VENICE, Italy—Two years ago, the Venice Film Festival hosted the world premiere of Hacksaw Ridge, a World War II drama directed by Mel Gibson. The film marked Gibson’s first turn behind the camera in a decade, since he’d drunkenly slurred “the Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world,” pleaded guilty to battering his then-partner Oksana Grigorieva, and was caught on audio saying she was “asking” to be “raped by a pack of n****rs.” Despite never demonstrating much in the way of genuine contrition, he was treated to a prolonged standing ovation on the Lido—the opening salvo of a “comeback tour” replete with rave reviews, a $175 million box office gross, and six Academy Award nominations. This fuck you attitude, coupled with a rich history of racism, misogyny and homophobia, has elevated Gibson to folk-hero status among the far-right. He is their Oprah.
And they’re going to be very happy with his new film.
Making its world premiere in Venice, Dragged Across Concrete’s premise is as follows: a pair of detectives, Brett Ridgeman (Mel Gibson) and Anthony Lurasetti (Vince Vaughn) are caught on tape applying excessive force to a Hispanic prisoner in handcuffs, in the form of Ridgeman grinding his boot into the man’s neck until it emits a cracking sound. (During the bust, Ridgeman and Lurasetti also mock a scared, naked Latina suspect, claiming they can’t understand what she’s saying due to her accent. Both scenes are played for laughs.) With the tape destined to go viral, Ridgeman and Lurasetti are suspended for six weeks without pay, though the chief of police (Don Johnson) is sympathetic to their plight, delivering a rambling sermon about how being branded a “racist” today is akin to getting labeled a “communist” in the 1950s—or, to quote the president, this is a WITCH HUNT! and these two violent cops are the real victims.
Though a six-week suspension seems like a mild punishment, especially considering this is the third time Ridgeman’s been busted for using excessive force, he is in desperate need of cash. You see, his wife Melanie (Laurie Holden) has MS and his daughter is bullied by black kids on her four-block trek to school. Worried that those same black kids will rape their daughter once she matures, they vow to move to a better neighborhood (presumably one with less black people). “I never thought I was a racist until living in this area,” Melanie says, her husband nodding in agreement. So Ridgeman cooks up a plan to rob an out-of-town crook, and ropes in Lurasetti with a Forgotten Man spiel: “I don’t politick and I don’t change with the times,” he explains, lamenting how that matters more in today’s world than “good, honest work.”
Things don’t go as planned, of course.
Dragged Across Concrete is written and directed by S. Craig Zahler, whose previous film, Brawl in Cell Block 99, also bowed in Venice. Unlike Brawl, a slick work of poetic brutality about a hard-on-his-luck pugilist (Vaughn) who’s forced to smash in skulls to save his pregnant wife, Zahler’s latest is a cold-blooded saga that revels in the violence it inflicts on women and minorities, in particular. Its two most sadistic scenes consist of a newly-minted mom whose fingers and face are shredded off with a machine gun, and a black man (Michael Jai White’s Biscuit) who is graphically disemboweled in order to retrieve a swallowed key. After removing his heart and intestines, a white henchman warns another not to puncture his liver because “it stinks… black guys especially.”
There’s a lot more objectionable nonsense in this film, from Gibson and Vaughn’s characters prattling on about how gender lines have been erased, to a black character (Tory Kittles’ Henry Johns) whose grammar is constantly corrected by the white men around him, to a black woman who rails against her “cock-sucking faggot” of a husband for leaving her for another man. Defenders of Dragged will argue that its general sense of nihilism—or its ending—will justify such hate. They’ll be wrong. This is one ugly film. And at 158 minutes, with a script that shoehorns words like “assuage” and “lament” into its tough-guy banter, it’s a chore to get through.
“I’m not chasing the biggest audience and I’m comfortable with losing some of them. There are obviously remarks that are throwaway jokes and there are lines that aren’t politically correct,” offered Zahler at a press conference for the film. “There are lines that will get people to hate me, and that is your right to do so.”