Directed by: S. Craig Zahler || Produced by: Jack Heller1-3, Dallas Sonnier1-3, Sefton Fincham3, Tyler Jackson3, Keith Kjarval3
Screenplay by: S. Craig Zahler || Starring: Kurt Russell1, Patrick Wilson1, Matthew Fox1, Lili Simmons1, Richard Jenkins1, Vince Vaughn2-3, Jennifer Carpenter2-3, Don Johnson2-3, Udo Kier2-3, Mel Gibson3, Tory Kittles3, Michael Jai White3, Laurie Holden3, Thomas Kretschmann3
Music by: Jeff Herriott, S. Craig Zahler || Cinematography: Benji Bakshi || Edited by: Greg D’Auria1-3, Fred Raskin1 || Country: United States || Language: English
Running Time: 132 minutes1-2, 159 minutes3 || 1 = Bone Tomahawk, 2 = Brawl in Cell Block 99, 3 = Dragged Across Concrete
If you need further proof that quality filmmaking is a function of technique over “intellectual merit,” end results over wholesome intentions, and yes, style over substance, look no further than exploitative, grindhouse stories executed with Academy Award-worthy direction. These “B-movies done A” have made a comeback of sorts in contemporary mainstream Hollywood with the continued success of low-budget horror, including and especially those produced by Blumhouse, Ghost House, and A24.
Don’t Breathe (2016) is a perfect example, a great spooky feature whose marketing and direction portrayed it as an otherwise straightforward, stylish home-invasion thriller, but (spoilers… ) reveals a horrifying rape-dungeon and maniacal plot by chief villain Stephen Long by the end of its first act. Its screenplay is good, but it’s Fede Alvarez’s directorial vision that sells that creepy, low-brow schlock. I could go on regarding Jordan Peele’s wildly successful debut about evil suburbanites kidnapping and transplanting their brains into African-American tourists, but you get the point.
Quality examples of modern grindhouse fare done right outside the horror genre are best represented by S. Craig Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk, Brawl in Cell Block 99, and Dragged Across Concrete. Aside from having an instinct for memorable titles for projects in a variety of media (Zahler is also a heavy metal artist and novelist), Zahler is as dedicated a genre specialist as John Carpenter, David Fincher, or Wes Anderson. He has established a complete directorial style across three features within three short years, each of those pictures being critically acclaimed despite their unabashed exploitative overtones and unapologetic political needling. I have my doubts whether Zahler will ever become a household name with mainstream audiences, especially outside the realms of popular streaming services going forward, but regardless, I’m sure Zahler doesn’t care, nor would I be a smart man to bet against him. His films are not only unapologetic, but furthermore alternate between extreme black humor and rugged, excruciating physical pain. “Dragged across concrete,” as they were.
To better establish the subject-matter of these films, Bone Tomahawk is about a group of 19th century cowboys who attempt to rescue townsfolk kidnapped by cannibalistic savages in the American frontier; Brawl in Cell Block 99, starring Vince Vaughn in his greatest role, follows an imprisoned drug mule and former boxer (Vaughn) who must survive (re: brawl with) various prison gangs while their associates threaten to torture his pregnant wife; Dragged Across Concrete is a sort of neo-noir crime drama about crooked cops (Vaughn and Mel Gibson), vicious bank robbers (Thomas Kretchsmann et al.), and a couple small-time punks (Tory Kittles and Michael Jai White) who compete for a monumental heist of gold bullion. Have you detected a consistent style, yet?
His first feature, Bone Tomahawk, is thought by some to be the superior Kurt Russell-Western of 2015 compared to Quentin Tarantino’s much ballyhooed Hateful Eight (2015); I enjoyed The Hateful Eight far more than most cinephiles, I think, but also concede Tomahawk is the ballsier movie when it comes genre-innovation and sheer emotional shock. Despite a few infamous sequences in this film in particular and Zahler’s movies more generally, though, Tomahawk, like all his films, is a patient, subdued genre piece that unfolds at a deliberate pace. Tomahawk’s lengthy running time (132 minutes) and plethora of enjoyable but otherwise mundane dialogue conforms to the structure of a “hangout“-movie. Russell and costars Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox, and Richard Jenkins have a mission and concrete destination, sure, but establishing that mission and their subsequent travel to their destination progresses at such a slow, strategic pace as to baffle most viewers. But then, does that patient “world-building” of sorts and detailed character development not make those later gruesome cannibalism sequences that much more gut-wrenching? I would argue Zahler’s pacing is justified in Tomahawk, if less so in his other two films, based on its unforgettable third act. The (somewhat minor) problem with Zahler’s third and especially his sophomore feature is how their respective third acts don’t justify their lengthy running times quite as well.
Brawl in Cell Block 99 and Dragged Across Concrete are equally as brutal and even more methodical (132 and 159 minutes, respectively) in their portrayal of pulp-driven, heightened genre-reality that feels like a mix of toned down Tarantino (e.g. Pulp Fiction ), a more somber Guy Ritchie (e.g. Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels , Snatch ), and a smarter Eli Roth (e.g. Hostel [2005, 2007], The Green Inferno ). Whether you decide Zahler’s filmmaking style is more slow-paced or grisly is up to you, but it is unquestionably a combination of the two. On the one hand, this slow-burn grindhouse storytelling allows for intimate characterizations, great acting direction from Zahler (he coaxes career-best performances from Fox, Wilson, and Vaughn, among others), and paces the casual ultraviolence such that it maintains impact rather than becoming desensitizing.
One could also argue these films are simply long-winded (they are) and almost feel too causal with their grindhouse thrills. All three films’ minimalist soundtracks don’t help their film’s pacing, either, and the unembellished, almost observational camerawork leaves each set-piece feeling more voyeuristic than intense — save for that one scene in Bone Tomahawk. I would describe all three films as more violent than action-packed.
That is the contradiction of Zahler’s filmography thus far: His directorial style is at once hyper-charismatic and over-the-top from a diegetic and characterization standpoint, but also matter-of-fact and understated in its cinematography, editing, and use of non-diegetic music. Those two stylistic extremes merging are what make these three movies feel so identifiable and yet so peculiar; a quick glance at his films playing on a Walmart TV (can you imagine these movies playing in a setting like that?) might convince you they’re made-for-TV-movies from the 2000s, given their grimy color-grading and notable yet restrained handheld camerawork; however, the actual story content, extreme characters, and gruesome violence depicted in these films is more akin to niche genre movies playing at film festivals (think The Raid  at Toronto) or exploitation pictures from the 1970s. It’s a strange, unforgettable combination of audiovisual styles.
Recommending S. Craig Zahler’s first three features is a difficult philosophical task; his films are well crafted genre-hybrids with a distinct auteur vision, and yet their actual content, including their infamous violence and gore, dispatched with such nonchalance as to be stomach-churning, will turn off all but the most hardcore genre enthusiasts. As good as his movies are, they’re hard to push on your friends, let alone your family.
When in doubt, I return to my “film purist mindset” that most people, when in the proper mood and convinced to give a film the benefit of the doubt, will be able to respect all three of these films. Bone Tomahawk, Brawl in Cell Block 99, and Dragged Across Concrete are as rugged, harsh, and tough as their titles imply; though all take their time to the point of frustration, their final bone-splitting, skull-crushing, bloodletting moments are worth the arduous cinematic journey. Challenge yourself and watch a film that makes you feel uncomfortable, with a purpose.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Some genre films are harder to watch than the most self-righteous, gratuitous, boring Oscar-bait, including S. Craig Zahler’s opening trio of feature-films, though I would argue in a good way. Part throwback exploitation flicks and part innovative genre-blenders, the irresistible premises of cowboys vs. cannibals, baroque prison brawls, and crooked cops robbing psychopathic gangsters are as entertaining and brutal as they sound.
— However… these films’ excruciating pace can test even the most patient of viewers. Various minor characters like Jennifer Carpenter in Concrete or sequences like Vince Vaughn’s introduction to a medium-security prison in Cell Block 99 border on pointless. For a heavy metal artist, Zahler’s underuse of music in his movies is questionable.
—> Bone Tomahawk and Dragged Across Concrete come RECOMMENDED, though I’m ON THE FENCE with regards to Brawl in Cell Block 99 and its forgettable villains. Steel yourselves before viewing any of them, though.
? It’s not healthy for you, to scuff concrete as long as you have. You get results, but you’re losing perspective and compassion. Couple more years out there and you’re gonna be a human steamroller covered with spikes… and fueled by bile.