Underrated/Overlooked: Joel Potrykus on Dragged Across Concrete

It's not exactly fashionable to love S. Craig Zahler's movies, but dammit if Joel Potrykus doesn't walk to the beat of his own drum.

There are three ways to read this line of dialogue. Depending on your reading, it probably indicates which side of the fence you fall when it comes to Dragged Across Concrete and writer-director S. Craig Zahler. Mel Gibson plays world-worn detective Brett Ridgeman, who’s tailing a suspect van with his partner, Vince Vaughn’s Anthony Lurasetti. The van heads into a parking garage that’s littered with construction signs. Ridgeman says, “It’s still under construction.” To which Lurasetti replies, “Want me to mail or hand deliver your genius award?”

The first, and easiest, way to read Lurasetti’s quip is that it’s hilarious. S. Craig Zahler is just like your ball-busting sarcastic friends, and you’re convinced you two would get along great. He’s a pitcher-of-Labatt’s kind of guy and the first round’s on you.

The second interpretation, the critical view, is that you think Zahler is taking too many cues from Tarantino. He sees his characters as quick-witted spitballers, chewing up the page, hypnotizing the audience with their command of the language. It’s second-rate dialogue better left to the masters.

Optimistically, I like to read it a third way. I theorize that Zahler has created a character that’s intentionally lame, never telling us it’s OK to laugh at him, rather than with him. Never mocking him for his brand of crusty humor. Lurasetti often says things like this, then waits for a chuckle, because he thinks he’s hilarious. He’s the type of detective that probably hangs with the rookie cops at the station, ragging on whoever just left the room, and gets two laughs. One of the rookies laughs because he wants to be liked. The other one actually sees Vaughn as a Dane Cook type – comic genius. It’s like when Michael Scott moonlights as a telemarketer and entertains his cubicle neighbors with Die Hard analysis. I know this guy, and Zahler knows this guy. When my brain begins to question the motives behind certain dopey lines of dialogue like this, I mostly just hope I’m not wrong, let it pass over me, and wait for someone to draw a gun.

I don’t love Dragged Across Concrete for the dialogue. It’s mostly expositional, with everyone saying exactly how they feel, with some of these oddly dry one-liners along the way. I ride with it because it feels right in this weird movie. It’s weird because it has no self-awareness and plays it totally straight. It never tries to be funny or clever or anything that it’s not. It never tries to be weird. It never tells us anything about itself or sets a conventional tone. There’s no score to hold our hand, and tell us how to feel. Zahler leaves us to find our own way through the nightmare. There’s no winking. Whereas, someone who majored in weird like Harmony Korine has devolved into a filmmaker with too much money and too many expectations for the offbeat, which inherently makes The Beach Bum feel labored and contrived – the opposite of weird. Like all good directors, Zahler’s being himself and doesn’t care what you think.

For that reason, and a few others, it’s a tough movie to figure out, which is why I don’t think enough people stuck with it. Maybe you don’t agree with Zahler’s politics. Or what you think are his politics. Before I got a chance to watch Dragged Across Concrete, I saw headlines judging it as a right-wing fantasy or the work of a bigot. That’s horseshit. Politically biased journalism is for Fox News, not art criticism. I don’t know anything about Zahler’s politics. I don’t care about them. And I don’t care to assume his characters’ views are his own. But we’ll come back to this in a minute.

Here’s what Zahler does best.

Exactly halfway into the two-hour, 38-minute runtime of Dragged Across Concrete, we’re introduced to a new character – a new mother, Kelly – and what feels like a new storyline. Her sequence comes in the middle of a long, tense stakeout that’s about to come to a head. The timing feels off. Zahler’s up to something. Kelly’s maternity leave has ended and she’s finding it impossible to leave her baby and return to her meaningless bank job. She’s the first glimmer of hope in this cruel, hardened world. As a relatively new father, I could relate. My biggest fear about fatherhood is that this precise miracle would make my work feel like an unfulfilling waste of time. And there’s a long period where you understand that work is little more than a societal construct designed to keep you from your child just enough for that child to eventually grow detached enough to join the labor force themselves and keep the assembly line moving. I was nervous when she came on screen. I didn’t know what Zahler was going to do to her, and in turn, to me.

My fears were not unfounded. It’s the meanest scene of the year, and one of the meanest I’ve ever seen. It’s Zahler’s strongest detour as a storyteller yet. It shows him at his bravest, his most manipulative, and his bleakest. It’s a daring emotional move, but more importantly, a daring narrative move. It’s not a scene that usually makes it to the screen. It was conceived, committed to paper, somehow stuck around through multiple drafts, table reads, money people, a first cut, fine cuts, and was still alive and well after a final cut. They say “kill your babies” (no, Zahler doesn’t actually kill the baby in question), and this baby of a sequence somehow survived in the face of all those who claim to be pure of heart and sensical. Like an abortion that never happened. Or Belial in Basket Case. It’s a precious miracle. People peg Zahler for exploitation. Troma is exploitation. This movie is too careful for such an easy label.

Back to the bigger gripes.

Most filmmakers stay away from actors with a history of saying awful things about women and Jews and cops and decent normal people. Zahler says he cast Mel Gibson because he’s a great actor. Sure, but there’s probably more to it. Gibson’s Ridgeman is a desensitized detective, on the verge of losing his job because he’s been caught on video roughing up a bad guy – a Mexican bad guy. Gibson’s character complains about the “politics” of it all. His chief replies, “Politics are everywhere. Being branded a racist in today’s public forum is like being accused of communism in the fifties.” Like I said, the dialogue isn’t subtle. There’s a lot of dialogue like that in here. Sometimes it’s botched attempts at humor. Sometimes it’s an outdated view on race, sex, double-standards, and feeling out of place in a world that’s mean to you because you’re not nice. Mostly it’s the ultimate blue-collar dilemma – how the hell can I make any money when I’m busy working this shitty job?

Again, I don’t know if anyone actually knows about Zahler’s politics, and I hope most would choose not to care. When Michael Haneke points his finger at the audience, we call him a master arthouse provocateur. Zahler is also a master arthouse provocateur, and Dragged Across Concrete is not an agenda film. It’s a middle-finger film. Zahler’s doing the dragging, the audience is tasting the concrete.

Joel Potrykus resides in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he works with a filmmaking band, Sob Noisse, including long-time collaborator Joshua Burge. His latest feature, Vulcanizadora, makes its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2024. His films Ape, Buzzard, The Alchemist Cookbook and Relaxer have premiered at the SXSW Film Festival, Locarno Film Festival, and have screened at the Lincoln Center and the MoMa. He teaches filmmaking at Grand Valley State University.