Dragged across Concrete S. Craig Zahler (USA 2019) Mel Gibson, Michael Jai White
Viewed 22 April 2019 Tyneside Cinema; ticket: £10.75
The death of tragedy
Zahler’s Dragged across Concrete takes its cue from ‘50s noir classics such as Huston’s ‘Asphalt Jungle’ (1950) which Zahler obliquely references in his title as another form of the urban hard stuff. Both movies feature recently released jailbirds who get involved in heists. Although both movies have some similarities in form and content, their respective styles caste them as products of distinctively different eras of cinema representing contrasting strata of psychic sensibility. Both ‘Dragged across Concrete’ and ‘Asphalt Jungle’ are stained with the respective darkness of their times; but ‘Asphalt Jungle’ works with archetypes and collective consciousness whereas Dragged Across Concrete is marked out with the contemporary cult of individuality.
Zahler is making films in a post Tarentino vein. He models his script on the Tarentino formula, extreme violence, with a visceral edge (literally) offset by cool smart-ass dialogue wrapped up in a narrative cut that drives the characters from one thing to another. Whereas in Huston’s movie accident plays a significant role in the plot, in Zahler’s script, with the exception perhaps of the accidental shooting of Brett, the script line holds to the characters intentions.
Today’s orthodox scripting is about empowerment. The metaphysics of empowerment insists on there being a winning ticket, in particular if the protagonist is female or ethnic minority, which Hollywood equates to being black. ‘Asphalt Jungle’ is a type of mythic tragedy. There are no winners, the architypical formula prescribes a design in which events must play out to a preordained conclusion where everyone who is marked for death, dies. There is no choice: the bad end unhappily, the good unluckily. This traditional play out of tragedy is more or less out of kilter with the times. It abuses the valuation that we place on the rights of individuals. In Zahler’s script, the main characters all have back stories that reveal the family situations of Brett Biscuit and Tony. They are defined in film terms as fully rounded people embedded in networks of relations outside the immediate business of the script. We are led to understand that they are good people. Even hostage Kelly (so as not be left out) is given a back story to overdetermine our reaction to her plight.
Whether Zahler’s drawn out back stories work (they take up a lot of film time) is perhaps questionable. But they point to an obligatory feature of contemporary scenarios. They are the passports that enable the narrative to escape the clutches of tragedy and embrace a trophy finale in which the last player standing, like the patsy in a TV game show, takes home the big prize. In this case, Biscuit, the black ex-con with a disabled son and wife struggling to cope with his extended absences in gaol, is able to provide for his family out of his ill gotten gains, enabling them to live a hotel life style of luxury and consumer goods, as promised in the adverts. Biscuit takes the biscuit.
The bad guys in ‘Dragged Across Concrete’ have no back stories (though as satirical offsetting there is certainly scope for scripting this type of guff). But in the opening sections of Zahler’s movie his villains occupy a place in the scripting that is almost completely detached from the dynamics of rest the scenario. The bad guys are presented as contemporary psychopaths intent only in pursuit of their own satisfaction. In these sections of the film they take on a life consummate slaughter. In their masks and tight fitting costumes they have a fetishishistic quality, endowing the gun with a charged sexual potency that ejaculates bullets not semen. As creatures of anti-life formed out of the complexes of the NRA top drawer, they are the beings of today, the lone gunmen, following their own internalised lines of retreat, creating ballets of death as with guns singing they spray semiautomatic fire cutting down their innocent victims who have not been supplied with back stories.
These sections of Zahler’s script may have little relevance to plot, but it is these sequences that remain in the mind. Impressed upon memory as they open up a space where death has replaced life in the twisted interplay of individual desire and the gun. Perhaps Zahler himself finding this vision disturbing prefers to leave us for his finale, in the banal grip of happy families.