S. Craig Zahler’s Dragged Across Concrete is a slow burn that never devolves into explosion, but pops and crackles in startling ways that produce an even greater effect. One of the leanest 158-minute movies around, every meandering conversation or controlled shootout or egg salad sandwich seems to contribute to a greater whole — an intimate, epic, American crime saga with one foot in gritty reality and one foot in the violently bizarre, filled with murky scenery and even murkier characters, brought to you by the guy responsible for pulpy genre favorites Bone Tomahawk and Brawl in Cell Block 99. While some of the crueler elements may make the film hard for some to like and harder for others to stomach, the craft and skill behind the lens and performances make for something rarely less than captivating.
The primary focus revolves around two urban detectives and a recently released felon, all in need of some cash to lift them out of lives that constantly pull them down and wear them out. Brett Ridgeman (a subdued but snarly Mel Gibson) works the beat pushing sixty, has a wife with multiple sclerosis, and a teenage daughter bullied by neighborhood punks; when he and his younger partner, Anthony Lurasetti (Vince Vaughn, expertly clinging to a slightly more optimistic outlook) are suspended without pay after being videoed using excessive force on a drug dealer, Ridgeman decides it’s time for him to finally score something for himself off these crooks, declaring “We have the skills and the right to acquire proper compensation” as self-evident truth. Meanwhile, ex-con Henry Johns (Tory Kittles, masterfully juggling shades of grey) is breathing the free air, trying to provide for his errant mother and wheelchair-bound teenage brother. When presented with the opportunity to come in on an illicit job that promises to get him back on his feet, he doesn’t hesitate.
What follows are prolonged stakeouts, measured preparations, and the brutal activities of a masked psychopath with a quick trigger finger. It’s no doubt that the stories of these men will eventually intersect, but Zahler first makes sure that we understand how they all operate, where they come from, and what drives their decision-making. Ridgeman is bitter and as determined as a bulldog, yet always analyzing the odds; Lurasetti is conflicted but loyal, often acting as his partner’s conscience despite usually agreeing with him; Henry has developed a chip on his shoulder from constant underestimation and underachievement. Those looking for more sensational depictions of cops and robbers may wonder what exactly is going on here with all the character development; Dragged Across Concrete takes its sweet time in establishing both the game and the players, never afraid to let little moments linger, nestling comfortably in the lives and struggles of even secondary roles.
How else to explain a ballsy move like stopping the momentum with a third-act detour that follows a new mother (an unforgettable turn by Jennifer Carpenter) returning to the workforce? Dragged Across Concrete habitually lures audiences into a false rhythm of mundane scenarios and philosophical tangents, then proceeds to punch them in the face. By the time shit really goes down, we don’t know what to expect anymore, and the feeling is thrilling.
Zahler doesn’t disappoint with the action either, which is nearly shocking in its clinical approach when compared to genre brethren. Engagements are deliberate and forceful, with any panic internalized, any chaos controlled. Nothing feels wasted; even gunshots contribute to the overall portrait, whether randomly sprayed from a nihilistic madman or precisely fired by a pro. And while the writer-director’s penchant for gruesome violence is less on display than in those previously mentioned efforts, that doesn’t mean he can’t still make viewers squirm both with what they see and what they don’t, crafting careful compositions that rely less on jittery motion and more on timing. That disregard for discomfort also extends to dialogue that never blinks; for better or worse, these people don’t hide even ugly feelings, and aren’t afraid to toss off glib one-liners to prove it.
Biting as it sometimes is, there are a few overly stylish sentences that would have sounded clumsy coming out of other actors’ mouths; this is a script that benefits greatly from grounded performances, and the chief among them is Gibson as Ridgeman. His tough demeanor and gravelly voice belie a man frustrated by inability. As pointed out by his superior/former partner (Don Johnson, in another example of a nicely realized minor part), he has been “scuffing pavement” for too long, has grown callouses where his compassion used to be; “You didn’t used to be that rough.” Ridgeman has taken a beating for decades, and the end result is not only tired, but trapped in a world that has changed around him — one that won’t let him progress. Despite his steely facade, Gibson imparts a sense of quiet desperation — right or wrong, he will do whatever it takes to provide for the ones he loves.
Vaughn and Kittles are equally up to the task in putting their own spin on people who are being increasingly funneled into places they don’t want to be. As Anthony, Vaughn suppresses insecurities about his relationship worthiness while internalizing moral questions about his partner until just the right moments, otherwise masking the conflict with a much more subdued version of his wiseass. Kittles commands attention as Henry, seething with unrealized opportunity, filled with thought and aspiration that is continuously trampled on by a world that misjudges his ability. The actors straddle the line between nobility and greed, between heartlessness and compassion, in uncomfortable ways that few films dare to approach; to their credit, the result will elicit varying degrees of sympathy and revulsion.
The same might be said for Dragged Across Concrete as a whole; like his previous efforts, S. Craig Zahler’s third film won’t go down easy for everyone. However, those who sink into his gritty underworld, who relish the minutiae of his meandering gab, who embrace quirky tangents and unorthodox structure, will experience a full picture of jolting drama and blood-pumping tension. It’s a small-scale, sprawling genre masterpiece.