In S. Craig Zahler’s debut film, 2015’s Bone Tomahawk, the writer/director made an immediate statement with a boldly directed western that probed the psyche of man and the nature of violence. 2017’s Brawl in Cell Block 99  blended these themes with a politically conservative approach and a shocking finale of gruesome violence. In his third film, Dragged Across Concrete, Zahler works with similar tools in his toolbox, but has a far bigger project in mind.

At nearly 160 minutes and filled with enough characters and subplots to accommodate an entire season of dramatic television, Dragged Across Concrete stars Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn as a pair of white racist cops who delve into a world of crime after getting suspended without pay following an incident of aggressive force. Tory Kittles and Michael Jai White star as two black men, the former fresh out of jail, who take a job with some shady, terrorist-like masked men planning a bank robbery (a cruel and sadistic sequence that will make even those with the strongest stomachs cringe). Strictly in the realm of storytelling beats, Zahler is obsessed with how these character arcs eventually intertwine, and the tension leading to the film’s conclusion is palpable. The path toward the standoff is one of the most fascinating and exciting parts of the western genre, and Zahler does not disappoint in getting there.

With its standoffs and pursuits and strong portrayals of masculine antiheros, Dragged Across Concrete is as much a sweeping western as Bone Tomahawk despite its modern setting. Automatic assault rifles and racially-charged politics replace cowboy hats and pistols, with Zahler still embodying his enthusiasm for joyfully mined genre filmmaking and unapologetically immoral storytelling; he’s perhaps the closest thing we’ve come to Sam Peckinpah since Peckinpah himself, and it’s both a detriment and a plus toward the filmmaker’s audience depending on where they are approaching his work from.

If you enter his work, especially Dragged Across Concrete, with ethics in tow, you may find yourself taking on more than you can chew. For all those who are up in a tizzy about the politics and race relations presented in the film, there’s an equal amount of people who will find its portrayals of such fascinating. For everyone who’s angry about the casting of Mel Gibson as a problematic character (with parallels to the actor’s notoriety himself), there are people who may still find themselves floored by the man’s ability to act. He’s damn fine on screen, even if he’s proven himself to be a piece of shit in real life.

Zahler, despite whatever his politics may be (he often skirts the topic in interviews), is an absolute craftsman of character and cinema. His shots are often exquisite in their grimness, and his scrutiny of undeniably flawed and often vile human beings is transfixing despite its viciousness. He’s an ugly filmmaker, for sure, but he seems perfectly content in being one. And with layers beneath the ugliness, Zahler has proven himself to be far more than a troll. If you join the filmmaker in his curiosity as he probes the inner depths of male aggression and animalistic depravity, you may just find yourself riveted as you recoil.

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