Dragged Across Concrete and the Sloppy Provocations of S. Craig Zahler

The new film, starring Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn as corrupt cops, is the latest from the director to embrace troubling stereotypes.

Vince Vaughn and Mel Gibson in Dragged Across Concrete (Lionsgate)

Dragged Across Concrete, S. Craig Zahler’s new film about two hard-nosed cops who descend into a criminal underworld, begins with a drug bust that goes too far. The detectives, Brett Ridgeman (played by Mel Gibson) and Anthony Lurasetti (Vince Vaughn), dispense excessive force with casual aloofness. In an early scene, one of them puts his foot on a suspect’s head to hold him still, and the other mocks the suspect’s Latina girlfriend by saying that her accent “sounds like a dolphin.” Soon after making the arrest, the officers are hauled before their boss, Lieutenant Calvert (Don Johnson), who starts by chewing them out and telling them that they’ve been suspended. But then the conversation shifts.

“Like cellphones, and just as annoying, politics are everywhere. Being branded a racist in today’s public forum is like being accused of communism in the ’50s,” Calvert muses. “Whether it’s a possibly offensive remark made in a private phone call or the indelicate treatment of a minority who sells drugs to children, the entertainment industry, formerly known as the news, needs villains.” It’s a bizarrely eloquent but ham-fisted monologue delivered with florid aplomb by Johnson, a cultural icon of yesteryear who now primarily exists in the world of direct-to-video B movies. The speech might also be the best example of what the S. Craig Zahler movie experience feels like.

Zahler is a purveyor of genre films that feature shocking violence and one-dimensional villains. They’re made with the slow pace and deliberate rhythms of a European art movie—not to mention stuffed with scenes in which characters have meandering conversations using ornate language. Because of this stylistic juxtaposition, and Zahler’s undeniable directorial skill, his movies draw critical acclaim and play at major festivals. The 2015 film Bone Tomahawk, a horror Western about a tribe of cannibalistic Native Americans, was nominated for Film Independent Spirit Awards. Two years later, Brawl in Cell Block 99, about a convict who has to fight his way through prison to save his pregnant wife from an evil abortionist, received plaudits at the Venice and Toronto Film Festivals. Though Dragged Across Concrete has been very well reviewed, it has also revived a strain of criticism that has long followed Zahler—criticism about whether his movies are more politically motivated than the director insists, and whether he’s sympathetic to the kinds of racist and sexist tropes that appear in his work.

Like Zahler’s past two films, Dragged has detractors who argue that the movie’s portrayal of bigotry reflects the work’s broader vision—not just the characters’ own beliefs. The headline for a Daily Beast review called Dragged a “vile, racist right-wing fantasy,” while The New Yorker’s Richard Brody said it “hits the trifecta of racism, sexism, and nativism.” New York’s David Edelstein wrote that Dragged “is still your basic boneheaded, right-wing action movie—skewed so that its heroes’ moral relativism is meant to be a sign of their manly integrity. A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do—however shortsighted and racist and sadistic.” Zahler acknowledges that plenty of viewers will loathe his movies, in part for their depictions of graphic violence and at times stereotypical portrayals of women and people of color. “There’s stuff that will trigger certain people, and that’s fine; these are the pieces I want to make,” the director told Yahoo Movies U.K. last year.

Zahler has repeatedly rejected the notion that his movies have a certain political message. But monologues such as Lieutenant Calvert’s—in addition to characters complaining about political correctness and inner-city crime by African Americans—have prompted many viewers to connect the ethos of the director’s films with the apparent conservatism of the production company that made all three of his movies, Cinestate.

The company is run by the Texas-based producer Dallas Sonnier, who has said that he makes “populist entertainment” for an audience that Hollywood tends to overlook: average red-state viewers. “They haven’t seen Lady Bird, and they certainly haven’t seen Call Me by Your Name. But if I text them Vince Vaughn, Kurt Russell, Don Johnson? They go fucking crazy!” he told The Wall Street Journal last year. Sonnier has said that Cinestate films rely less on box office and more on DVD sales and international appeal, driven by well-known movie stars such as Russell (who is in Bone Tomahawk), Vaughn (who also starred in Brawl in Cell Block 99), and Gibson (whose casting seems like its own kind of statement).

The controversial content of such films only fuels word of mouth, Sonnier argued. “The political climate brings a spotlight to these kinds of movies. We’re not shying away from that,” the producer told the Journal. “It’s funny that, in this moment in time, the movies we’re making are almost counterculture … We make these movies understanding they’re going to be controversial. The reactions that come from them, we can’t control.”

That countercultural edge applies to Dragged Across Concrete, in which Gibson and Vaughn (two prominent conservatives in Hollywood) play cops who are guilty of using excessive force but who seem mostly satisfied with their uncompromising worldview. After being reprimanded by their boss, they attempt to rob a drug dealer they know for money and get sucked into an elaborate bank robbery and several bloody standoffs. Zahler presents both lead characters with a kind of tragic nobility. The New York Times critic Manohla Dargis noted the film’s “hard embrace of the same old-fashioned American anti-authoritarianism—with its hatred for rules matched only by a love of guns—that helped define Dirty Harry.”

Dirty Harry was an archconservative hero of sorts in his day, a cop (played by Clint Eastwood) who blew away criminals first and asked questions second. But Zahler himself has said that he tries to write from multiple viewpoints. “I understand why some people would say that [my films are conservative]—because there isn’t a clear didactic, if not pedantic, agenda at the fore of these pictures,” he told The Daily Beast. “It doesn’t come from a place of me wanting to address society’s ills … It comes from a place of, I’m writing these characters.”

But for many viewers, it’s hard not to see Dragged Across Concrete through a more pointed lens, given how it caricatures people of color. In the film, Tory Kittles plays the most prominent African American character, an ex-con named Henry who gets mixed up in the same bank robbery as Ridgeman and Lusaretti. Henry’s story arc feels like a hodgepodge of stereotypes: Because his mother is working as a prostitute to support her heroin habit, Henry is forced back into a life of crime even as the script takes pains to underline his altruism. Dargis noted that “Zahler seems to want to make Henry a counterweight to the detectives … as if to suggest that they’re alike, though their worlds and power couldn’t be more different”—a comparison she called “spurious.” Meanwhile, The New Yorker’s Brody wrote that “despite playing a major role in the film, Henry remains a cipher, reduced to his function in the plot.”

This sort of reductiveness shows up in Zahler’s other films, particularly in Bone Tomahawk, in which the main villains are a group of Native Americans who eat human flesh. One townsperson, who’s also Native American, shows up early in the film to give a speech about the stark difference between his people and the cannibals, but he serves no other story purpose. (Many critics, including Brody and Dargis, have observed that Zahler has a tendency to insert characters or lines of dialogue solely for the purpose of rebutting claims of racism or insensitivity.) Zahler’s claim that he’s writing dark films about imperfect characters could certainly apply to many a film centered on an antihero. But the particular one-dimensionality of characters of color, both good and bad, in his movies is a troubling pattern that’s difficult to ignore.

“I’m not really interested in leading the audience to believe something or to feel something,” Zahler told Yahoo Movies U.K. in an interview about Dragged Across Concrete. “There are people who walk out of this movie, as there have already been, who completely sympathize and get where Ridgeman and [Lurasetti] are coming from, and ones who think they’re disgusting racists, and people who are everywhere in between. Anyone is allowed to have that viewpoint.” On some of the language his characters use, he added, “If a bunch of characters say some lines that are offensive or racist or provocative, there’s immediate call for the author to defend those, and I’m not going to defend those that to me makes sense for what the characters say.”

Unfortunately, that flawed ambiguity is reserved for the white male protagonists of Zahler’s films, the ones played by Russell, Vaughn, and Gibson; the rest of his movies’ ensembles serve as simplistic villains, women in need of rescuing, or dispensers of exposition. Dragged Across Concrete is, in many ways, an arresting, well-acted film. It methodically unfurls the rage and world-weariness of its two leads through Zahler’s trademark mix of long-winded dialogue and terse, dark action. But the story is still one that feels limited in perspective, and as Zahler continues to make movies, the question of whose point of view he cares about most will only come under more scrutiny.