S. Craig Zahler has been accused, even by those who (rightly) praised his first two features, of harboring a reactionary worldview, and Dragged Across Concrete feels like his response to this criticism in much the same way that The House That Jack Built felt like Lars Von Trier’s response to critics who see his work as misogynistic.
Zahler’s wonderful first feature, Bone Tomahawk, is something of a riff on John Ford’s The Searchers, with a more overtly evil (in fact, monstrous) enemy than in that film, while the brutal, excellent Brawl in Cell Block 99 centers around a nefarious plot that wouldn’t be out of place in the nightmares of the staunchest Pro-Lifer, so the charge of a conservative or reactionary viewpoint in Zahler’s films has never been entirely unfounded. However, his obvious intelligence and craftsmanship in all three of his features means that this viewpoint does not go unexamined, and in all cases there are complexities that muddy the waters of a simplistic, black-and-white message of any kind.
The casting alone seems to dare viewers of a more liberal bent to take an antagonistic view of Dragged, if not ignore it entirely (which would seem to be the actual reception it has received, by and large). Brawl star and noted conservative actor Vince Vaughn returns, alongside another noted conservative actor (and, apparently, rage-filled lunatic), Mel Gibson. The two play a pair of old-school, tough-guy cops in an era that no longer reveres their particular brand of police work.
They are introduced on a stakeout that ends in the forceful arrest of a drug dealer. They are rough with him, bending his arm well beyond the point of comfort and keeping him on the ground with a foot on his neck, all the while making mean-spirited cracks at his expense. In other words, it’s the type of thing we’re used to seeing the “good guys” do in all sorts of movies and TV shows about cops throughout the years. But this is not the 1970s New York of movies like Death Wish or The French Connection (the latter of which, at least, had its own moral ambiguities to unpack). This is the present day, when this sort of excessive force is frequently documented by witnesses with cell phones and, all too infrequently, leads to negative consequences for the officers in question.
In many ways, the deck is stacked in favor of these two cops, Ridgeman (Gibson) and Lurasetti (Vaughn). The initial act of excessive force is, as previously stated, relatively mild compared to many real-life cases in which officers have been exonerated, and they are made more likeable through their banter and, later, the way Ridgeman is seen struggling to support his family and trying to get them out of a high-crime neighborhood in which his daughter, in particular, feels unsafe. On the other hand, we see more egregious tactics from them only moments later, when they abuse and humiliate their suspect’s girlfriend in ways that can only be chalked up to racism, sexism, and ableism (she is partially deaf).
This moral ambivalence continues throughout, as their plan to rob a crew of bank robbers (of whose own plan Ridgeman has inside knowledge) leads to the deaths of innocent people that could have been saved had the two cops followed proper procedure instead of going after their own illegal score. Further muddying the waters (in the best way possible) is the character of Henry Johns (Tory Kittles), a recently released ex-con who is, in many ways, the true protagonist of the movie.
Though we spend more screen time with Ridgeman and Lurasetti, we are introduced to Johns first, and it is ultimately his fate that provides the story its conclusion. He is also a more reliable moral center than either of the two cops, and certainly a more honorable man than Lurasetti, who would undoubtedly proclaim himself the more forthright of the lawmen. The title of the movie refers not to, say, a man’s face being literally dragged across concrete (as seen in Brawl), but to the lines of moral code that both Johns and the two cops are forced to cross while trying to keep some sense of their own honor intact.