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Non-Review Review: Dragged Across Concrete

This film was seen as part of the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival 2019. Given the high volumes of films being shown and the number of reviews to be written, these may end up being a bit shorter than usual reviews. This was the Surprise Film.

Dragged Across Concrete is weird, unpleasant, mean-spirited and vindictive.

It is all of these things in a very knowing manner. This both adds to and detracts from its attempts to get under its audience’s skin. There can be something charming in a provocateur who needles the audience in an interesting or compelling way, who pushes the audience outside of their comfort zone. However, there is also something very tiring in a filmmaker who is only doing that for the sake of pushing the audience outside their comfort zone. Call it the Jurassic Park paradox; just because something is possible does not mean it is valid or necessary.

Indeed, the most frustrating part of Dragged Across Concrete is how much time and energy it devotes to being frustrating without any greater purpose. It is a film that is very consciously designed to push certain buttons, but without any really sense of why it would want to. Dragged Across Concrete is a deeply frustrating piece of cinema, and that frustration is only deepened by a hefty two-hour-and-fifty minute runtime. Watching Dragged Across Concrete, it can be hard to tell whether that frustration is more or less pure for its clarity of purpose.

However, it is abundantly clear that it does not make for a good film.

To be clear, writer and director S. Craig Zahler is a talented filmmaker. Bone Tomahawk was a fantastic piece of work, a fantastic example of the recent trend towards blurring the line that exists between the western movie and the horror genre, along with films like Black ’47 or The Revenant or Hateful Eight. Indeed, Zahler’s work owes a great deal to the sensibilities of director Quentin Tarantino, another deliberately provocative filmmaker who pushed boundaries of taste while also indulging his own tastes and appetites.

There is definitely something to be said for the manner in which Dragged Across Concrete sets out to unpack the corrupt cop heist film. In terms of structure, Zahler is very consciously aping the approach that Tarantino brought to the crime film with Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, taking a fairly standard crime drama and placing the emphasis (and spending the time) in strange places. A lot of the actual plot in Dragged Across Concrete is covered quickly through exposition. The characters and their relationships are established quickly, without fuss or finesse.

In contrast, the film spends a lot of time on material that would be cut from a more conventional crime thriller. The two central police characters spend a lot of time inside their car, which becomes something of a third lead. The characters spend a lot of time on stakeout, talking about food or staring at a building through the screen of a digital camera. Dragged Across Concrete moves in fits and starts, but almost everything is extended. There is an incredibly relaxed third-act chase that seems to go on for about forty minutes, without any gunfire and without any tension.

Dragged Across Concrete is very conscious of this over-extended approach to storytelling. Watching his partner eat a sandwich, Brett Ridgeman reflects, “A single red ant would eat that sandwich quicker than you.” There is certainly something to be said for playing with the tempo of a narrative like this. Free Fire was effectively a single extended gunfight, one scene in any other film stretched out to become a narrative in its own right.

Most charitably, it could be argued that Zahler is trying to play jazz with genre storytelling. He knows all the notes that he needs to hit, but he abbreviates some and stretches others, to create a bizarre sensation. Dragged Across Concrete often feels like a simulacra of a crime film, an uncanny approximation. There are moments where this approach almost works, where the film enters some sort of weird and heightened abstract space, silences held just long enough that they become interesting or conversations stretched to the point that they become uncomfortable.

Unfortunately, these moments are vastly outweighed by the moments that descend into trite melodrama. This is obvious with a number of narrative choices, but most obviously in the casting of Jennifer Carpenter as a woman returning to work after three months of maternity leave. Zahler uses that character in an extremely cynical way, but that’s not the issue of itself. As directors like Tarantino or Wheatley demonstrate, it is possible to play with the audience’s expectations and the standard storytelling rhythms in a manner that is constructive and compelling.

The issue with this supporting character is twofold. Most obviously, Zahler is incredibly heavy-handed. It is very apparent what Zahler is going to do with that character as soon as she is introduced. More frustratingly, the whole thing is overplayed to the point of absurdist melodrama. It becomes soap opera as the character’s entire life story and history is exposited to her repeatedly so that the audience can be (transparently) manipulated when Zahler chooses to let the other shoe drop.

The issue isn’t only this particular narrative choice. This is just the most obvious example. Dragged Across Concrete is full of extended dialogue scenes that play out for far too long and in service of particularly transparent audience manipulation. It becomes very clear when Zahler is going to inflict suffering upon a particular character, because he very bluntly articulates all the reasons why the audience should care about that character when he does inflict suffering upon them. It is just bad storytelling.

Unfortunately, the issues with Dragged Across Concrete run deeper than this. Dragged Across Concrete is it’s own worst enemy. The film seems designed to deliberately provoke audiences with its racial and sexual politics; it takes particular pleasure in depicting sexualised violence against women. Early in the film, a woman dressed only in a thong is drenched in water before being interrogated by two police officers. Later on, another woman has her dress and underwear ripped off and is forced to urinate on a towel for no other reason than to make the audience squirm.

In this context, the casting of Mel Gibson and the framing of Brett Ridgeman seems designed to do nothing more than stoke online outrage. Ridgeman is an overtly racist character who is caught brutalising a suspect on film. At one point, his superior complains about the manner in which the media takes personal statements and uses them to crucify individuals, while the camera lingers on Mel Gibson’s face. Zahler is not exactly subtle in the point that he is making in casting Gibson in such an unapologetic role, but he very much doubles down on it.

“I never thought of myself as racist before I moved to this neighbourhood,” complains Ridgeman’s put-upon wife. “I’m about as liberal as it’s possible for an ex-cop to be.” Later, Ridgeman bitterly complains about getting passed over for promotion time and time again. “I don’t do politics and I don’t change with the times,” Ridgeman states bluntly and unapologetically. “At some point, that became more important than the actual work of being a cop.” There is a sense in which Dragged Across Concrete expects the audience to be nodding along with Ridgeman and Gibson.

Zahler is quite overt in using Ridgeman as a stand-in for Gibson, which makes any comments that he has made about how he “didn’t want all the discussions about this movie to be about incidents in [Gibson’s] private life eight to ten years ago” seem particularly hypocritical. Indeed, some of Zahler’s meta-commentary is quite clever. There is something be said for an early scene which features Don Johnson as Ridgeman’s superior. Two iconic eighties pop culture police officers sitting opposite one another, both products of their time; one a hero, one a disgrace.

That beat is playful in a way that the rest of the film rarely is. There is a deep-seated bitterness and resentment that runs through Dragged Across Concrete, which often seems to be doing things simply to get a rise out of its audience. As a result, the film’s transgressions are childish and its provocations are trollish. There’s not necessarily anything inherently wrong with that. Indeed, there’s something to be said for presuming to challenge audience desires and audience tastes in a manner that interrogates such desires.

The issue with Dragged Across Concrete is that it sees such provocations as an end unto themselves. This is a film that seems so dedicated to getting a riling its audience that it completely forgets how to tell a story. As a result, it’s a disjointed and indulgent mess.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 2

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