The Ambivalence of Justice – Dragged Across Concrete & The Highwaymen

By Ezra Stead

Dragged Across Concrete, Canada / USA, 2018

Written and Directed by S. Craig Zahler

The Highwaymen, USA, 2019

Directed by John Lee Hancock

It’s been a while since I attempted a double review, but these two recent movies have enough in common that I’ve found myself thinking of them both in the same “breath” fairly often since viewing them, and I certainly think there would be a significant overlap in their fans, if they manage to reach enough people to truly gain a fanbase (Dragged Across Concrete only played one week at a couple of theaters in New York City, and The Highwaymen has an – actually more advantageous for gaining viewership – almost exclusively online release on Netflix). They are both of the type of movies commonly (and usually unkindly) referred to as Dad Flicks, provided your dad is okay with some pretty harsh, abrupt violence. They each, in their own ways, evoke an earlier, more classical era of cinema – Dragged the mid-to-late ’70s, Highwaymen perhaps even earlier, to the new cinema of the late ’60s, i.e. the films of Sam Peckinpah from that era (as well, of course, as Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde). They are also two of the best movies I’ve seen so far this year.

S. Craig Zahler has been accused, even by those who (rightly) praised his first two features, of harboring a reactionary worldview, and Dragged feels like his response to this criticism in much the same way that last year’s The House That Jack Built felt like Lars von Trier’s response to critics who see his work as misogynistic. Bone Tomahawk is something of a riff on John Ford’s The Searchers, with a more overtly evil – in fact, monstrous – enemy than the Indians in that film, and the brutal, excellent Brawl in Cell Block 99 centers around a nefarious plot that wouldn’t be out of place in the staunchest Pro-Lifer’s nightmares, so the charge of a conservative or reactionary viewpoint in Zahler’s films has never been entirely unfounded. Zahler’s obvious intelligence and craftsmanship in all three of his features, though, means that this viewpoint does not go unexamined, and in all cases there are complexities that muddy the waters of a simplistic, black-and-white message of any kind.

The casting alone seems to dare viewers of a more liberal bent to take an antagonistic view of Dragged, if not ignore it entirely (which would seem to be the actual reception the film has received, by and large). Brawl star and noted conservative actor Vince Vaughn returns, alongside another noted conservative actor (and, apparently, rage-filled lunatic), Mel Gibson, as a pair of old-school, tough-guy cops in an era that no longer reveres their particular brand of police work. They are introduced on a stakeout that ends in the forceful arrest of a drug dealer. They are rough with him, bending his arm beyond the point of comfort and keeping him on the ground with a foot on his neck, all the while making mean-spirited cracks at his expense. In other words, it’s the type of thing we’re used to seeing the “good guys” do in all sorts of movies and TV shows about cops throughout the years. But this isn’t the 1970s New York of movies like Death Wish or The French Connection (the latter of which, at least, had its own moral ambiguities to unpack). This is the present day, when this sort of excessive force is frequently documented by witnesses with cell phones and, all too infrequently, leads to negative consequences for the officers in question.

In many ways, the deck is stacked in favor of these two cops, Ridgeman (Gibson) and Lurasetti (Vaughn). The initial act of excessive force is, as previously stated, relatively mild compared to many real-life cases in which officers have been exonerated, and they are made likeable through their banter and, later, the way Ridgeman is seen struggling to support his family and trying to get them out of a high-crime neighborhood in which his daughter, in particular, feels unsafe. On the other hand, we see more egregious tactics from them only moments later, when they abuse and humiliate their suspect’s girlfriend in ways that can only be chalked up to racism, sexism, and ableism (she is partially deaf). This moral ambivalence continues throughout, as their plan to rob a crew of bank robbers (of whose own plan Ridgeman has inside knowledge) leads to the deaths of innocent people that could have been saved had the two cops followed proper procedure instead of going after their own illegal score. Further muddying the waters (in the best way possible) is the character of Henry Johns (Tory Kittles), a recently released ex-con who is, in many ways, the true protagonist of the movie. Though we spend more screen time with Ridgeman and Lurasetti, we are introduced to Johns first, and it is ultimately his fate that provides the story its conclusion. He is also a more reliable moral center than either of the two cops, and certainly a more honorable man than Lurasetti, who would undoubtedly proclaim himself the more forthright of the two cops. The title of the movie refers not to, say, a man’s face being literally dragged across concrete (as seen in Brawl), but to the lines of moral code that both Johns and the two cops are forced to cross while trying to keep some sense of their own honor intact.

The Netflix original film The Highwaymen is less conflicted in its sympathies, but the moral ambivalence is still there, lurking beneath the surface. Its central duo, former Texas rangers Frank Hamer (Kevin Costner) and Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson), are no less reactionary than Dragged‘s Ridgeman and Lurasetti, but they are reacting to a more clear and less ambiguous threat. The movie, like its protagonists, is staunchly opposed to the popular myth of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, who were seen as almost Robin Hood-like folk heroes by many working-class people in their own time, solidified by Arthur Penn’s 1967 film for an entirely new generation of anti-authoritarian youth. In reality, though the couple were sticking it to the banks that contributed to the suffering of the common people during the Great Depression era, they were also far less charismatic and more brutally murderous than the legend crafted around them might lead one to believe.

In this way, The Highwaymen‘s perspective as a movie is more closely aligned with that of its protagonists than our other subject, but Hamer and Gault are not above brutality of their own. Hamer in particular is portrayed with a certain frustrated self-righteousness and, in a rather electrifying conversation scene during a rainstorm near the film’s conclusion, we learn just how far he is willing to go in the pursuit of his ideal of justice and protecting his fellow officers. The duo’s ultimate takedown of the Barrow gang’s infamous leaders is likewise gritty, brutal, and bereft of any mitigating romanticism. It is a massacre, plain and simple, a killing undertaken for a paycheck as much as out of any sense of duty or righteousness.

Director John Lee Hancock and writer John Fusco’s vision of two men whose time has almost passed recalls not only Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (not to mention its similarly bullet-riddled climax), but also his other great tale of anachronistic men in a world that is moving on, Ride the High Country. Like the aging cowboys of that film, Hamer and Gault are as out of place in their own time as Ridgeman and Lurasetti are in the modern era, though The Highwaymen has more clear sympathy for its antiheroes. In presenting the opposing side of a story so well known to American audiences, though (Bonnie and Clyde themselves are only briefly glimpsed here and there throughout the movie, generally in the midst of committing atrocious violence), The Highwaymen feels, in its own way, as refreshing as Penn’s great film must have felt to audiences when it was released over fifty years ago.

Ezra Stead is the Head Editor for MoviesIDidn’ Ezra is also a writer, rapper, and occasional painter who has been previously published in print and online, as well as writing, directing and acting in numerous short films and two features. A Minneapolis native, Ezra currently lives in New York City, where he is working on his second novel (the first has yet to be published).

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