As Reithian dogma dominates American cinema, the minatory Dragged Across Concrete arrives like the repressed, and it’s taking no prisoners

David G. Hughes on S. Craig Zahler’s ‘Dragged Across Concrete’ (2018)

The term “proletkult” refers to an experimental artistic movement that emerged in tandem with the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Its goal was to communicate a new working-class aesthetic, an embodiment of proletarian culture that showcased, in the words of Platon Kerzhenstev, “the creative efforts of the working class”. At the time, the chief influence was machinery and industrial manufacturing, not dissimilar to Constructivism and Futurism.

In our post-industrial age, as the working-class disperse into oblivion, what could possibly represent an authentic proletarian culture on screen? While some put faith in the noble sufferers of Ken Loach and mawkish sentiments of Mike Leigh, this “social realism” is often bogged down by party-political outcries, poverty porn, zero humour and liberal condescension. Not to mention that few members of the working-class actually watch these films. Enter S. Craig Zahler and his new film Dragged Across Concrete, for whom the title of exploitation filmmaker is accurate but not the whole picture. Consider him a proletkult filmmaker and the wretched heart of his gruesome oeuvre begins to reveal itself; his evident sympathy for the rudderless working-class male, his sense of sardonic humour and irreverence for power. In his latest, Zahler has produced a film that will not only be seen by working-class people, it will be understood by them too,

Rather than industrial machinery, Dragged Across Concrete presents a world of abandoned, spiritless locale. Instead of revolutionary zeal about the future, Zahler depicts directionless ennui and cynical abandonment – oppressive presentism. As opposed to the bare-chested glorious proletarian, Zahler showcases risible blue-collar detectives getting old and struggling to adapt in a newly hostile world. Played by Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn, they are the forgotten “left behind”, a stark and courageous depiction of the blunt working culture polite society has no stomach for. They swear, they’re not politically correct, they spit racial language and behave in all manner of impolite.

It’s their cynicism, their increasing disbelief in justice, that leads them to mistreat a suspect that ends up being recorded by a public witness. Suspended without pay and already in dire straits, their financial desperation encourages them to take exception to the law and intercept a criminal money hand-over – “we have the right and the skills to acquire proper compensation”, grizzles Gibson under his lip fuzz. But in this unforgiving world, events spiral beyond their control and the plan turns nasty. This is a story about individuals getting caught within the interplay between feeling and acting upon that feeling. They have agency and yet don’t. It’s more like impulse.

While some have described the film as “old school”, or a “call back”, it is far from nostalgic. They’re correct when suggesting the film recalls the 1970s heyday of American creativity on screen, but Zahler is pioneering a radical new aesthetic; interiors resemble two-dimensional theatre stages, somewhat artificial, like a magazine ad gone wrong. The exterior world appears to be influenced by the ghostly absences of Gregory Crewdson’s photography. Its vision of everyday injustice and society run amok bares more than a hint of Frank Miller’s seminal graphic novel, The Dark Knight Returns (1986). Zahler’s dialogue grips like hard-boiled pulp, replete with street aphorism and an infectious joy for brusque, pugilistic language.

Yet, it’s all so exquisitely done in the language of cinema; Zahler’s framing is masterful, with intricate composition and deliberate pacing recalling the great Hollywood auteurs. The aesthetic mood is arresting, the atmosphere violently banal and absent of spirit. It’s a cold, brutal place. The environments are orchestrated with blue and grey hues, and yet it sizzles like a frying pan spitting hot oil of topicality and irreverence towards the sacrosanct. Zahler’s filmmaking voice, his technical panache and artistic credibility, is impossible to ignore.

Mel Gibson is also quite astonishing in his role, handling cigarettes like a seasoned chain smoker, despondent in his eyes but quite capable, despite his ageing years, of switching into full-throttle killing machine. His comic delivery remains deadly too. This may perhaps be the only time in which Gibson’s personal baggage is advantageous to a film’s overall aesthetic intention. His casting is part of an overall strategy to accumulate maximum tonal discomfort in the audience; you can feel the liberal audience squirm in their seat at Gibson’s presence. Critics cannot help but throw lightning bolts of moral virtue against his presence even as they concede his ability and charisma. The point is Gibson titillates us, particularly in the films most “problematic” scenes. The film is proudly outre; as Reithian dogma dominates the American cinema, the minatory Dragged Across Concrete returns like the repressed, and it’s taking no prisoners.

Tony Kittles too, as a released convict looking to lift his family out of poverty, is a major discovery. Here is an African American character who doesn’t feel tokenistic or purified; he’s not a caricature or a gentrified persona. He’s real. But Zahler remains the star; his previous works, Bone Tomahawk (2015) and Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2017), showcased muscular and promising new talent, but Dragged Across Concrete cements his claim as one of the most fearless filmmakers around. His debut was confident and shocking, and his second feature an astonishing remix of Dante’s Divine Comedy within a brutal prison system. But here his talent is unbounded and ripe, refusing to be kept in check by any and all expectations. Expect surprises.

Dragged Across Concrete talks in working-class style: street-smart, brash, prudent, a bit offensive, and yet sincere, comical, competent and dexterous. As the film comes to a bloody climax, the horrid pathos of men abandoned and tossed asunder resonates tragically. Regret, despair, stoicism and injustice all chime as the bell tolls and the bullets ricochet. It’s operatic. Personalities are not excused. The what is gets examined with clinical detachment. Zahler, however, gives his losers enough room to register as human—an important footnote in history. Some may only see pointless provocation and needless unpleasantry in Dragged Across Concrete, but those open enough will discover a film with a subtle soul and a primal edge.

In cinemas now

David G. Hughes

By David G. Hughes

David G. Hughes is the Northern-born, London-based Founder & Editor-in-Chief of Electric Ghost Magazine. He graduated in Film Studies (BA) from King's College London and Film Aesthetics (Mst) from The University of Oxford. He has written for Film International, Little White Lies, and more.