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The Way of the World: Violence and Justice in the films of S. Craig Zahler

If you were to merely glance at the title for S. Craig Zahler’s latest film, you might find yourself making certain assumptions. The words Dragged Across Concrete are so visceral in their specificity that they are wince-inducing, and motion towards a kind of brutality that would make the standard Tarantino fan leave the theater in disgust. Look back further into Zahler’s oeuvre and have these assumptions confirmed: Brawl in Cell Block 99, Bone Tomahawk. These are films defined by violence.

Many critics, fans, and detractors of Zahler’s work affiliate his relish for violence with that of the grindhouse movement, known for films that sensationalize sex, drugs, and savagery in the pursuit of “cheap thrills”. To do so, however, is to misunderstand, or at least to limit what Zahler is able to achieve with his iterations of violence. Violence, in his work, is not consequential, nor is it disruptive, consistent, or gratuitous. It does not find its origins in evil and generally speaking, is not even given as much screen time in his films as their titles may suggest. In fact, it is barely an act at all. It is simply the way of the world.

In each of Zahler’s films, the world is stripped down to its fundamentals: that of causation, and that of action. Our protagonist is thrust into a situation that may or may not be caused by their own negligence, or bad decision-making, and it always affects someone they care about. In turn, they must always turn towards violence as a means of rectification. This in itself is commonplace in genre filmmaking. It does, however, become far more complicated when you realise that the entire world surrounding these characters operates on these same principles, where one act of violence inspires another. The line between good and evil, or right and wrong, slowly dissipates. Even in Bone Tomahawk: Zahler’s most “black-and-white” feature, where the residents of a small town go up against a tribe of troglodytes who have kidnapped their loved ones, there is a degree of moral ambiguity to be found. Instead of opening on the characters we come to know, the film’s very first scene consists of a drifter slitting the throat of a sleeping man, before stumbling through a sacred burial ground and drawing the attention of the troglodytes. It is this same drifter who leads them to the town of Bright Hope and sets off the events that drive our characters to massacre. Yes, the troglodytes are clearly savage, and must be met with greater savagery in order to rescue the town’s residents, but the film’s opener is keen to establish them as sub-humans that are far beyond (or behind) traditional concepts of right and wrong. The violence that consumes and informs their every waking moment is merely an extension of what the rescuers must commit to, later on, and exceed in action, through force of will alone. It is this will to do more that allows Patrick Wilson’s foreman to prevail, and this is what links all of Zahler’s heroes and antiheroes: the will to be the most violent, and rarely the desire to better themselves or the world they inhabit. To Zahler, and to almost all of his characters, the world is beyond saving. It can only be beaten.

A troglodyte examines his weapon in Bone Tomahawk.

Arguably, Zahler’s most compelling contribution to his films (or, at least, his most discussed) is the way in which he frames, and deploys, the acts of violence themselves. The fight scenes across these three works only serve to reinforce this idea that it is the world that is the enemy, as defined by the systems that do as much to incite violence as they do to prevent it. These fights must be seen to be believed; they must be viewed, in context, to be understood. Often, they appear
to occur spontaneously, without provocation or setup, and yet they are never a surprise, and only exaggerated by action, not artifice. For example, while it is unlikely that Vince Vaughn’s Bradley in Brawl in Cell Block 99 could remove a prisoner’s face with just his boot, it is treated by the camera as anything but. Sounds are diegetic, and the camera is steady, calculated even. In fact, the entirety of the climactic brawl in Brawl in Cell Block 99 is shot in long takes with a static camera, moving only when it has to move or give way to another exchange. Bradley’s body fills the frame and rarely shuffles out of the centre as he methodically subdues his opponents, knowing when to take a hit and when to break a bone.

These clumpy, ultra-wet brawls, littered throughout the film, are simultaneously awkward and impeccably choreographed, but it is their fluidity that compels; how they seem to be an extension of any and every conversation or gesture, the inevitable conclusion to a scene. The promise of violence fuels every waking moment of the film, far before Bradley goes to prison. It’s in the degree of control he exerts over an argument with his wife (“give me some time before you come closer”). It’s in the way he removes a cassette from his car or chucks a pair of keys into a corner. Given that the plot of Brawl in Cell Block 99 actively demands excessive violence from its protagonist (it is hinged on him amassing enough of a body-count to get sent to maximum security, where he is forced to kill an inmate at the behest of the men he has wronged), it is no surprise that this is the most explicitly brutal of Zahler’s works.

Here, and across all of his filmography, the violence is not disruptive to the trajectory of the story—it is the story. Characters develop in the trading of blows, and opportunities arise from even the smallest exertions of force. There is never a means of winning, but there is always one way to lose. As it was in Bone Tomahawk, and continues in Dragged Across Concrete, the question of “who” instigated the brutality in these films becomes irrelevant when you realise it could’ve just as easily been Bradley, or Arthur, and next to nothing would’ve changed. It is not enough to be principled, or righteous, in a world that no longer recognises these traits. Upholding these tendencies would halt the natural progression of the film, for they do not fit in with Zahler’s worldview.

In Bone Tomahawk, there was, at least, a “Bright Hope” waiting for his characters, emblematic of a more clearly-defined safe space, where the violence could be kept at the outer edges of the town. With Brawl In Cell Block 99 and Dragged Across Concrete, these safe spaces are compromised, and vanish almost entirely by the latter, and more recent, of these. The violence of the world surrounding becomes synonymous with the home environment, in much the same way that it becomes synonymous with the way Bradley seems to be repressing the urge to hold back blows with anyone and everyone. Indeed, when Melanie, the protagonist’s disgruntled wife in Dragged Across Concrete, sees her daughter come home after being assaulted for the fifth time, she wearily proclaims that she “never thought (she) was a racist before moving to this area.” It’s a controversial line, in a film riddled with such, but it is also key to understanding the point: that to Zahler, violence is the all-consuming, all-invasive symptom of human primitivity that we have allowed to manifest into the systems that govern us. The transition from the Western settings of Bone Tomahawk in the 1890s to the modern-day prison system, therefore, assumes a greater significance. The racism that fuels the native-killing John Brooder in Bone Tomahawk—the kind that inspires him to reveal, as his dying words, the exact amount of Indians he’d slain, as his idea of a legacy—is the same casual racism that Melanie vents in her apartment in Bulwark. It is learned through the same principles of causation that govern all of Zahler’s films, where the violence is institutional, and necessary, for survival, but is seen by the characters to be something that they do not deserve, in some way or another. Indeed, it’s this sense of entitlement —however wrongly-placed —that gives these characters something to fight for.

With Dragged Across Concrete, Zahler’s notoriety spiked, and for (mostly) the wrong reasons. Many of his detractors already saw him a nihilistic, right-leaning filmmaker, precisely because his films foregrounded characters who could be construed as such. It feels redundant, at this point, to single out the obvious: that representation alone does not equal endorsement, and that these characters are not granted any kind of fulfillment for being the way that they are (at least, not on a personal level). It also feels wrong to defend Zahler’s work, because all of his films seem tailor-made towards provocation and deliberation, and thus a mounted defence of the apoliticism he so frequently pushes clearly jeopardises the discussions he wants us to be having about his characters (who are anything but). Dragged Across Concrete, the director’s most recent and most expansive feature, focuses on two police officers who are suspended from office after a video is leaked of Brett (played *convincingly* by Mel Gibson) applying excessive force to an incapacitated suspect. The film feels far more abstract and loose than the films preceding it, partly assisted by the integration of multiple story-lines for different characters, and the more dialogue-heavy screenplay. It attracted far greater controversy than his previous work, too, for its casting of Mel Gibson (persona non grata to many), the open racism that so many of its characters exhibit, and the withholding of the pulpy violence that so many were expecting given the insinuations of the title. However, it is because of these attributes, and not in spite of them, that the film offers the most nuanced and evocative treatise on what Zahler’s work is really all about. across its many perspectives, it proposes not only a recontextualisation of the ways in which violence operates on and through minorities, but also presents the clearest iteration of what drives the characters in his films, far beyond simply escaping the situations that they find themselves in. By the end of Dragged Across Concrete, one thing is clear: these characters yearn for justice, without really knowing what it even means to them.

Brett (Mel Gibson) and anthony (Vince Vaughn) gaze towards the scene of a crime during a stakeout in Dragged across Concrete.

There’s a moment in the opening act of Brawl in Cell Block 99 that proves formative in understanding the plight of his multiple characters in Dragged Across Concrete. Right after losing his job and discovering his wife’s infidelity, Bradley sits on the sofa and talks about the law of averages. If the law of averages could be applied to his daily routine, then when he goes to grab his coffee from the machine at work every morning, he would get the one he wants, at some point : “the cream”. Despite this, he always gets the skimmed. He has never gotten “the cream” the first time. It is clear to us that he feels cheated of some basic right in this way, and it is nothing if not relatable.

In Dragged Across Concrete, the characters of Henry and Brett feel much the same way, despite being on seemingly opposing sides of the same narrative and at the mercy of one another’s prejudices. They are eventually revealed to be less concerned about saving their loved ones and/or bettering themselves and more infatuated with reclaiming some lost, basic principle to living—justice against the system that they believe to have wronged them. For Brett, it seems more like entitlement: he is still a rookie after thirty years on the force, and is financially compromised, forced to live in the neighborhood that he perceives to be the most dangerous and depraved. He can’t stand to see young girls showing their skin, nor can he resist biting back on his bitterness over the price of a suit, or the changing landscape. With Henry, the bitterness runs even deeper. Despite spending less time with his character throughout the film, it soon becomes transparent that Henry stays in the game for much the same reasons as Brett. Even when he comes out on top of the botched bank robbery, with all of the money to himself, it doesn’t look much like “winning”.

We see him, months later, sitting down to play the same video game he played in his mother’s tiny apartment before he earned his millions; except now, the television is larger, the room is huge, and there’s a tranquil view of the countryside through the bay window. Sitting down with his little brother, he picks the game again, and asserts, in the closing line of the film, that he “wants to hunt some lions”. Through Henry, Zahler elucidates his principles succinctly and with grim certainty: that, even after “resolving” the conflict of the film, his characters cannot resolve the conflict of the world as they see it. For a character like Henry, all the riches in the world still land him in exactly the same place as before, striving for some semblance of justice in a landscape characterized by violence and depravity. It’s also essential to point out that this larger share of wealth was not exclusively what Henry wanted; he was willing to cut a deal with Brett, for 60/40, but Brett’s betrayal of that deal is what drove him to his death and Henry to his wealth. This final act of distrust from a person that, to Henry, embodies everything the enemy is (a racist, “cast-iron” police officer) proves that, even in the most desperate of situations with everything to lose, prejudice still prevails, and will continue to do so regardless of whether its human embodiment lives or dies. To Zahler, this prejudice —against minorities, working classes, or merely those that strive to live a good and wholesome existence—is what precipitates all the violence of the known world.

Whether it’s Arthur Dwyer, ripping throatpieces out of troglodytes to more effectively lure and bait them to his location, or Brett Ridgeman, executing a hostage to get a better shot at the kidnappers, savagery is surely the most effective path, and most efficacious roadblock, to playing the hand they’re dealt. It is the endless circuit, without agenda or resolution. It defies political affiliation, and invites outrage. Yet, this kind of violence, learned with the world and intrinsic to its people, is not necessarily without meaning. Hope drives Zahler’s protagonists, and although it rarely stands to benefit them, it can, almost accidentally, create opportunities for those around them. It could be an envelope of money, dropped through the letterbox by a faceless figure; or a poem, dragged across a vicious landscape, in anticipation of being read aloud. This may not look like justice, to some, but it might look like hope, to others.

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Written by Jake Shelvey

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