FilmSpace: Dragged Across Concrete; Red Joan; Greta

Film critic Calum Cooper examines the week’s new releases, including the difficult police thriller Dragged Across Concrete, the bland spy film Red Joan, and the B-movie madness of Greta.

Dragged Across Concrete – ★★☆☆☆

Dragged Across Concrete is the definition of a polarising experience. It’s technically very well crafted, and it will no doubt find an audience with its chosen style. However, that style is so meticulously designed to get a rise out of the viewer that it will either make or break the film depending on your tastes. It has no interest in being a wholly accessible piece, and I respect its boldness in embracing that. But I think it’ll isolate certain viewers who don’t necessarily care for the style it’s adopting. Sad to say, I fall into this category.

From the director of Brawl in Cell Block 99, S. Craig Zahler, the film stars Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn as partners in the police force, Brett Ridgeman and Anthony Lurasetti. Ridgeman is an older police officer who hasn’t changed ranks in nearly 30 years, while Lurasetti is a relative newbie. The two of them are caught on camera being too rough with an arrested suspect, and are put on unpaid suspension for six weeks. However, because the two of them are in hot water with their home lives, this is a suspension they cannot afford. Thus, the two decide to use their criminal connections formed from years in the police to hijack an upcoming robbery in order to ensure financial security until their suspensions are lifted.

The choice of character shows front and centre what kind of film Zahler was going for here. From the get go, Ridgeman and Lurasetti are portrayed as nasty individuals. They hold regressive views of minority communities, they see no issue in using brutality against who they have arrested, and have no problem using their criminal connections to put themselves in the advantage. All things considered, they’re pretty despicable people.

But that appears to be the point with this film. It’s seemingly testing the audience’s capabilities, pondering how unpleasant it can make its characters and story while still keeping the audience invested. Racist beliefs are tossed about like Frisbees, corruption is viewed as a footstool to solving financial problems, and the violence is both graphic and excessive. A key example of the film’s artistic unpleasantness comes in the form of this one character who is introduced midway through the film. Time is taken to give this character both backstory and motivation, only for them to be killed off in brutal fashion mere minutes later. Furthermore, the character is never referenced again after their murder.

The film is meant to be an endurance test, from its usage of violence and slurs, to its surprising slow burn, something you don’t often see with films of this calibre. But it doesn’t have enough focus to be riveting.

The film is meant to be an endurance test, from its usage of violence and slurs, to its surprising slow burn, something you don’t often see with films of this calibre. But it doesn’t have enough focus to be riveting. As well as our police duo, you have their families and home lives, the life of this random aforementioned character, this mysterious crook, and this criminal who wants to help out his own family. Even with its two hour and forty minute length, it feels as though we are dipping in and out of three different films, meaning I was constantly falling in and out of engagement despite my desire to enjoy what I was seeing.

There’s no shortage of admirable craft here either. The darker, winter like lighting adds a real sense of tone, and there’s occasionally some good banter between Gibson and Vaughn. Plus, the film respectfully takes its time when establishing its characters, even if it does do some better than others. However, I don’t agree with its idea of deliberately unnerving the audience and holding it for as long as it can. It does this with its characters to its graphic story to its intentionally slow burning moments, many of which seemed more like filler. There’s one scene in a bank where the dialogue seems to go in circles for a good couple of minutes, for no other reason other than to make the audience squirm. As a result, despite enjoying the obvious mastery of the film craft on screen, most of the film’s scenes started going in one ear and out the other. It just feels like it’s overstaying its welcome far too much, dragging out its intended aims so much that it becomes annoying rather than investable.

I’m a big believer in giving credit where it is due, and there is plenty of credit on display with Dragged Across Concrete. Sadly though, it just didn’t click with me. I acknowledge that it’s fashioned very well in regards to what it is aiming to do, and will have no trouble finding a committed following. I can’t deny the skill of the craft, and I would recommend it if it seems like your type of film. But, simply put, it wasn’t for me.

Red Joan – ★★☆☆☆

There’s a compelling story somewhere in Red Joan. This adaptation of Jennie Rooney’s novel of the same name, which in itself is inspired by the life of Melita Norwood, aka The Granny Spy, has a lot of cinematic material for writers and actors alike to play around with. However, the film suffers from erroneous execution, turning something hypothetically riveting into a bland and forgettable affair.

In the present day, we meet Joan Stanley (Judi Dench), a retired eighty year old grandmother who leads a seemingly mundane life. We’re given almost no time to see this however, for while the opening credits are still rolling she is arrested for twenty seven breaches of the Official Secrets Act. MI5 suspect that, during and after WW2, she leaked information regarding Britain’s nuclear research to the KGB, allowing the Soviet Union to quicken their production of an atom bomb. As such, the film becomes a dual narrative, telling the story of Joan in the present in parallel with the story of her younger counterpart (Sophie Cookson), who finds herself loosely associated with Communist sympathisers while still being firmly loyal to her country.

While there are pockets of enjoyable aspects – namely Sophie Cookson’s performance, as well as an interesting ideology on what means should be taken to ensure world peace – the film is a real bore overall. Despite its impressive cast, there’s a made-for-TV vibe to the whole thing that’s impossible to shake off, largely due to the misguided nature of the story.

MORE FROM FILMSPACE: Hellboy (2019); Little; Wonder Park

The dual narrative may provide a sense of style to the picture, but it does the film no favours overall. The idea of someone having lived with a colossal secret for decades has all sorts of cinematic potential, and would’ve given Judi Dench, one of Britain’s finest performers, so much material to work with. But the film spends the vast majority of its time in the past, with the younger Joan, who simply isn’t as engaging a character narratively as her older self. She doesn’t work as well for most of the film’s contrivances, which come from her story, a tiresome tale that’s interrupted only by flimsily abrupt cuts to the present day, as if the film is reminding itself of Dench’s squandered presence.

Where it could’ve been a grander examination on conflicting ideologies and the pedestal of world peace, the film instead seems much more concerned with being a commentary on women in the workplace, specifically on how much women were underestimated and dismissed as secondary in the 40s. I get what they were going for, and I’d be fine with it if the film didn’t waste so much time on Joan’s numerous romance scenes and love interests, neither of which seem to have any significant relevance other than formulaically connecting plot points. Whenever Joan isn’t contemplating her allegiance, she’s in the arms of a man. You can’t bash one stereotype if you’re going to simultaneously stoop to the level of another. Not only is it counterproductive to the overarching commentary, but it ultimately seems to serve as fodder until we get to the main plot points.

Consider the overall picture, and you’re left with a flavourless film that fudges the food for thought it could’ve offered. Instead of political thrills we get dated romance, and instead of compelling drama we get half-baked concepts, both of which are hindered by subpar writing and direction.  It would’ve worked a lot more had it stuck solely to its present day narrative, with some leeway for a flashback or two. But as it is, it’s a meandering misfire that’s more dull than it is invigorating. This can be said about many films, but it needs more Judi Dench.

Greta – ★★★☆☆

Bonkers feels like an understatement when describing Greta. A psychological thriller from Neil Jordan, the director of The Crying Game and Byzantium, our plot concerns a young woman named Frances (Chloe Grace Mortez). She is a young waitress living in New York in a lurid flat with her best friend Erica (Maika Munroe). While on the subway, she comes across a designer handbag which has been abandoned. Upon discovering that the bag belongs to a Greta Hideg (Isabelle Huppert), Frances travels to Greta’s house to return her bag.

When they meet the two of them quickly become close. Frances has recently lost her mother to cancer, and Greta is a widowed piano teacher. Her daughter is away in France, and she generally feels out of place. Even her house appears jarring for a New York neighbourhood. Naturally, Frances is drawn to Greta by this, a mother-daughter like friendship blossoming. But then things get weird. And then they get really weird.

Greta is inspired by mystery slasher thrillers of the 80s and 90s, namely films like Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct, and Scorsese’s take on Cape Fear. They follow roughly the same principle – one person befriends another, and there’s always something seemingly off about that new friend. We the audience are not let in on what is precisely wrong until close to the end of the film. Greta applies these same rules to a story that flip-flops between moments of legitimate tension, and glammed up campiness. The results are completely preposterous… but thankfully in the fun way.

Although it isn’t hard to work out where the movie is going, you still find yourself enjoying the ride due to the energetic performances, crazy nature, and experimental filmmaking.

This is one of those flicks that relies primarily on the bankability of its central performers.  It would’ve probably been a straight to DVD film were it not for Mortez and Huppert’s involvement. Both of them turn in strong work, Huppert especially, who’s clearly having the time of her life on set. They play their roles with gleeful abandon, harbouring the assigned archetypes in frisky embraces. The dynamic between the two is as playful as it can be unnerving in the latter sections of the film, experimenting with B-movie setups confidently.

There’s still considerable attention to its tone and craft however. It does occasionally seem muddled in whether it is being serious or not. But, judging from the prim and proper costume designs, flamboyant sets for Frances’ flat and Greta’s house, and the almost childlike giddiness to Huppert’s performance (including a shot of her skipping before an awful moment), it doesn’t seem to take itself too seriously, preferring to relish in the type of campiness that allows it to have fun with its setups.

It nonetheless allows room for genuine tension to exist. The film makes good work of camera angles, visual call-backs to earlier scenes, and even some creative spins on dated tropes, such as the dream sequence, allowing the audience to revel in the trepidation of Frances and the film as a whole. It draws out many of its sequences, often using ridiculous setups to create suspense on top of some laughs. It is daft, but due to the underlying creepiness below the campiness, it captures the feeling of always being watched, and of feeling unsafe even in what should be your most secure places, should it be your house, your work, or with your friends. Although it isn’t hard to work out where the movie is going, you still find yourself enjoying the ride due to the energetic performances, crazy nature, and experimental filmmaking.

As for issues, the tonal inconsistency can be jarring to the point of confusion, and the characters, aside from Greta herself, are not exactly intricate. It’s one of those experiences that’s so out there with its chosen style and execution, that I don’t think it will work for everybody. But with its flashy presentation and jovial self-awareness, Greta becomes an utterly mad acid trip of a film that I found myself entertained by.

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