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Dragged Across Concrete (2019)

S. Craig Zahler is the real deal when it comes to budding genre auteurs. He’s been writing in Hollywood for some time and after numerous un-produced scripts he finally decided to take matters into his own hands. In 2015, he wrote and directed the terrific and terrifically violent western Bone Tomahawk, and then in 2017 he tried his hand at another genre movie, the brutal prison drama, Brawl in Cell Block 99. Now Zahler has hopped to another genre, the more familiar cops-and-robbers crime thriller territory, Dragged Across Concrete. I’ll watch anything that Zahler decides is worthy of his precious time, and I was unprepared for how engaging, exciting, and uncomfortable the movie made me. It’s still early but I already feel confident this is destined as one of my favorite films of 2019.

One bank robbery. Many different sides fighting for the score. Henry Johns (Tory Kittles) is an ex-con fresh for prison and attached to a crew thanks to a childhood friend, Biscuit (Michael Jai White). Brett Ridgeman (Mel Gibson) is a police detective who has been in the same position for nearly 30 years. His wife has MS and his daughter is being assaulted in their urban neighborhood. His partner, Anthony Lurasetti (Vince Vaughn), is struggling to work up the nerve to propose to his girlfriend and he sees his partner slipping. Both of them are on suspension after a video of them beating a handcuffed suspect appears online. Then there are the mysterious, masked men (labeled as Grey Gloves and Black Gloves) working alongside Vogelmann (Thomas Kretschmann) who hire Henry John and Biscuit to be their getaway drivers. This culminates with a bank robbery that places every character in greater jeopardy as things spin out of control.

What separates Zahler from the pack is simply the magnificent manner he can write scenes, building and building, unlocked intriguing character details, building to startling conclusions or everyday relatability given a new, brash context. It’s a screenwriting edict that every scene should in essence be its own story, having a beginning, middle, and end, a drive, and if possible a reversal to something unexpected, shedding further examination onto a problem, person, or setting. I was greatly enjoying just watching the various characters talk in their understated, hard-boiled, often funny conversations, which don’t feel too self-consciously stylized. It’s just damn good writing. Even when they’re doing bad things, or mistakes that cost them greatly, Zahler has his characters respond like people and not hip, soulless movie cartoons. There’s a reason Concrete is two and a half hours long and that’s because Zahler really lets his scenes breathe at their own pace, which can be too languid if it wasn’t for how exquisitely written they are, particularly with character details. Each scene sheds a startling non-judgmental spotlight on a different character, some criminal, some corrupt, most struggling to keep their heads above water and provide for family, and you feel the narrative expanding, growing, transforming, and providing the needed space to make these people feel real.

Each one of these scenes could be a marvelous short film upon themselves, and sometimes it feels that way with the skipping perspectives. What happens to Jennifer Carpenter’s character, a woman beset with anxiety about returning to work after maternity leave, is its own wonderful movie that provides a glimpse into a life and in only five minutes’ time. Her reluctance to go back to work, her need to be with her child, the simple, heartfelt plea with a child’s sock. It all works in impressive tandem to make this person feel authentic. The same with an exchange between two lifelong friends about a birthday cake and naming dinosaurs, reaching back to ease the current tension. It’s insight rarely afforded to characters in a standard heist movie. The actors are all given these artistic arias to work with, and the extra attention to detail brings a depth of dimension that makes them feel fully realized. Zahler has captured recognizable, complicated human beings and placed them in a pulpy genre movie. This is the sort of A-level elevation of B-movie material that is usually the purview of Quentin Tarantino.

Because of my general awe with the characterization, Zahler had the added benefit of making the rising dread feel powerfully unnerving. It’s major a slow burn of a movie, setting up the various players that will be directly or indirectly involved with the robbery, and that robbery doesn’t even hit until well after an hour into the film. Because of that patience, or self-indulgence some will decry, the movie fleshes out all the participants and their various motivations so that the audience feels degrees of sympathy for many people on different sides of the equation. This leads to amazing tension for the last hour. I was tying myself in knots waiting for awful things to happen to characters I found compelling because, frankly, awful things happen easily in Zahler’s movie universe. There is a stash of guns in the glove compartment of a getaway van. The first sequence involves the growing tension of characters placing themselves in a vulnerable position by giving up their weapons. Then, as the scene transforms anew, the guns in that compartment become a reminder of an ironic advantage that only one character knows about, and we wait for their retrieval to escalate the danger of the new scenario. That’s fabulous writing with organic developments. There are several characters at cross-purposes with little reason to trust one another, and so we wait for that looming explosion of violence fed by mistrust and greed. Zahler understands this and that’s why many of the scenes in the last hour follow the writing style, slow burns that hang onto the unease and breathing space. There are several long takes aided by long shots that amplify the gnawing tension, as your eyes scan the screen waiting for the boom.

I’ve read more than a few negative reviews for Dragged Across Concrete and I don’t understand their central criticism, namely that Zahler’s movie is “problematic” because of a supposed conservative, bigoted point of view. I think these critics are conflating a featured viewpoint with an endorsement of that viewpoint. Take for instance the brouhaha that erupted over a 2015 episode of the Hulu comedy series Difficult People where a narcissistic, caustic character makes an inappropriate joke featuring super scion Blue Ivy and vilified R. Kelly. In the context of the show, the character is berated for her off-color joke and suffers social consequences. When the episode aired, people went after the show and producer Amy Poehler and entirely missed the point. The character was not put in a positive light for making this joke. She was shamed. Clearly the show did not endorse her behavior but others could not see through their own misplaced outrage. With Dragged Across Concrete, we are presented with middle-aged police officers with a chip on their shoulder who feel justified in engaging in brutality against a suspect of color. That’s not a good thing. Zahler’s film does not endorse their actions or worldview but allows them space to exist, filling in their experiences, so we have a greater understanding of how their perspectives have been honed and hardened over time. It’s the same empathetic lens given to other people, like the opening where Henry comes home and discovers his mother has been forced to turn to prostitution to fend for herself and Henry’s disabled younger brother. I don’t think Zahler endorses the abusive cops any more than the ruthless masked killers.

I’m keeping things light in this review for the reason that I want you, dear reader, to be surprised by the many twists and turns of Dragged Across Concrete. As the film builds in intensity, the body count rises and the conclusion feels inevitable because of the superb writing that laid a tight foundation to build upon. Even in death, the characters stay true to whom they are, which can often be very not nice people. The acting is great from every player. This movie grabbed me from the beginning and refused to let go and I was genuinely spellbound from Zahler’s storytelling prowess and ability to weave a net of complex, flawed, humane, and fascinating characters into a tragic scenario of violence that left me anxious and exhilarated. When people complain that Hollywood isn’t making thinking-person films for adults, please invite them to the burgeoning oeuvre of Zahler, who is charting a path for himself on his own terms thanks to his instincts and tremendous writing voice. Dragged Across Concrete is a ferocious punch to the gut in the best way possible.

Nate’s Grade: A


Hacksaw Ridge (2016)

hacksaw0001-1Mel Gibson needs to direct more movies. End of statement. It’s been a decade since Gibson last helmed a movie, 2006’s visceral art film for jocks, Apocalypto, and he’s been in “movie jail” ever since a string of controversial drunken statements. His new movie is a completely earnest, classical example of storytelling that you just as easily could see faces of old appear (say John Wayne in place of curmudgeonly Vince Vaughn), and Hacksaw Ridge is a stirring war movie and a stirring character study. Andrew Garfield plays Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector who wanted to go to war but refused to touch a gun. The first half of the movie is the U.S. Army trying to make sense of this inherent conflict, looking for ways to intimidate him, make him compromise, or kick him out of service. Yet, he endures, and it’s in the second half that Doss single-handedly saves 75 wounded men as a medic left alone on a deserted battlefield in the Pacific. Garfield (Amazing Spider-Man) is a solid lead performance, though his cornpone West Virginia accent irritated me… until the real Desmond Doss is showcased in archival footage and he sounds exactly alike. The supporting characters are rich and have more depth than I was expecting, including Hugo Weaving as Doss’ father, a drunken shell from his WWI survivor’s guilt. There’s much more complexity to what otherwise could be a hateful drunk and one-note character foil. The one miss I felt was the courtship between Doss and his future wife (Teresa Palmer). It felt like an outdated perspective where a man’s insistence overrode a woman’s agency and he was rewarded for it. Admittedly, that’s a modern perspective applied to a generational relationship from long ago. The movie is naturally graphic but the bloody violence is stylized in a way that communicates the ugliness and chaos of war. The action develops and is grisly and engaging without losing sense of the characters and without falling into redundancy. When Doss is rescuing survivors in the final act, the movie finds new challenges that he has to overcome to keep things interesting and raise the stakes. Gibson’s images can be frightfully beautiful; his command of visual storytelling and its evocative power is too good for only one movie a decade. It may be impossible to make an anti-war movie without in some way glamorizing war, so even though Hacksaw Ridge celebrates the heroism of one man’s anti-violence values it finds a mainstream sense of entertainment in the carnage. It’s like a tentpole Oscar movie and I hope I don’t have to wait until 2026 for the next Gibson-directed vehicle.

Nate’s Grade: B+

The Beaver (2011)

Eerily mirroring his real-life public breakdown, Mel Gibson stars in The Beaver as Walter Black, a man crippled by depression who finds a therapeutic outlet via animal puppet. The beaver is a puppet that Walter chooses to speak through, albeit in a cockney Brit accent that sounds faintly like Ray Winstone (The Departed). Given this twee premise, you’d expect plenty of laughs, but under the prosaic direction of Jodie Foster, also starring as Black’s anguished wife, the movie comes off like a stupefying heart-tugger, a sub-American Beauty style in suburban mawkishness. The comedy and drama elements don’t gel at all, and The Beaver is too tonally disjointed to settle down. Gibson gives a strong performance as a man battling his demons, and the subject matter of mental illness is thankfully treated with respect despite the fantastical premise. It’s the extraneous moments outside the beaver that help to detract and distract. The story of Walter’s son (Anton Yelchin) worrying that he’s already showing signs of mental illness, doomed to end up like the father he hates, is a palpable storyline. But writer Kyle Killen sums up this dilemma with clumsy brevity, having the son jot down post-it notes of behavior he has in common with dad, behavior to be eliminated. The entire subplot involving the son romancing the school Valedictorian (Jennifer Lawrence, sunny and beautiful as always), a pretty gal troubled with grief, never feels authentic. That’s the problem with The Beaver; too much feels inauthentic to be dramatic and it’s too subdued and brusque to be dark comedy. It’s like the strangest public therapy session ever for a fading star.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Edge of Darkness (2010)

While I was watching Edge of Darkness, a conspiracy thriller that hearkens the return to acting for Mel Gibson, one thing kept sticking out to me, and no, it wasn?t the protracted ear-splitting “Bahstun” accents. One character makes comment about the current lowly state of affairs and says, “Everything’s illegal in Massachusetts.” That perked my ears, and then a second character says the exact same thing later in the movie, like it’s this flick’s summary, “It’s Chinatown.” What exactly does that mean specifically about Massachusetts? That the Bay State is somehow a nanny state, dictating behavior? Or is this a resigned admittance toward the futility of competing against the long arm of the law? I’ll tell you something that isn’t illegal in Massachusetts — gay marriage. They got a leg up on that one. This is the kind of internal conversation I had with myself while Gibson unraveled a fairly ho-hum conspiracy-of-the-week plot.

Detective Thomas Craven (Gibson) is a decorated Boston lawman. His grown daughter, Emma (Bojana Novakovic), is visiting from her job when she starts throwing up blood. She needs to tell her father some important secrets about her workplace. But as the two are about to leave for the hospital, a man cries out “Craven,” and follows it with a thunderous shotgun blast. Emma gets the full force and dies in her father?s arms. The media assumes Thomas was the target and the gunman had an old score to settle. However, the more Craven investigates the more convinced he is that his daughter was the real target. He looks into Emma’s connection to some dead environmental activists caught breaking into her place of work. The head of the company (Danny Huston) has plenty of important defense contracts and suspicious behavior. As Craven tracks down the truth he is assisted by the mystifying Mr. Jedburgh (Ray Winstone), a man normally hired to cover up any messy loose ends of governmental business. Jedburgh decides to work with Craven instead of against him, and the two men must fight for their lives.

The real reason to see this fairly pedestrian police thriller is because of Gibson. It’s been a long eight years since his last onscreen role, and I must say I’ve forgotten about what a great actor the man can be. When this guy gets mad, you can practically feel the intensity. Gibson is terrific at playing a man with simmering emotions that often get the better of him. The lines and wrinkles give him a new canvas to play with, letting his age help tell the story of his character. Gibson seems to have this inner insanity to him, an admirable bent of crazy manic anarchic energy (I highly suggest checking out some of the Jimmy Kimmel Show shorts he’s been apart of). It makes him hard to ignore. He peppers in what he can with his character, a long-standing member of the law thirsting for answers and vengeance. What’s enjoyable is that he doesn’t go about knocking down every door to make people pay. Craven plays each interrogation differently depending upon his prey; sometimes he uses a soft touch and sometimes he opts for the tried-and-true punch to the nose. It’s little touches like this that bring out details in the character, and Gibson knows how to exploit them for maximum drama. Does anyone play instantly bereaved better than this man? He has a real knack for nailing scenes where a character is confronted with the sudden death of a loved one. His face is full of tics, his eyes glass over, it’s like he has lost all control and given over to the amassing and conflicting emotions. This clearly isn’t one of Gibson’s best performances, but after eight yeas of absence I’m more than willing to give the man a little latitude. An angry and bereaved Gibson is a Gibson I can enjoy watching on the big screen no matter how rudimentary the caper.

Edge of Darkness belongs to Gibson, but Winstone pretty much comes out of nowhere and hijacks the movie. Every time his character leaves the scene you’re anxiously awaiting his return. He’s an intriguing character, which makes me wonder why he’s gotten such a languished subplot. He could have been better involved in the story but the script keeps him to the narrative’s edges until the climax. Though a bit hard to understand thanks to a severe case of the mumbles, Winstone is by far the most interesting character in the movie. He’s an expert on fixing problems who tires of the long hours of shadowy, dastardly work. This is surely a character worthy of his own tale, or at least equal placement in the narrative, but instead Jedburgh functions as a sly informant when he should be running the show.

The script pretty much treads water. It’s not anything that’s particularly bad, but this story is pretty much content to stick with the basics. This isn’t a dumb movie per se, thanks to screenwriters William Monahan (The Departed) and Andrew Bovell (Lantana) adapting from the acclaimed BBC mini-series. Those guys know something about a crackling crime thriller, which this is not. The lizardly Huston couldn’t be any more obvious of a villain, but he’s not alone. The burly henchmen drive around in dark, tinted SUVs that seem to say that somebody got their nefarious goon driver’s license. This is the kind of movie that plays its hand early, telegraphing future revelations and double-crosses. When we’re introduced to a character right after Emma’s death, and the camera takes a deliberate amount of time hanging on that character’s pained expression, obviously we’ve been informed that this person is somehow connected. No prolonged reaction shot is ever meaningless in an action thriller. Every time Craven ties to gain information from a person of interest, they say, “I can’t talk. They’ll kill me,” and then that person is promptly killed as prophesied. You basically expect something “shocking” to happen every time a person leaves Craven’s presence (FYI: check both ways before crossing the street).

There’s a really engaging and politically active whistler blower story somewhere in here that could have used better attention. It seems the line between whistle-blower and activist is a thin one, and Craven must assemble enough evidence to make sure that his case cannot be dismissed as a kook. It’s an interesting dilemma, trying to assemble a compelling case that will hold up on objective scrutiny, that can’t be tossed out. That’s an interesting predicament considering the many eyes and ears of a large, legally autonomous corporate entity. Alas, that movie is not Edge of Darkness.

Gibson’s return to movie acting is definitely welcomed, even if it’s something as disposable as this. Edge of Darkness is a by-the-book conspiracy thriller that offers glimpses of something superior that could have been worked out. More attention could have been given to Winstone’s character. The whistleblower aspect could have been heightened and clarified. There could have been a bit more action and a little less blood. The bad guy could have been less obvious from the get-go. But in the end, there’s Gibson tapping into his mad Mel streak of appealing intensity. Not everybody can offer what Gibson does. It’s too bad then that Edge of Darkness fails to realize this virtue.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Apocalypto (2006)

Apocalypto is an action movie set 500 years in the past with a cast of entirely unknown actors, some of who have never acted before. But what does everyone want to talk about? Mel Gibson hates Jews. He’s been in a heap of trouble ever since a DUI where he said some very unkind things about God’s chosen people. He’s made the apology tour and checked into alcohol rehab, the new go-to defense whenever a celebrity screws up. The public finds it hard to separate art from the artist; Frank “It’s a Wonderful Life” Capra was anti-Semitic but few seem to bring that up. Some people have sworn off Gibson thanks to this disgraceful incident. That’s a shame because Apocalypto is brilliantly filmed and Gibson’s finest directing effort yet.

The Mayans seem pretty at ease 500 years ago. We open on a hunting party dividing up a recent kill and playing a prank on one of their members that is having trouble making little Mayans with the wife. Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) is the son of the tribe?s leader. In the forest they encounter a group of survivors from a different village. They warn of a group of mercenaries that razed their town, killed their people, and took the rest. Jaguar Paw?s father warns not to speak of what they have seen to their people. Fear is contagious, we?re told. That night the same mercenaries attack Jaguar Paw?s village. He scrambles to lower his pregnant wife and young son into a cavern for safety. The surviving men and women are tied up and sent marching. The village?s children are left to fend for themselves and most likely perish without any adults.

Jaguar Paw and his fellow captives are headed for a Mayan temple. The women are sold into slavery. The men are painted blue and guided to the top of the temple to become sacrifices to an unhappy god. The men are held on a slab, have their hearts cut out, finally then have their heads sliced off and kicked down the stairs. Through a fortunate set of circumstances Jaguar Paw breaks free and races into the forest to return to his family, who is in danger of drowning if the cavern fills with rain water. The mercenaries are not far behind and willing to go to any length to kill Jaguar Paw.

From an anthropological standpoint, Apocalypto is fascinating. Gibson has turned back time and immerses the viewer in a world unseen for 500 years. The details are astounding, and whether they are note-for-note historically accurate or not is inconsequential. You are seeing a living, breathing world right before your eyes. I loved soaking in the new-ness of the experience, seeing how this forgotten world operates, and the power struggles within. These people have great faces, great hulking muscular frames, and great expressions needing to be seen. Gibson has crafted a film that you’ve never seen before, at least with this kind of budget and filmmaking prowess. Apocalypto can quite often be breathtaking to behold. The production design and costumes (yes, there are more than just loin cloths) are incredibly rendered and add greatly to the authenticity and mood. I loved visiting the Mayan temple city (“down town” I guess you could call it) and seeing the different factions intersect, like green painted upper-class harpies being carried around the crowd.

The parallels Gibson puts out there seem tenuous at best. The Mayans have lived beyond their resources, experiencing plague, and feel that the need to pacify the masses, and turnaround their bad luck, is a whole slew of human sacrifices. There’s an Iraq War reference in there if you want to go looking for it and perhaps an ecological one as well. I don’t know if Gibson is using the Mayans as a cautionary example of a society that crumbled. We are treated to an opening quote detailing that no great society can be conquered from outside until it has become corrupt from within. Maybe this is Gibson’s way of telling America to sit up and fly right. Or maybe it’s just an intellectual glob toweled over the blood and guts to make everything seem more meaningful.

The acting is a surprise. Many of these people are really good, especially Youngblood who has a soulful face and a terrific presence onscreen. Gibson creates a great sense of community in the early moments. People feel natural and in touch with their surroundings. Their interaction and the visual shorthand feel like storytelling tricks from classic silent movies. Gibson manages to tell us a lot with little. There are some gut-churning moments, and some of them are because of character. A man from Jaguar Paw’s village hopes his wife did not give up fighting before she perished, because if she did then she will be sent to hell. He pleads that when he dies he might endure the tortures of hell, just so he can be with her again. That hits hard. A cranky mother-in-law also provides a shining emotional moment completely played in solemn silence. A little girl surrounded by crying children tries to assure the adult captives, “They are mine now. I will take care of them.”

The last hour of the movie is a non-stop foot race as Jaguar Paw valiantly attempts to escape his enemies and return to his swatch of the jungle. There are some fantastic escapes and imagery, like Jaguar Paw outrunning an actual jaguar. The ending is fantastic and a fitting climax for the title. I would have enjoyed just a little shove further, like a new character marveling at some gold trinket Jaguar Paw had gotten from the Mayan temple. “This is gold. Can you tell me where there is more?” he would say. “Tell you?” Jaguar Paw would say in a hearty laugh. “I’ll SHOW you where to get more. Follow me.” The resolution is pretty obvious but left to the imagination. I guess after much derring-do I just prefer more finality with my comeuppance.

This may be about a dead culture and spoken entirely in a dead language, but Gibson’s bloody art house flick is a lively macho action movie at its core. It’s structured exactly like a typical Hollywood action movie, and I don’t know if this adds another level of brilliance to the final product or makes it seem more ordinary taken apart from its historical context. Gibson’s trade is misery. He’s been a martyr onscreen and he prefers to tell stories about the anguished and tortured. Jaguar Paw is beaten, wronged, and has to race against time to save his family. When Jaguar Paw moves onto his own turf he turns his knowledge of the land to turn the tables on his enemies. The movie presents familiar archetypes like the wise father, well-meaning oaf, and impetuous hothead villain, Super Biggest Bad Guy (he does wear the most skull trophies, that has to count for something). The villains are larger than life and have great menace to them. Even better, they’re highly memorable and despicable, and yet they seem to operate within a tribal code of their own honor. They scowl with the best of them.

This familiarity makes viewing Apocalypto less jarring, This is an independent movie high school jocks could enjoy. That may sound dismissive but it’s a compliment. Gibson has great technical skill and after decades of shoot-em-up pictures, he definitely knows how to build and sustain exciting and rewarding action sequences. You know when the bad guys with personality are going to have big deaths, and you know when you see a hunting weapon in Act One that it is going to be put to awesome use in Act Three. The lines of action are well structured and smartly played. When you boil it down, it may just be an action movie, but because of Gibson it’s a good action movie.

With The Passion of the Christ, I was appalled by the violence, more so how Gibson fell in love with the blood and gore, turning it into pornography. That was the message of The Passion — Jesus sure knew how to take a lickin?. But with Apocalypto, the violence is savage but the appeal of this project is on recreating a world, not sadism. Apocalypto is more interested in opening eyes than shutting them because of nauseating and relentless gore. This isn’t exactly a movie fit for nuns and missionaries, though. Gibson embraces the cruelty of man and showcases some real horrors. The temple sacrifices are fitting and gruesome, but never seem exploitative. There are moments that I wish Gibson would have pulled back, like an extended scene of a jaguar chewing a man’s head or a gusher of blood spritzing out of a man’s temple like a broken sprinkler. I think Gibson loses control of his story and gives in to his own bloodlust in these moments, which serve to take you out of the movie and go, “Ick.”

The violence is also easier to stomach because the audience is more invested in story and character. Everyone that paid a ticket in 2004 knew Jesus was going to die in the end, at least, I really hope they did. That might have been a shocker to a remote few. It was all about witnessing suffering and testing how much you could watch. You felt the pain, all right. Apocalypto, in contrast, is tame and more focused on escape than futility.

After The Passion of the Christ made heaven and earth move at the box office, Gibson can afford to make any movie he wants. If he wants to make a movie about Mayans in Mayan, so be it. At least Gibson knows how to tell a good action story. Apocalypto is beguiling and often breathtaking to behold. The details create a rich environment that feels wholly alive. It’s a typical action movie plucked down in a different historical setting, creating the most unique movie experience of the year. It’s a man’s man independent movie but also manages to hit key emotional notes. I don’t care what he thinks of Jews or anyone else. His art speaks for itself, and Apocalypto is fascinating. It’s an art film for jocks, it’s an action movie for science geeks. Bless you Mel Gibson, you’ve brought us all together in the weirdest way possible.

Nate’s Grade: B+

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