When Dragged Across Concrete premiered at the Venice Film Festival last September, the reactions were polarising to say the least. The attention-grabbing headline for The Daily Beast review screamed "vile, racist, right-wing fantasy". Others were more balanced. As trade paper Variety wrote: "It's for viewers to determine whether Dragged Across Concrete is complicit in such politics or taking a more ambivalently observational stance." Either way, it can't be ignored.
Gritty and thought-provoking, it's written and directed by novelist and musician S Craig Zahler, who made an impact with his debut, 2015's gory western Bone Tomahawk, and his follow-up, 2017's prison movie Brawl In Cell Block 99, which starred Vince Vaughn in a career-best performance as a drug dealer incarcerated in a correctional institution. Vaughn returns here alongside Mel Gibson, playing police officers who start the film by busting a suspect and terrorising his Latino girlfriend.
A film by men, for men?
Running close to three hours, it's an epic, character-driven journey. "I wanted to do a big-scale crime piece and something that's a little bit more in the style of my novels than Brawl in Cell Block 99 was," says Zahler. While his books include 2014's crime yarn Mean Business on North Ganson Street, currently being developed into a film by Leonardo DiCaprio, Zahler was also influenced by old-school Hollywood movies such as Sidney Lumet's Dog Day Afternoon and Prince of the City, a story that deals with police corruption.
Another film mixed into the DNA of Dragged is surely Don Siegel's Dirty Harry, which starred Clint Eastwood as a reckless, violent cop. Like Dragged, that caused uproar on its release in 1971 – "Dirty Harry is a Rotten Pig" proclaimed feminist protesters outside the Oscars. "I'm a huge Don Siegel fan – [for me] this is a top-five director of all time," admits Zahler, whose earlier film Brawl was clearly inspired by Siegel's 1954 prison movie, Riot In Cell Block 11. Vaughn says Dragged is a film that deals with a particular age-old theme: "What makes men make the decisions that they do?"
Suspended after a video of their excessive force goes viral, Vaughn’s Anthony Lurasetti is enticed by his grizzled older partner, Brett Ridgeman, to join him on a job – robbing some shadowy criminals on a large-scale bank heist. With both men under huge financial constraints and familial pressures, logic goes out the window.
'It's not an agenda movie'
To some, their actions will be regarded as examples of toxic masculinity. “What Craig does wonderfully … he’s creating characters that are authentic and complicated,” argues Vaughn. “It’s back to mythology, stories that we like – these are morality tales. I find this very much a morality tale. And there’s not an agenda, which is refreshing. You’re just seeing characters that are authentic to where they are from colliding in this morality tale.”
While Vaughn says this is "not an agenda movie", with characters in the film bemoaning political correctness, it feels designed to antagonise the liberal elite. The casting of the two leads only adds to the furore. Initially, it was Vaughn who brought the Dragged script to Gibson, who had just directed him in the war movie, Hacksaw Ridge. "I mentioned it to him," says Vaughn. "I said: 'You've got to see Brawl, this guy [Zahler] is terrific. I really like him as a filmmaker.' And he really responded to the material."
Zahler branded 'a right-wing filmmaker'
While both Vaughn and Gibson are noted Hollywood conservatives, the controversy extends much further than this. In Gibson's case, he famously went on an anti-Semitic and sexist rant when he was arrested in 2006 for driving under the influence. Indeed when Don Johnson's lieutenant refers to "a possibly offensive remark made in a private phone call" to Ridgeman, it is hard not to think of the call, leaked in 2016, between Gibson, ranting and using racist language, and his former Russian girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva.
Intriguingly, all of Zahler's films have been made at Cinestate, a company run by producer Dallas Sonnier, who lives in Texas. His mandate is to make "populist entertainment" for those "outside the coasts"; as he told the Wall Street Journal, these audiences have been too often ignored by Hollywood. "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 crazy!"
As a result, Zahler has been branded a right-wing filmmaker whose work has been celebrated by the alt-right, while some claim Cinestate is making films for the Donald Trump-supporting masses. “I’m not making this movie to make a political point,” the director fires back. “It certainly doesn’t come from a place of wanting to condemn police officers, nor to say that these are flawless people who don’t make mistakes.”
Dragged's moral ambiguity clearly troubles some, though. "Does it heroise its flawed white male characters for their flawed white maleness, or admonish them via the grimy downward spiral of their narrative?" asked the aforementioned Variety review. It's a high-wire that Zahler walks, and it's not hard to see why his cops are being compared to Gene Hackman's Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle in William Friedkin's The French Connection, another prejudiced rogue cop who routinely used violence.
When it comes to Gibson’s Ridgeman, Zahler notes: “I’m comfortable with the idea that there are people who may never like him. I think he’s interesting and all of the things he does in the movie makes sense, at least they do to me. But I’m OK if you don’t like him. And I’m OK if you don’t like Anthony, his partner. They’re written to be interesting and understandable. Certain people are going to relate to them more than others and certain people are going to be really put off by what they do.”
While Dragged is clearly a heightened genre film, it comes from a place of realism, says Zahler, who knows people who work in law enforcement. "You're exposed to a lot of bad stuff and that doesn't mean that you're going to make the right decisions every day of your life. It's a hard job. I wouldn't want to do it."
Zahler just wanted to explore the psychological impact of taking down criminals. "If you're on the concrete for that many years, where is your sensitivity?"
Dragged Across Concrete opens in the UAE on April 11th.