Dragged Across Concrete
Recently I found myself looking, over and over and in great detail, at a relatively average American B movie of the 1950s. There was something deeply entrancing about it – and the more I ran it back and forth and studied it, the more it seemed like a lost Robert Bresson film. Such revelations – or hallucinations – are (I grant you) fairly common in the land of textual analysis. But, in this case, I happened to be profoundly right – because the film in question had a definite syntax, a way of doing and showing things, that was consistent and coherent.
This syntax can be swiftly described. The hardboiled dialogue came in short, sharp phrases. Sentences were broken up into these phrases, and were delivered accordingly, with deliberation, by the actors – with a pause (shorter or longer) between each one. Each phrase, furthermore, was either accompanied or punctuated (or both) by a particular gesture or movement: the actor turning, or changing the position of their head to look somewhere else, or motioning toward something in the scene. And these gestures, finally, were articulated with the shot changes, large or small reorientations of aspect and angle – an operation of articulation that is, seemingly, infinitely variable (constituting the essential work of the editing). Along with everything else this stylistic system achieves, it serves to meld together a diverse ensemble of performers (in the case I am cryptically alluding to, the cast runs from a big star all the way through to untrained debut actors).
Passing (in terms of industrial designation) from old noir to neo-noir, I find none of this syntax – not even a vestige of it – in Dragged Across Concrete. In it – taking up most of its 159 minutes, in fact – there are two-shots (and, less commonly, shot/reverse shot volleys) where pairs of characters converse at length (the front seats of a car are a favourite forum for this). The talk is well written by “new guy” director S. Craig Zahler (Brawl in Cell Block 99, 2017), and uniformly well acted (Mel Gibson is especially and surprisingly impressive in a reasonably restrained part). But there’s no articulation from phrase to phrase, shot to shot, beat to beat … and hence, for me, no cinema.
What remains – 26 years after Reservoir Dogs (1992)! – is a structure common in contemporary cinema: reams of jibber-jabber (as Samuel Fuller rightly called it) broken up occasionally by scenes of action and/or violence. Here, the dialogue wanders around various intriguing realms of characterisation (a little too fixated on personality-tagging tics, Mike Leigh-style) – recently suspended, turning-60 cop Ridgeman (Gibson), for instance, places percentage odds on everything – and the action scenes are often gamely elided (a bank robbery almost out of L'argent ; a bunch of people dying inside a van that we don’t see in gory detail). But it’s still, essentially, the same trade-off between “character exploration” playlets and bursts of physical confrontation or endurance – both scene-types, here, drawn out as far as possible (hence the film’s title, which has only a vague specificity within the plot). The extraction of a key from a warm corpse’s digestive system is the one gruesome Tarantinian spectacle that had me covering my eyes for most of a scene.
A little more au courant is a certain narrative manner inspired by 21st century serial television: large, floating pieces of storyline, various threads, are kept mysteriously well apart until they finally lock together. Those ‘50s B movies, for better or worse, would never have done it this way! In Dragged Across Concrete, these suspended parts are not equally interesting. There’s the story of Ridgeman and his Italian-American, equally work-suspended partner, Lurasetti (Vince Vaughn, not over the top for once) – the latter’s character tic is to utter the word “anchovies” one thousand times, the way some polite gentleman might use the cuss-word “shoot” instead of “shit”; although of different generations, each man faces a moment of transitional crisis in their respective intimate relationships. Then there’s another everyday male pair to mirror the first, and it’s black: Henry (Tory Kittles), just out of prison, and his longtime accomplice in reluctant crime, Biscuit (Michael Jai White).
Finally, and least engagingly, there’s the mean, bad guys, the “professional” thieves and killers, two of whom stay masked and can be identified only by the shade of their gloves (or, if you can pick it, the tone of their voices) – Grey (Matthew McCaull) and Black (Primo Allon) – plus the steely, Prussian mastermind at the top of the pyramid, Vogelmann (Thomas Kretschmann). So, for a good while, Henry cruises around trying to re-establish his life and routines, Ridgeman seeks (from Udo Kier!) a lead on some easy money, and Grey & Black slink through this town of Bulwark (does it exist?), coldly shooting innocents and gathering what they need for the big heist, transportation and trade of many bars of gold bullion. Things go very wrong as the various threads intersect, while pacts of trust and collaboration prove inscrutable – and, in those respects at least, neo is not so very far from noir, after all.
Dragged Across Concrete is an intriguing film with some novel details, but I can’t get terribly worked up over it as a whole piece; John Hillcoat’s Triple 9 (2016), to take a far less-hyped example of the hardboiled-multi-treachery-heist genre, is much more holistically shaped. The cult growing around Zahler likes to flirt with the notion that he’s the dangerous bad boy we need in an age of political correctness – since the plot (and especially the part played in it by mobile phone-captured footage leaked to the media) rests on certain (pretty familiar) provocations about necessary police brutality colliding with public over-sensitivity concerning racial and sexual political behaviour. (Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil was already on that ball in 1958.)
This dim rhetoric of salutary incorrectness is not beneficial to anyone, ultimately – it’s the same old backward blather on behalf of the “cause” of macho cinema as the very essence of the medium (the brief “vulgar auteurism” fad of a few years back also played this card), just in slightly revisionist guise.
At least this writer-director has the canny sense to take his beleaguered white heroes to some unexpectedly bleak places, while sending Henry (and even his slutty Mom) more or less in the opposite direction.
© Adrian Martin 1 May 2019