By now, you know what you’re getting into with an S. Craig Zahler movie: an immaculately made yet pulpy-as-hell experience, probably starring Vince Vaughn, that will feature at least one moment of ultra-violence so excessive that survivors need only to hear a reference to it to wince. Bone Tomahawk, an unforgettable fusion of Rio Bravo and The Hills Have Eyes, had the ‘split-down-the-middle’ scene. Brawl In Cell Block 99 had, among its many body-shocks, the ‘face on the floor’ bit. As for Zahler’s new one, bad-cops epic Dragged Across Concrete, well, here are three words: key in stomach. If not quite matching the nightmarishly relentless brutality of Brawl, when it hits, it hits hard.
With this one, though, it’s not just the corporeal damage to characters that’s likely to induce a visceral reaction. There’s no denying that Dragged Across Concrete is a thrilling, grindhouse-flavoured heist movie with some ingenious plotting and a nice line in granite-tough dialogue: one character is described as a “human steamroller covered in spikes”. But it’s also a film that actually merits the over-used word “problematic”, thanks to its depiction of race and gender issues. The two lead characters, Bulwark detectives Anthony Lurasetti (Vaughn) and Brett Ridgeman (Gibson), are from the start unapologetically cruel to the non-Caucasian people they encounter, refusing to give a naked Latina a towel in the house they burst into, and talking disparagingly about the African-Americans in the neighbourhood in which Lurasetti lives. And while no film need have likeable protagonists, this one comes disturbingly close to backing up their worldview, suggesting in one scene that said neighbourhood really is worse off for the black people living there. Women, also, are given short shrift by the narrative, there either to be ogled, complained about, or, in the case of a mother played by Jennifer Carpenter, portrayed as an over-emotional wreck.
It’s a shame, because Zahler is an extraordinarily talented writer-director, and one who takes risks few others dare. Which other crime film is willing to portray a stakeout in such detail that we watch a man slowly devour an egg sandwich in real time? Or to treat its entire cast, no matter how famous the actor, with the same insouciant attitude to life or death? Its length and glacial pace won’t be to everyone’s taste, but the final hour is finely calibrated, impossible-to-predict filmmaking which will have you leaning forward in your seat. Zahler has rightly earned a reputation as a talented provocateur with a distinctive voice; this one, though, leaves you questioning the worth of what that voice has to say.