Read: How Hollywood redeemed Mel Gibson
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.