Director: S. Craig Zahler
Starring: Mel Gibson, Vince Vaughn, Tory Kittles
After three feature films we can now safely say that S. Craig Zahler’s ‘Zahlerness’ is not a fluke. An uncompromising and unapologetic vision reveals the stamp of an auteur throughout Bone Tomahawk (2015), Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2017) and Dragged Across Concrete (2018). Zahler himself is a multidisciplinarian who has written, directed and scored all three of his features.
The ‘Zahlerverse’ is a violent one to say the least. A mix of genres is everpresent yet a descent into horror is inescapable. Zahler’s characters are dragged to metaphorical and literal depths and their redemption is invariably bloody. Concrete itself begins as a gritty crime drama. It follows two Cops, suspended for excessive use of force (or more to the point, for being caught on camera using excessive force) who decide to operate outside the law in order to make ends meet. The first and perhaps most important thing to say is that the descent of this crime drama into horror is one of the most engaging and entertaining experiences I’ve had in film in a long time.
Zahler cites, among other, Michael Mann as an influence and the plot and characterisations here are not a world away from those found in Mann’s epic Heat (1995). Yet while both Heat and Concrete offer insight into characters doing bad things for good reasons, the latter is unflinching in taking a warts-and-all look at its characters and their setting.
Perhaps though, Zahler’s own comparisons to the work of Michael Mann are a decoy for a deeper agenda. That is, while much of Zahler’s work to date echoes a Grindhouse aesthetic of the 70s, his characters also echo 70s sensibilities in their views on race and gender. While these views are present in his first two films, they are far more prevalent in Concrete to the point that we cannot not discuss Zahler without discussing his character’s archaic views.
In Concrete more than in Zahler’s previous films, the racist aspects of the dialogue feel largely forced, stilted and expositional. This is interesting because the characters’ racist views are in no way crucial to the plot. Suffice to say that while this problematic dialogue at times was so jarring as to take me out of my suspension of disbelief, it did provide for added character depth. It’s also interesting because Zahler’s ability to write great, snappy dialogue is evidenced here, as in his previous work, reaching Tarantino-esque heights at times.
Taking as given that we should separate the art from the artist, many critics and journalists have described the insertion of Zahler’s ‘problematic’ protagonists into his work as needlessly provocational. The casting of Mel Gibson, who himself was recorded giving a racist rant in 2010 has been described as ‘trolling’ in some quarters. Yet as meta as it may be, Gibson’s performance, as indeed that of the rest of the cast is pitch perfect.
Zahler remains reticent to discuss his own political leanings and advocates opining about his films and by association the characters within his films from all sides. Compare this with Todd Phillips’ incendiary quote about why he left comedy to make Joker – “Go try to be funny nowadays with this woke culture”, or Joaquin Phoenix’s walkout of a BBC interview when asked whether the same film may inspire a youth to commit violence and Zahler seems thoroughly reasonable and thick-skinned.
Perhaps what makes the Zahlerverse challenging is also what makes it utterly unique in ‘woke’ culture. I for one am eager for more offerings and, perhaps in justification of my indulgence to fellow leftist liberals, my preferred reading of the Zahlerverse is wokesploitation black comedy.