whack. Theres a sense of equilibrium here that Zahler establishes only to keep fucking around with it. He seems to stage scenes with an eye for letting uncertainties—about his characters, about his intentions—seep gradually into every image.

Its overly patient, which is half the reason the film so frequently traipses into tedium (another marker of his work). But when he scores, he scores, such as in a bank scene in Concrete when a new mother (played by Jennifer Carpenter) reluctantly returned from maternity leave is so overcome by the welcome-back pleasantries of her colleagues that the delectably awkward scene goes on too long to surreal effect—before erupting into vile bloodshed. The scene was already off-putting—Carpenters refusal to go to work, down to her husband padlocking the door so that she cant keep hiding out at home with the baby, drags portentously for something so otherwise innocent. When she gets to work, and bank robbers show up, what emerges is one of the few moments in recent memory not directed by David Lynch to merit the term Lynchian. Its the kind of scene that makes your skin tingle.

And yet the violence is more sparing in Concrete than in Zahlers previous films, which were predicated on revenge. Here, the violence is a worst-case scenario. Ridgeman and Lurasetti dont need that heat; this is strictly supposed to be a robbery, a Robin Hood scenario in which the poor, trod-upon beneficiaries are themselves. We sit with these cops during their stakeouts, and Zahler gets to flex his nostalgia for cop chatter, for fed-up waitresses who can, in a single snarl, evoke an entire history of back-and-forths with too many lame-brain officers—stuff that movies like this could indeed use more of. Zahler understands what makes a phrase like “breakfast specials at Burts” sing with the right sense of routine.

So what, then, makes Dragged Across Concrete such a bore? Its not the run time. Its the trolling—its too easy. Zahler has already scolded the press for treating this like a film with two leads when he sees it as a film with three—the third being a black parolee named Henry Johns (Tory Kittles). We forget about him, Zahler recently told the Daily Beast, because “hes just not as famous [as Gibson and Vaughn] and doesnt fit in with the conversation this movie is provoking, because hes not an actual part of that conversation. Its a different perspective.”

Vince Vaughn in Brawl in Cell Block 99.

From the Everett Collection.

Actually, whats happening is much simpler: we forget to think of Henry as a lead because he isnt written as one. Not in a genuine sense, anyway. He isnt a character; hes insurance—a callout to exactly that “different perspective” Zahler wants to tout. But in the first place, Henry is part and parcel of the films broader problems. Hes an ex-con fresh out of prison whos got a little brother in a wheelchair (setting right whatever happened to his brother is what got Henry arrested in the first place) and a mother whos been turning tricks to make ends meet. Henry gets hired with a partner, Biscuit, to serve as a driver for Vogelmann and his unpredictably violent henchmen during their robbery, which inevitably goes wrong.

The more genuinely provocative version of Dragged Across Concrete wouldnt have three leads, per Zahlers suggestion, but four: Henrys partner, Biscuit (Michael Jai White), would be a fleshed-out character, too. The film would hinge on a more indelicate balance between two pairs of men: one white, one black, one a set of crooked cops, the other a set of crooks, navigating the fucked-up circumstances of this amoral little universe in which the worst consequences arent the things that happen to you in the broader world, but rather the things youre compelled to do to yourself. The trouble youre bound to get into.

The unevenness between these two pairs isnt a flaw: its Zahlers deliberate engineering, and as such, its telling. As partners, Ridgeman and Lurasetti are a closed circuit. They work together; theyre punished together. Their mutual pressures to persist on this mission are as headstrong and stupid as they are inevitable and, somehow, psychologically necessary. Its hard to imagine men like these having both pressing personal needs and the means—the power—to fulfill those needs, yet somehow still not doing so. Didnt you hear what Ridgemans wife said? Their daughter—whos essentially being playground-bullied, nothing more—might get raped. No wonder dad is out to rob crooks! Thats the lesson of the early scene on the balcony: these officers are fueled by the sense that a job needs to get done, and that the straightforward solution—the stuff that they already know works—is a lot cozier than playing by the rules.

You sense all this because Zahler, a talented writer, is working with two exceptional lead actors whose jadedness is, by this point, meta-text, who breathe and batter a grizzled overcurrent of empowered cynicism into their roles thanks to writing that supports it. But where does that leave Henry and Biscuit, their moral counterpoints? The two cops get comparatively lush backstories and pointed motivations, the two black crooks get bland stereotypes (mouths to feed, a mom whos turned to sex work, yadda yadda) instead of personalities. Where the two cops get beefy mouthfuls of grease-stained language to play with and spacious scenes that so deliberately take their time you can almost feel your pulse slow—the two black crooks get a corny monologue about a childhood birthday party, a palliative meant to calm them down when things go haywire. But if theyre good enough to be hired for a job by a master criminal like Vogelmann, why are they so easily shook?

It isnt arbitrary. You can feel the wheels of diminished accountability turning during some of Henry and Biscuits scenes—the sense that if Zahler treats these black characters “fairly,” the audience might read moral complication into the film, just enough for its defenders to say you cant boil it all down to a MAGA worldview. You cant boil the movie down to a MAGA worldview, but thats not because a couple of black guys get speaking roles.

But Zahler wants to have it both ways. The problem isnt that Vince Vaughns character casually spits out racist asides about drinking dark roast on M.L.K. Day—its that Zahler gives this guy a black girlfriend who, among other things, takes her boyfriends involvement in a racist police incident curiously in stride. The problem isnt that Ridgeman and his wife jump to the illogically racist conclusion that their daughter is at risk of rape by black thugs—its that Zahlers premise depends on our believing that black kids in the neighborhood would really attack a white girl whos the child of cops. Which further depends on our believing that a proudly racist white cop, as Zahler characterizes him, would wait for his daughter to be attacked five times before doing something about it. And it depends on our believing that “doing something about it” would be a low-grade scheme to steal enough money to move to a better neighborhood rather than, say, raising holy terror on the blacks whod attacked his daughter. Not anti-black violence, in other words, but measly theft. Is the guy racist or not? Who can say! Hes compleRead More – Source

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Vanity Fair

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