It is not necessarily praise to say of someone “he would have been more successful in the ’70s,” but I’m pretty sure S. Craig Zahler would take it as a compliment. Zahler is the writer and director of a series of extremely long, carefully composed, brutally violent movies, which have mostly had their life on video and on-demand. Each one has starred big names (Kurt Russell, Vince Vaughn) somewhat on the down side of their careers; the latest, Dragged across Concrete, stars Mel Gibson as a racist cop suspended for putting his foot on a suspect’s head, a casting move that naturally has created extra interest and controversy for the film.
Some of that attention has been dismissive, depicting Zahler as just a right-wing provocateur. But some has been more intriguing, and intrigued. “A singular, dangerous talent,” The Ringer’s Scott Tobias called Zahler, while asking of his filmography: “How often are American viewers confronted by a movie that doesn’t need to be liked?”
The answer, in the age of blockbusters and algorithms and fan service, is not often. I had not watched any Zahler before his latest movie, so last week I watched Concrete back to back with Brawl in Cell Block 99, his second effort, from 2017. (His first film, Bone Tomahawk, a pulp western in which Russell fights cannibals, I’m saving to watch on a completely empty stomach.) I can report that his films are not for the faint of heart, that they are politically incorrect without being politically didactic, that they have dialogue that wavers between pretension and perfection, and that they have an entirely distinctive and unapologetic style. Is that an endorsement? Yes, I think it is.
Both movies are essentially pulp fiction, offered with Tarantino-esque enthusiasm for the grindhouse but without his irony or adolescent glee. Both are concerned with the conflict between bad men who have a code and bad men who are essentially satanic. In neither case do you get the Death Wish–style vigilante scenario in which a normal person is just pushed too far. Nobody has to push Zahler’s protagonists: They’re violent men who end up in dire situations because of their own mistakes and sins. Nor are their lives sentimentalized or their criminal chops admired. We are on their side only because they end up against something much worse than mere criminality and vice.
In Brawl, the protagonist, Bradley Thomas, is played by a looming, stoic, bald, and tattooed Vaughn: He’s a former boxer whom we first see destroying a car in rage over his wife’s infidelity, only to go inside and calmly decide that they should stay together and try to have another child. To support them, he becomes the muscle for a drug dealer, promising that it will be temporary, but by the time she gets pregnant it seems permanent. Then a deal goes wrong, and Vaughn’s character makes a moral but unwise choice, one that lands him in prison and in the crosshairs of a drug lord, who kidnaps his wife and threatens to have an abortionist maim their child in utero unless he figures out a way to get into the titular maximum-security cell block and murder someone held therein.
The violence that follows is substantial, since Vaughn’s character has to deal out considerable punishment just to get himself assigned to cell block 99. But the movie is also unusually at leisure — giving us a long introduction to prison-intake systems, allowing minor characters to flare and vanish without being strictly necessary to the plot. The dialogue is hard-boiled, writerly, sardonic, ultimately sincere.
The same habits are at work in Dragged across Concrete. Vaughn returns as Lurasetti, the junior partner to Gibson’s cop, Ridgeman, an aging detective who’s curdling into bigotry and brutality. Together they get suspended for the Gibson character’s not-terrible-but-still-excessive use of force; together they decide to rob a drug dealer (the older cop wants to move his family out of a bad neighborhood; the younger one is proposing to his too-smart-for-him girlfriend); together they end up dragged into a horror-show bank robbery carried out by psychopaths. Dragged with them is the alternative protagonist, Henry (Tory Kittles), a small-time hood hired as the getaway driver, trying to earn money to support his wayward mother and crippled kid brother. Dragged as well are a lot of innocents, to whom it would be unwise to become attached.
Henry is black; so is the girlfriend of Vaughn’s character. The movie takes a certain degree of racism for granted, regarding it coolly, critically, but without a righteous moralizing critique. It sometimes seems to nod along to complaints about political correctness; sometimes it treats them as a bigot’s excuses. There’s no Message for Our Times here: Zahler’s movies “don’t even consistently line up with themselves,” he told an interviewer, which seems right, and also unusual these days.
But the most unusual thing is the filmmaker’s willingness to fight, to quote a different interview, against “the idea that every scene should advance the plot.” Just as Brawl pauses frequently for minor characters, Concrete gives us a full minute of Vaughn’s cop eating an egg-salad sandwich on a stakeout, a ten-minute introduction for a single innocent bystander, and many other interludes and unusual longueurs. This kind of extra, “unnecessary” material is conspicuously dropping out of most big-budget films these days, and its appearance in pulpy, ultra-violent stories like these is at once unexpected and deeply welcome — a reason to keep watching what Zahler does, and to hope that he continues to refuse to simply please.
This article appears as “In Praise of Pulp” in the May 6, 2019, print edition of National Review.