“I didn’t think I was a racist,” deadpans a retired female cop in S. Craig Zahler’s latest film Dragged Across Concrete; although, after moving to a largely black, working-class neighborhood, she realises she is one.
When her (white) teenage daughter is violently bullied by a group of local black boys, she notes to her husband that it’s only a matter of time before the bullying escalates into something sexual. It’s just one of the many more unsavoury moments of a movie that, it could well be argued, belongs to a new sub-genre of police movie: the Post-Blue Lives Matter cop drama.
Set in the fictional US city of Bulwark, Dragged Across Concrete tells the story of two traditionalist white policemen – Brett Ridgeman (Mel Gibson) and his younger partner Anthony Lurasetti (Vince Vaughn) – and their suspension following the use of excessive force against an Hispanic criminal. Feeling they’ve been cut a raw deal, and desperate for money to supplement their low incomes, the two men hatch a plan to intercept a robbery and steal the bounty for themselves.
Zahler does not shy away from Brett and Anthony’s border-fascistic worldview – notably the pair’s early treatment of two Hispanic suspects, as well as their provocative jibes about black and gay people – but nor does he completely marry his perspective to theirs. Zahler parallels the pair’s relationship with a similarly close one between two young black friends, and the plot zips off in various directions, following the seemingly unrelated story of a young working mother, before being brought back together in a bloody smash-and-grab heist. In this world, nearly all women are haplessly degraded, and it’s hard not to see why Zahler has been branded a conservative filmmaker (a label he roundly denies).
Over the past thirty years, American cop dramas haven’t been inclined to rock the boat. Most of the titles that come to mind are buddy comedies along the lines of Beverly Hills Cop or Lethal Weapon (also starring Mel Gibson), where idealised racial reconciliation is the name of the game. Even ‘bad’ cops such as Denzel Washington in Training Day or Harvey Keitel in Bad Lieutenant, tend to skirt around the issue of race. Given the ever-present threat of police bias and brutality in the US, genre films have been avoidant.
There is the notable exception of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – a tokenistic and obnoxious representation of race relations and small-town policing. That effort was, if possible, more offensively cartoonish and condescending for its seemingly liberal intent. In truth, Dragged Across Concrete has more in common with ‘70s vigilante movies than any other cop film. With its paranoid sense of constant threat from non-white sources and besieged mindset, it feels more like a spiritual inheritor of Michael Winner’s Death Wish than 22 Jump Street.
That said, Dragged Across Concrete is marginally less violent than Zahler’s previous two features, both of which were ostensible action genre movies that diverged into gore-fest grindhouse territory. His directorial debut, Bone Tomahawk (2015) is a western turned terrifying run in with a cannibal tribe, excused on the fairly paltry basis that these rare ‘troglodytes’ have no actual relation to proper Native Americans. Its follow-up, Brawl on Cell Block 99 (2017), is a vengeful prison movie with some fantastically choreographed fight scenes, but a cartoonish villain that provoked questions around the director’s portrayal of race yet again. Still, both of these features are thrilling and bone-crushing in all the ways Dragged Across Concrete is not. It’s a curiously attenuated movie, prone to longueurs that can sometimes seem to move at a crawl.
Zahler is a talented film craftsman, with compositional flare, a tendency for gradual pacing, and a well-timed sluice of glut and gore to rattle audiences out of complacency. It’s most certainly not for everyone, but he has style and perspective. He often seems too self-aware and too knowingly paradoxical to be a real dyed-in-the-wool conservative, placing his hyper-violent genre aesthetics in a throwback seventies mode. But it must be said: at this moment in time, it’s fairly audacious to make a movie in which your protagonists are a pair of racist cops. To then cast two notable Hollywood conservatives, one of which is Mel Gibson (a man with a history of anti-semitic and racist slurs), and place words in their mouths that imply a vaguely MAGA leaning, is something else entirely.
“Being branded a racist in today's public forum is like being accused of being a communist in the 50s,” says Lt. Calvert (Miami Vice’s Don Johnson) to his suspended men early on in the film. “The entertainment industry, formerly known as the news, needs villains.” Given Gibson’s personal history, this can’t help but seem like an obvious attempt to bait the audience. In interviews, Zahler often claims he isn’t political, but this can be difficult to believe.
The main issue with Dragged Across Concrete is that it never commits to its ideas – even its most woefully right-wing ones – as fully as it does to the realism of its characters. Gibson and Vaughn balefully chew sandwiches on boring stakeouts, bicker, confide in one another; but this granular detail is undermined by the ideological muddle. Zahler’s cops, and in turn their actions, are often viewed at arm’s length, in a way that does not suggest the filmmakers’ complicity. Yet they still have the most personality and backstory of all Dragged Across Concrete’s characters, which immediately privileges their humanity over others.
If one thing is clear, it’s that for all it’s prioritising of the “thin blue line” – and its inherent sense of solidarity – Dragged Into Concrete falls into the territory of #BlueLivesMatter more than almost any recent cop drama. Even the movie’s final act odd-couple pairing seems more like a mean joke than any kind of attempt at racial reconciliation. It’s almost as though Zahler is asking us what’s better: that he gives this audience a well-intended liberal ending that no one believes, or one that inevitably and cynically concludes in violence because of the essential mistrust of a white cop towards a black getaway driver? That doesn’t seem entirely conservative to me, but then, nothing about this movie is easy to summarise.
Dragged Across Concrete is out now.