This review may contain spoilers
What a phenomenal and an exquisitely peculiar film by S. Craig Zahler (Bone Tomahawk, 2015), with a simple script and even simpler plot devices, perhaps for reasons of the complexity of the characters to maneuver those in the best possible way. Not to say that a complex script and complex characters would not make a good film, quite the contrary, when the two collide into each other, the fireworks are plenty entertaining; however, Zahler likes to keep the premise simple, for he knows that his characters carry much baggage, so much so that it makes them bend under their own weight and that one fact will keep the keen viewer engaged and intrigued throughout. This is notwithstanding a slight dilemma, where the eager critic and the keen viewer have little patience to wait with the policemen on a stakeout. Often resulting in slashing the praise by thirty percent (you’ll know when you watch, if you watch).
Here, in Concrete, every scene, every line spoken is pure pleasure when it is not outright dull. The conversations are dipped in poetic beauty, tinged with sarcasm and sadness as Brett Ridgeman; an aging, world-weary Mel Gibson, sheds some of the misery onto the character of a seasoned cop, who, it turns out, was disillusioned all this time and also one of the reasons that his old partners have moved on to higher ranks – one of them being Don Johnson as Chief Lt. Calvert, in a guileful charismatic bijou appearance that lights up the screen and asks Gibson to get his act straight, in a very James “Sonny” Crockett of Miami Vice kind of way.
All the characters are shown fighting their own battles and then they come together and the contact results in a huge explosion of talent and skilled performances, the propulsion of (aptitude) debris flying towards the keen viewer, the pressure wave causing ripples in the fabric of the film. The unique, singularly flavored film that rides the committed performances into the depths of this brutally violent but highly riveting and gripping piece of genre fare, shot in soft hue and saturation.
The layered (with their own misgiving) characters wrestle with the big bad world while trying to stay sane in Concrete; for you see, once the neo-noir crime thriller has been boiled in a pot (a popular opinion, which this pilgrim also agrees with to an extent), it all rises up and starts to overflow and scatter everywhere, in the form of some of the most violent sequences to ever have been put to film, intentionally vile and perilous by design. This is cruel, unbridled filmmaking, where the characters are either talking or having the breakfast special (complete to the chewing and swallowing sounds) for what seems like hours, before the unmitigated violence permeates everything in sight.
Speaking of sound, the editing is king and even if the characters do not move from their places, the sounds give us an illusion that there’s movement. One of the songs being played is “Don’t Close the Drive-In” by Butch Tavares. It’s playing during the first arc, when the two cops are having breakfast at a diner and then again when it’s time to bury the hatchet (in unmarked graves).
A red ant can eat that sandwich faster than you“– Det. Ridgman to Det. Lurasetti
Zahler takes his time with the build-up, a good 160 minutes. A long take of an unfinished cigarette balancing on the handrail; what seems like hours going by before Ridgeman’s phone rings on his chest; a bewildering sequence of a mother trying to stay home with her newborn but going to work after a long chat with her husband – when we find out why Zahler has decided to put that scene into the film, it is too late and too agonizing to watch or to think of, especially after what Kelly Summer (Jennifer Carpenter) says to her executioner before he blows her face off with a suppressed CZ Scorpion Evo 3 S1. So yeah, the old-school director takes his (not so) sweet time before unleashing the brutal, unforgiving and ruthless and powerfully exploitative visuals onto its viewers, bombards them with those. Despite the heavy on dialogue film, the pay off is soaked in blood and guts, the merciless nature of the bad guys and the relentlessly badass intentions of the cops, Detective Ridgeman and Detective Anthony Lurasetti (a somber, stylish and no-nonsense & almost conflicted but a confident performance by Vince Vaughn), whose pairing is also nothing short of being incongruous, however, strangely (and only in a Zahler film) the same adds to the chemistry of the two men of the law.
The film could not have been released at a more appropriate time in history, when the world is protesting against police brutality. Nonetheless, here the brutality is circumstantial, and even though it misleads the keen viewer at first with Ridgeman’s foot on a Latino drug dealer’s neck; his hands and feet cuffed to the side railing, it all falls in place when the cruel intentions are revealed slowly.
Noel G. as Vasquez: “Awww c’mon man that’s turned off my circulation” (instead of, “I can’t breathe.”)
Ridgeman: “Don’t worry, we’ll be back before it turns blue.”
One more thing, like his previous horror outing, the almost perfect non-Western, Bone Tomahawk, the filmmaking is intentionally all inverted. Zahler had the cowboy first getting crippled and then stand on the extreme right of the frame. Here, the director is completely ignoring the rule of the third and also ignores a company of men sitting at the back of a getaway van, with a hostage. The company happens to be a very violent and a brash group of extremely evil and heartless men. We are shown two guns for hire, or two getaway car drivers for hire to assist with a note job robbery, talking to each other and reminiscing about older simpler times, the camera is fixated on them, relishing every word that comes out of actors, Tory Kittles and Michael Jai White (the guy who had his mouth slit open by the Joker in 2008) as Henry Johns and Biscuit respectively. The Law of Economy of Character(s) by Roger Ebert is completely being disregarded here. Zahler lets the two talk while we catch a glimpse or two of the passengers in the back, also talking among themselves (which again is a peculiarity especially after they use the tape recorder in the bank), and for all we know or for all that we’ve watched a few moments back, the hostage is already dead, such is the trepidation and the terror that Black Gloves (Primo Allon), Grey Gloves (Mathew MacCawl) and Vogelmann (Thomas Kretschmann from Avengers: Age of Ultron) bring to the film. They are shown to be a pack of wolves, extremely violent criminals, remorseless and inhuman.
This (waiving off Ebert’s law) doesn’t happen in too many films (unless the film is from S.Korea), especially with a murderous trio at the back of a getaway van! However, here, like many other filmmaking sensibilities, even this has been twisted and warped; the viewer can’t help but watch the two men talk and talk forever, until they take an exit off the freeway and enter some backwater area of Bulwark County, dimly lit and not at all a place for the grand finale. In retrospect, it can be just that, since there’s so much space between structures and the two vehicles and the area between those is asphalt and cement and people are indeed being dragged across the concrete.
S. Craig Zahler has held on to his brutal reputation of a non-conformist filmmaker who takes his time (I can’t stress enough on this one fact). And by the time the shit is being cleaned off the fan, Zahler has managed in giving us this unusually enjoyable film; a slow (as fuck)-burn, bracingly dangerous film made with cut-throat cops and robbers, taking their time to engage in unconventional, muffled settings and when they do, man, that is some ugly racial violence being dished out for the viewers. The deliberate pace finally gives way to the wince-inducing, limb-severing, bone-crunching, face-exploding bloodshed. The keen viewer, after waiting for (what seems like) stake out hours, complete to the over easy sunny side up and root beer, a harrowing bank robbery, a lady being shot point-blank in the face with a Colt Python, and entrails of a man being turned inside out isn’t given respite and is further pushed into crooked, despairing cop and savage, bloodthirsty robbers’ hell, only to come out scathed (as if by wildfire) by both, the laws of filmmaking that have been turned on the head and the remorseless violence, the same kind we got to watch in Tomahawk. This Zahler gent is one crazy mother.
Plus, it was heartbreaking to watch Mel Gibson’s Det. Ridgeman all grizzled and speaking with the shards of glass sadness and regret in his voice. An actor who’s been through Hollywood hell, from being an A-lister to the most controversial director after Michael Cimino (in their mythos), the journey has been nothing short of bone-crunching dejection and lost in a haze of alcohol soft sexagenarian glory.
In the end, Dragged Across Concrete is a neo-crime film, with loads of time on its hands. Yet the payoff is such that it makes the wait worth it. The performances are rock solid, even maybe taciturn at times, but there’s always that ‘emotions boiling underneath‘-feeling that keeps the viewers on their toes even during the most stretched out sequences. This is a film that charms the viewer into liking it, with a set of preconceived notions being torn to sheds and a whole new set of sentiments and perceptions taking their place. Concrete is a tricky place to be, it throws in a shocking moment just when the keen viewer was about to give up after listening to all that chatter, the hypnotic passing of time and the dialogue-driven piece of film; the pay-off or even lack of it is the snap, a wake-up call for us to jump outta our stupor and then get startled by the dismayed scheme of things. And finally to slump back into the couch, trying very hard to keep it all intact, in the face of the audiovisual assaults and ‘what the fuck did I just watch‘ moments, which are mostly preceded by a long-drawn conversation about graffiti and writing on the wall.
A must watch.
Dragged Across Concrete is streaming on Netflix and a Blu-ray copy can be bought by clicking on the image above or through this blog by commenting below.