Dragged Across Concrete (2018)

Directed by S. Craig Zahler

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Dragged Across Concrete is a purposefully slow genre movie.  It moves with what at first seems like the type of patience that implies something more going on underneath the surface, but ultimately I think it’s just the scattered first draft of a movie that isn’t sure what it wants to say.

What I admire about the movie is that slow burn quality, and yet it just sits there, making you wait.  This isn’t the silence of a movie like Cemetery of Splendour (2015), a Tarkovsky film or even something like Junebug (2005), movies which used silence as others use dialogue.  The stillness evoked either information or emotion, oftentimes both.  You picked up on what the characters were thinking or maybe even information about their lives they weren’t yet aware of, all by watching them from afar or even gazing at empty frames once they walked offscreen.

With Dragged Across Concrete I don’t think we learn anything further about this world or these characters.  Part of that is because the script leans on long, expository conversations that it seems wouldn’t be necessary in a film of this length.  By that I mean that in a “slow” movie, one of the benefits is that you have more time to regard a character in their environment.  We intuit the emotions of their character, how we are supposed to feel about them.  You see this pretty clearly in a movie like A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting On Existence (2014).

So it seems to me that silence matters when there is a withholding of conventional expressions of information.  We don’t hear them tell their life story but rather we see it in their faces.  In this case we might not know explicitly what it is they fear, but we can feel that fear nevertheless.

But here we get all that formulaic exposition dumping in stilted conversations throughout the movie.  To me these moments make the silent moments obsolete, because there isn’t much to pick up on, it’s already been told to us.  It might be that I wasn’t paying enough attention, but I believe I tried.

To summarize, quickly, the plot, this is a movie about two aging white cops who are put on leave because they were recorded exerting too much force on a drug dealer they arrested.  Because money is already tight they try to steal some gold from a few criminals, but of course nothing is ever as simple as it seems.

The movie combines three separate narratives, the one with the cops (played by Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn), one following a man recently released from prison (Tory Kittles) and a masked assassin/burglar who is more like the Terminator than your average liquor store robber.

The story weaves together a narrative that, by some, has been charged with racism and perhaps a degree of sadism.  It is violent and emotionless, a movie with no musical score and no real empathy, at least that I can tell.

It’s not that a movie needs to be empathetic and certainly not overly emotional (I tend to react against movies that try to emotionally manipulate the audience), but here it’s just… kind of disturbing with no discernible reason.

In theory I like the way the movie is assembled, and I enjoy all the little detours into other characters’ lives, but not really in the way it’s executed.  It’s as though this were a screenplay formulated with nuance but carried out with absolutely none.  It’s a hammer used to perform a procedure designed for the use of a scalpel.

Before watching this movie I found myself wondering if it’s possible to make a slow plot-driven movie.  Plot, by nature, is urgent, at least as I understand it.  It’s a bunch of events that force you into the next, like a series of dominoes.  The best constructed plot-driven movies, it seems, move quickly, particularly as the story carries on.

On the other side of the spectrum you have those “slow” movies.  The first that come to mind are Paul Schrader’s First Reformed, David Lowery’s A Ghost Story and the early works of Richard Linklater, specifically It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books (1988).  Granted I just watched that movie a handful of days ago, but it’s been on my mind ever since.

These are movies that are purposefully patient and have little to no plot.  They often regard a single character doing little more than existing, as if they are behind the cage in a zoo, with us just looking at them.  And I love these movies, however they don’t vibe with plot movies in which the character must be active.  They must be fighting for something immediate, and they must be exciting.

It seems like Dragged Across Concrete is one possible answer to that question, of whether a plot-drive movie can be slow.  I’m just not sure it’s the right answer or the only one.

I would love to see if it’s possible to go in and cut out much of the dialogue to this movie, just to see what the effect would be.  I don’t think it matters that we learn about the past transgressions of Gibson’s character, who his wife and daughter are or that Vaughn’s character is about to propose to his wife.  These are genre movie conventions, the thinly described backstory which gives us a reason to like these characters.  Except I didn’t like these characters, and that’s okay.

So we don’t need to know why the older cop is disgruntled because that’s why you cast Mel Gibson.  He looks disgruntled, not just here but kind of all the time.  And Gibson has a well-documented history of spoken xenophobia that nearly exiled him from Hollywood, and that fits into his character here.  You put old, scowling Mel Gibson onscreen and we get it.

Vaughn has a little less to do, but he speaks like a Vince Vaughn character, and so again, we get it.  We don’t need to hear him deliberate about whether or not to join his partner in this underworld venture.  We see that he drives a Cadillac and has his fair share of money, so we can surmise that he feels indebted to his partner.

This movie could be so much better if it stripped away the exposition.  In an interview with /Film, Zahler spoke of the importance of having final cut because, he believes, the studio would go in and cut out all the character scenes, one involving doomed Jennifer Carpenter, and another involving a character discussing his childhood.  I agree, they probably would tell him to cut those scenes, but to me it seems they could cut all the exposition, bring this in around two hours (rather than over two and a half), and both parties *could* be happy.

Up Next: The Souvenir (2019), Fargo (1996), The Yakuza (1974)

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