Callie Petch at BFI London Film Festival 2018: Day 10

Dragged Across Concrete, They Shall Not Grow Old, and A Family Tour.

Note: parts of this article also ran on Set the Tape (link).

This time last year, I was assigned by my Set the Tape editor Owen Hughes the task of reviewing S. Craig Zahler’s Brawl in Cell Block 99, which was playing at the Festival.  Owen was a huge fan of 2015’s Bone Tomahawk, you see, and wanted me to get the scoop on how Zahler’s sophomore feature shaped up, despite my not-having-seen Bone Tomahawk and only having a minor buzz to go off of.  The rest, as they say, is history and I entered this year’s Festival greeting the news that Zahler’s third feature, Dragged Across Concrete (Grade: B) which he’d teased during the post-Brawl Q&A as something that would make Brawl restrained by comparison, was going to screen during the period of the Festival where the energy flags with unbridled glee.  Hells yeah, I wanna see what a director as self-assured, technically accomplished, and viscerally captivating as S. Craig Zahler considers worthy of an epic!

Turns out the answer to that question is “Jackie Brown.”  Quentin Tarantino comparisons are inevitably the first that appear whenever a critic starts discussing Zahler.  They’re not exactly unfounded, both Bone Tomahawk and Brawl in Cell Block 99 have a Tarantino feel to them and Zahler’s dialogue at times is uncannily Tarantino-esque, but they’re still somewhat lazy shorthand considering that both directors start from the same base of inspirations – 70s New American Cinema, exploitation films, B-movies, the works of Paul Schrader – but spin off in different directions.  Zahler being more willing to cross-pollinate genres than Tarantino, playing up more extreme gore than Tarantino, and is better at balancing dynamite dialogue exchanges with the momentum required to cause the entire film to feel fit-to-bursting with tension rather than just a few pockets.  But Dragged Across Concrete?  Yeah, that’s totally Zahler trying to make his Jackie Brown.  This is the film where a celebrated off-colour genre filmmaker deliberately downplays the parts of his brief filmography that other people predominately identify him via (the extreme violence, tight focus, and third-act turns towards horror) and instead makes a slow, expansive, dialogue-driven crime epic that wants to tackle big topics like living in America, racism, capitalism, and human nature, all designed to show that he’s here to stay.

If you need any further evidence of that, I can provide it by telling you that the title, Dragged Across Concrete, is a metaphor rather than a promise/threat like his previous titles were.  Concrete even opens on a moment of borderline tenderness, recently released convict Henry Johns (Tory Kittles) enjoying some post-prison sex with a girl he’s had an apparently-mutual crush on since elementary school, and her being a prostitute hired by Henry’s friend Biscuit (Michael Jai White) doesn’t undercut or negate the strange sweetness of their post-coital conversation.  Of course, that tenderness doesn’t last, it never does in Zahler’s worlds, and soon enough we’re knee-deep in shit and scum once more.  Henry’s the ex-con whose need to provide for his mother and disabled brother (Myles Truitt) that are six months behind on bills causes him to take up jobs in the criminal underworld that rely upon his capacity for violence.  Detectives Brett Ridgeman (Mel Gibson at his most subdued) and Anthony Lurasetti (returning Zahler collaborator Vince Vaughn) are racist hyper-macho cops more crooked than Bernie Ecclestone who get suspended once video of them engaged in police brutality is leaked out, forcing them to turn to more dangerous and illegal pursuits to provide for their families.  There are a bunch of masked robbers running around with silenced MP5s leaving trails of dead bodies in their wake, hilariously sesquipedalian bank managers, drug barons maybe, and all of these disparate threads (plus more) converge in a confrontation that reveals the whole film as a parable to the fable of The Scorpion and The Frog.

In reality, Concrete is not as complicated as that last paragraph makes it sound.  In fact, it may be the simplest of Zahler’s works up to this point in purely plot terms, but the difference is in Zahler’s decision to flesh out every single character no matter how minor their role in the story, to such an extent that the first half of Concrete is almost vignette in nature.  Ridgeman’s wife and Lurasetti’s girlfriend are given extended scenes and speeches in an attempt to counter the fact that they still don’t have much of a use in the story otherwise – Zahler has never been great at handling female characters and Concrete does not change that – Henry spends a lot of time with his brother whom we learn that he wants to be a game designer when he grows up, and best of all is a detour explaining why it was a very bad idea for a bank clerk (Jennifer Carpenter) to go back to work the day she did.  Very few people in Concrete are fully good, and those that are quickly get mowed down, but all of the people in the film have lives and reasons for behaving the way that they do, and Zahler’s commitment to dramatizing this fact is becoming the distinctive hallmark of his filmography.

That said, he may also be falling a little too in love with the sound of his own voice.  Few writers today have dialogue that instantly and recognisably snaps like Zahler’s does and he’s not lost his touch with Concrete – its third scene, where Henry returns home to find his mum in bed with a man in the other room, instantly proves that much – and he is gifted at writing awful prejudiced characters that never actually become a drain to be around.  But he does occasionally let Concrete fall into a rut in order to allow a few more of those exchanges to fill up his movie, most prominently during a stretch at the film’s midpoint when Ridgeman and Lurasetti are on a stakeout that feels like it goes on for longer than most actual real-life stakeouts.  His touch on wider social issues, meanwhile, is far less assured and kind of embarrassing.  Ridgeman’s ex-cop wife (an otherwise great Laurie Holden) actually says out loud that “you know I’m the most liberal cop there is, but living in this neighbourhood is making me more racist by the day,” whilst I found myself cringing in pain at an extended conversation between Don Johnson’s police Lieutenant and Mel Gibson’s detective about racist actions that occurred 10 to 20 years ago and how “even accusations can end careers nowadays” for exactly the reasons you’re thinking of.

But when Concrete finally moves into its climactic confrontation, everything slides into place like the finest of jigsaw puzzles and Zahler’s commentary about the predatory nature of capitalism, racial power dynamics between cops and civilians, and the predictably self-centred and untrustworthy nature of human beings finds a more natural mode of communication.  It’s a thrilling three-way standoff that Zahler drenches in foggy atmosphere and carefully-held tension, paying off every previous element of foreshadowing in a manner that’s spectacular to see unfold, even if his signature extreme gore (though less pronounced than in prior films) actually feels kind of forced-in and awkward this time around.  Meanwhile, Kittles is the latest beneficiary of Zahler’s penchant for giving aging underrated actors the chance to surprise everybody with their talents, providing a charming and empathetic centre that makes his bursts of violence and joy in partaking in criminal activities all the more surprising, and Michael Jai White also gets a rare chance to flex his dramatic muscles.

Upon this initial viewing, I feel that Dragged Across Concrete easily ranks at the bottom of Zahler’s three features to date, mainly because it’s nearly three goddamned hours long and has many individual scenes and exchanges that could have been cut or reworked without losing anything from the film as a whole (unlike Bone and Brawl).  But not only does it still greatly entertain (Zahler’s pitch-black sense of humour hasn’t deserted him) and excite regardless, I get the feeling that Concrete has been built for repeat viewings.  As a film that can irritate and occasionally mildly-bore upon first viewing, but over time a greater appreciation sets in for all the little detours and idiosyncratic conversations Zahler takes, and, before you know it, the film suddenly stops dragging and you wouldn’t change a single thing about it.  It took me two viewings to get Jackie Brown, after all, and that’s now my favourite Tarantino film, so if Dragged Across Concrete also copied that part of Brown’s notebook, then let’s just say this grade is going to become outdated soon enough.

November 11th 2018 will mark an entire century since the armistice that ended the First World War.  A miserable, meaningless, and senseless waste of human life even by the standards of wars in general.  Over one million British and colonial soldiers alone were killed in the conflict, their bodies largely left to rot in unmarked hastily-dug mass graves, whilst those who survived did so through some of the most appalling conditions, fighting tactics, and squalor ever seen on a battlefield, all because of a bunch of treaty-based obligations that didn’t concern the often-underaged boys being sent to die rather than for any noble or truly-defensive reasons.  Likely because of those facts, World War I has largely been overshadowed in both narrative features and documentaries by its bigger, badder, broader sequel, WWII, although the centenary has meant that we’ve been inundated with a few timely attempts to pay tribute to those who gave themselves to the conflict.  Some were pretty good (Saul Dibb’s latest adaptation of Journey’s End) and others were absolute dogshit (Sgt. Stubby which tried to pay tribute to the conflict by presenting it in the form of an insipid no-budget animated kids’ movie from the perspective of a dog where nobody ever kills anybody ever).

The latest and arguably most high-profile of the lot is Peter Jackson’s unique documentary from the British side of the war, They Shall Not Grow Old (Grade: C+).  Jackson’s a filmmaker who has always had a fascination/obsession (delete depending on preference) with the latest filmmaking technologies, pushing the abilities of the medium to their breaking point in the hopes that they’ll add something special to his story.  Whether it be his commitment to inventive practical effects in cult films like BrainDead and Meet the Feebles, legitimising state-of-the-art motion-capture performances with the Lord of the Rings trilogy, or the 48fps experiment of the Hobbit trilogy, he’s always trying to find something new and giving it the biggest stage he possibly can for a test run.  Sometimes it pays of, and sometimes it really doesn’t, but I will always commend him for trying.  With They Shall Not Grow Old, Jackson’s hook comes from his decision to meticulously colour all of the footage in the movie from its grainy 1910s black-and-white origins, adding sound effects and dialogue that a crack team of ADR researchers and supplemental material have interpreted from the footage, and converting it all into 3D in an attempt to break down the barriers between the War itself and modern viewers for whom it may seem an utterly inconceivable a world event.  Not so much bringing The Great War to life as attempting to bring it out of the distant past so we may better understand the horror of it all.

It’s an admirable idea and one that does work more than I figured it would.  The film begins and ends at home, Great Britain at the outset and aftermath of war, and these stretches are presented in silent black-and-white almost-kinetoscope vision.  Tiny square, jagged, unstable footage where the only sounds other than the barrage of audio histories from those who directly fought in the war being the whirring of a reel-to-reel projector.  But when we get to the Front, the image gradually expands to modern widescreen, colour starts to fade in on the soldiers and the already-smouldering ruins of the Belgian countryside, multiple planes of depth begin to separate the different distances, and the effect is genuinely jaw-dropping.  Almost like a perversion of the transition to Technicolor in The Wizard of Oz.  But the effect is not limited just to that initial burst.  The additional detail and colourisation really does fully hammer home the absolute filth and grime and untenable conditions of life in the trenches.  The rats, the mud, the latrines, the lice, all with none of the comparative sanitation that is displayed by fictional attempts to dramatize the war.  And the bodies.  So many bodies, so much blood, so many faces ripped apart by stray gunfire, enhanced with sickening detail thanks to the colour.

The problem, though, is, after a while, I actually became kind of numb to it all.  For a film designed to break down all obstacles that might separate one from connecting with the slaughter and misery of World War I, I actually found myself growing more uninterested as time went on.  Partly, this is because Jackson overplays his hand on the technological end.  The colourisation is incredible and adds legitimate power to many an image, but the other additions either make a negligible difference or cancel out those made by the colour.  My stance on 3D is, has and always will be “pointless gimmick that adds nothing and also doesn’t work properly due to my already needing glasses to see,” one that They Shall Not Grow Old does not change once the initial paper-puppets-on-a-stage effect that always occurs as one’s eyes get accustomed to a 3D movie dissipates.  The sound design, however, actively detracts from the experience.  Whilst the sound effects do have a certain, well, effect of their own – one of the film’s best moments comes at the end as the constant thunder of mortar fire that had ceaselessly blanketed the previous 45 minutes just rolls away until there’s only silence, a silence Jackson could have stood to let hang for a beat or two longer – the dubbed-in dialogue I found to be incredibly distracting and phony, counterintuitively making the entire film (and by extension the War) more artificial-feeling.

Eventually, to be blunt, the gimmicks and hooks fade away, and a film has to stand up on its own legs.  Frankly, at least to me, Jackson’s not made a very good documentary.  Oh sure, it’s adequate and fitfully interesting, moving with extreme pace and purpose, every now and then hitting on an interesting or surprising insight thanks to many of the film’s narrators refusing to withhold their true thoughts and feelings – the pride many of them have for what they did, and the resentment over their treatment post-War, is especially unexpected and fascinating.  But Jackson doesn’t arrange these voices and clips in ways that maximise their power, largely drifting around from segment to segment, some of which go on for so bloody long that I would end up failing to be moved at all many times.  This may have been intentional, particularly in the sequence covering the Spring Offensive where Jackson pairs up faces of individual soldiers with smash cuts to their dead bodies in a technique he repeats for what feels like an eternity, but I found it tiresome and overly repetitious.  They Shall Not Grow Old is an incredible technical achievement, I will not deny it that much, but this film feels more like an Imperial War Museum exhibit you don’t have to travel down to London to experience.  Maybe it’s for the best that it’s going to air on TV.  At least there you won’t be forced to wear 3D glasses.

The story of A Family Tour (Grade: B+) is largely the story of its director, Ying Liang.  Liang was one of China’s brightest hopes on the Chinese independent film scene, making his name on quiet, introspective, often glacial dramas like Taking Father Home and Good Cats.  But in 2012, he made a movie called When Night Falls, a furious condemnation of the Chinese government and legal system over the handling of a 2007 mass murder trial through the eyes of the accused’s mother, and attracted the full wrath of the ruling Communist Party when he refused to edit the film in accordance with their wishes or cancel its release altogether; the Chinese Communist Party notoriously thin-skinned as they are.  After threatening home visits, harsh interrogations of his family members, and attempting to buy the film’s rights so that nobody could ever see it, the Party succeeded in forcing Liang into exile.  Liang now resides in Hong Kong, doing for the last five or so years, and has finally returned with a film pretty much about that experience.

Liang’s stand-in is Yang Shu (a brilliant Gong Zhe) who made a film much like When Night Falls about six years ago and too was hounded into exile in Hong Kong.  She’s had to spend much of those times alternating between teaching in order to have some kind of income and constantly reapplying for her visa to stay in Hong Kong, a process that needs to be done yearly and is laboriously long, so she’s not had the energy to make any new movies since her fateful feature.  Yang is at least able to live with her husband (Pete Teo), a native Hong Kongian, and four-year-old son, but the exile has also forced her to be apart from her ailing mother (Nai An) who lives on the Mainland, and her attempts to secure funding for a new feature centred on the Umbrella Movement keep falling through due alternately to the heat of associating with her and investors mysteriously going missing.

All this indignity is chipping away at her soul which is reflected in A Family Tour itself.  It’s an elegiac and ruminative film, but it also feels like a silent primal scream into the nearest pillow, as Liang’s frustrations boil over through a carefully-considered portrait of a life forced into stopping with no way to fix it beyond capitulation to an authoritarian regime.  “Politics are personal,” as Yang puts it in a roundtable interview at the outset of a Taiwanese film festival that’s screening her controversial film, and the massive effect of those personal politics is what the Party cannot stand.  We find out that Yang’s family has had a long history of being mistreated by the Party, for things that don’t even count as political instigation like Yang did with her movie, which they use as pretext for harassing and intimidating everyone even remotely connected to her.  How this history of rampant suppression tears families apart and sows resentment that can never be truly worked through no matter how the situation resolves – pointedly, Yang’s mother has never actually seen the film responsible for their current situation (she doesn’t like long movies).  How humiliating the process of “reflection” is for those who succumb, parading them up onto state-sponsored media to debase themselves for having an independent thought.

What I think I most love about the film, though, is how there’s a constant life going on around it.  Whilst Yang is stuck in the in-between, life keeps happening completely blind to her suffering.  The film’s structure comes from Yang’s husband arranging for her mother to go on a continental coach tour around the non-China parts of East Asia, allowing Yang to see her mother by following the coach about without technically breaking the rules by publicly contacting her – an arrangement with hyper-specific instructions everyone must follow at the behest of the tour’s guides, because the Chinese government has already cut major amounts of funding to tourism industries and fraternisation with an enemy of the state would be as good an excuse as any for another slice-and-dice.  Liang swings through a collection of different tones as a result, contrasting the sore wound of Yang’s plight with snippets of relatable comedy about being stuck on one of these coach trips, in a way that doesn’t undercut the seriousness of the film.  Brief overheard snippets of the tour group and their own inanities, plus the considered and occasionally lush cinematography, hint that a minor retooling and shift in character perspectives could have us watching a brainless wacky travel comedy – which is both excellently sly commentary on government censorship and edits of films, and phenomenal non-meta worldbuilding.

A Family Tour is quietly powerful because of little touches like that.  How Yang’s son spends most of his time running away from the grandmother he’s talked to all his life online but either doesn’t recognise or is too shy to be comfortable with in person.  Zhe and An’s beautiful central performances.  Liang demonstrating a willingness to be self-effacing via a conversation with a cab driver who knows who Yang is but didn’t like her film because he doesn’t care for long-takes.  The delayed devastation in one particular smash cut late-on whose significance hits like a bomb when it finally settles in.  Mostly, though, I’m drawn to the kind of anger Liang expresses through A Family Tour.  It’s not rage, although there is a pinch of that.  It’s not bitterness, although there is a heaping of that.  It’s not even really despair, even as the gravity of his situation hangs overheard at all times.  Rather, it’s a sort of tired sigh, like Liang has tried screaming and can’t quite make it come, so just sighs in a mixture of frustration, defeatism, and resignation.  The kind where the sentiment cannot be clearer and the sigher’s inability to go bigger carries far more power than a scream ever could.

Tomorrow: David McKenzie dramatizes the Scottish revolution in Outlaw King, and Jessica Hynes steps into the director’s chair with The Fight.

Callie Petch is like Stone Cold Steve Austin, they put homophobes in coffins.

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