That's just how things go in Bulwark, the fictional city Zahler sets the narrative in. The decision to situate the events in an imaginary locale, one unencumbered by geographic limitations, regional dialect, or social history, is a revealing one: Zahler wants to draw from the world we live in, particularly by touching on hot-button topics, but he wants to do it on his highly specific, hyper-stylized terms. Fair enough. But many of the hardboiled touchstones that influence Zahler -- the cop sagas of Sidney Lumet, for example -- are tethered to the real world in more explicit ways and have a potent sense of place. Plenty of great works of crime fiction, like Richard Price's Clockers, take place in fictional cities, but, for all the time you spend there, Dragged Across Concrete rarely makes you feel like you're breathing the putrid, smoke-filled Bulwark air.
This makes Zahler's claustrophobic visions of urban life eerily amorphous and sporadically heightened -- easy targets for observant critics. At its best, like during the perplexing bank robbery sequence or the unnerving final standoff, Zahler's thorny relationship to realism as a writer and his keen spatial awareness as a director works in his favor; at its worst, like in a scene where Ridgeman's daughter is bullied by teenagers on her block, it feels artificial and phony. As The Ringer's Adam Nayman pointed out in his review, Ridgeman and his ex-cop wife (Laurie Holden) live in what they describe as a "bad neighborhood," but the "light streams in beatifically through their living-room window, illuminating the size and sprawl of their apartment." In the same vein, Vanity Fair's review by K. Austin Collins zeroed in on the baffling idea that Ridgeman, a character noted for his ferocity and temper, "would wait for his daughter to be attacked five times before doing something about it." Too many details fall apart under close scrutiny or feel jerry-rigged to preemptively deflect criticism.
And there's been a lot of criticism -- I especially enjoyed this thorough evisceration in The New Yorker and this more ambivalent reading on Polygon -- but, perhaps as a byproduct of the pop cultural "flooding" described in a recent Longreads essay, it can feel like the discussion is occurring in a vacuum. How many people are watching this movie? Is it shocking or boring audiences? Does that even matter? Cinestate, the Dallas-based production company that produces Zahler's films, says Bone Tomahawk and Brawl in Cell Block 99 turned a profit, and I imagine the bigger-budgeted Dragged Across Concrete will likely follow suit. (Apparently, they do brisk DVD and Blu-ray business at Walmart.) Despite a reluctance to over-explain and unpack his personal politics, Zahler has been dutifully promoting the movie, sitting for two different interviews with headlines that label him a maverick who "doesn't care" whether you like him or his movies. At a certain point, it feels less like a principled stand and more like a marketing hook. Similarly, the often gripping, but frustrating, Dragged Across Concrete fails to completely get under your skin because it's content with poking you in the eye.