The Katabasis of S. Craig Zahler

Just a few weeks away from finally getting to behold S. Craig Zahler's Dragged Across Concrete and my boner for it first reported in my interview with SCZ last year is still going strong (I know, I was supposed to contact a doctor a long time back, but who actually goes to doctors? Nobody I know can afford to). Trailer dropped this week and I gotta say I've been humming the SCZ/Jeff Herriot tune (I'm guessing is called) Shotgun Safari featured therein for days now.

Also last year Joseph Hirsch's My Tired Shadow came out and shit, I don't think I've plugged it yet. Don't sleep on Hirsch, kids, he's the goods. Anyway, I've got this here piece by Joey about his affinity for Zahler and it kinda seems like a perfect time to put it out in the world.

The Katabasis of S. Craig Zahler
by Joseph Hirsch

Maybe I’m a bit closed-minded, as I prefer to watch the same movies over and over again. Either that or I watch the news or some old Simpsons episodes. Give me a handful of Kubrick and Leone movies, plus a couple of dumb comedies, and I’m good. Occasionally I’ll get sucked into watching something with friends or family members, but I’ll usually start to tune it out and politely wait through the movie for the remainder of its runtime. Very rarely something new will break through the shell of indifference I sit in, and I’ll sit up and take note.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is one of those movies. Something about its pace, the performances, the music, and the laudanum-dreamlike quality of it just nestled in my brain, and I always find myself going back to it and blown away by its existence. It failed at the box-office because it was too good for the us. “We failed this movie,” as I think one retrospective piece on the movie had it.

Another movie that got through to me was Bone Tomahawk. It looked like a cut and dry Western at first blush (at least in terms of production values). The thing that kept me involved, though, was the dialogue. It didn’t just have snap and a rhythm to it; it had a pulp-educated quality to it, like a lot of the dialogue you hear in Tarantino movies. Whoever had written Bone Tomahawk had read their ass off. It was plainly evident in all the fluid and funny exchanges between the characters.

As the movie progressed and violence erupted, I forgot my previous, minor quibbles about the film and even forgot about that great dialogue. It is very rare, and only a few directors can bring it off, but by the time the film reached its climax and the horror unfolded, I was made to feel the violence on-screen, in my stomach and in my bones. I felt like I was back in Iraq; like when watching an Oliver Stone or a Scorsese film, or some of Spike Lee’s movies or Andrew Dominik’s pictures. The violence had a queasy nigh-sexual quality to it that makes one’s viscera squirm (I don’t know how to elaborate on this feeling more, but it’s hard to induce).

The movie, as it turned out, was made by a guy named S. Craig Zahler who’d written some novels I hadn’t read at that point.

His next movie, Brawl in Cell Block 99, either had a much bigger budget or Zahler’s hand as a director had become much steadier. Like with the best of Kubrick’s movies (or maybe Jim Jarmusch would be a better comparison here), Zahler has the ability to make you pay attention to the screen, to watch the movie even in those moments that are silent and should be dead air but for some reason are not when he’s behind the lens. Considering that film companies shell out billions for big stars and major effects and I fall asleep watching the end-product, this ability to give the screen a gravid meaning, a free-floating dread from which I can’t peel my eyes away, is no small thing.

The central performance by Vince Vaughn is the most hypnotically disturbing thing I’ve seen since …well, Taxi Driver. I don’t really have to wax a lot here or compose panegyrics to the man. I’ll just say that I’m not a Vince Vaughn fan, or that I wasn’t, until I saw Brawl. The movie, like its predecessor Bone Tomahawk, just has these gorgeous, deadpan exchanges between men who treat every interaction like combat, a pissing contest in which whoever gets the best and last quip is King of the Hill. The Vaughn character usually wins, but not always. He also gets the crap kicked out of him and does more than his fair share of crap-kicking-out-of, as well. The movie rides that fine line between humor and horror perfectly that Stephen King delineated so well in his book, Danse Macabre. Vaughn, like the Gabriel Byrne character in the Coens’ Millers’ Crossing, is a mix of Chaplin’s Tramp and Job from The Holy Bible. You wince for him, laugh with him, empathize with him, and then wince at what he does to others.

Brawl doesn’t so much have acts as infernal layers, going from grim to brutal to over-the-top terrifying, taking its sweet time to get there and never being boring for a moment. It makes no claims to realism and yet has its own weight and brimstone verisimilitude and hits some sort of primal, instinctive nerve that puts it in a category with very few horror movies, those like George A. Romero’s Dead films, the better offerings in the Alien franchise, or Jaws.

Revenge movies are a dime-a-dozen, but Brawl is one of the few times that I’ve felt a sort of surrogate instinct to protect someone else’s family while seeing them imperiled onscreen. Characterization is strong enough that by the time Vince Vaughn’s character is literally stomping a man’s head until it severs from his neck, you not only understand his motivation, but cheer him on, and hope he can break old boy’s head off with his boot before the Don Johnson character finishes his cigar, kicks the door down, and shoots him (did I really just write that sentence?). One of the last scenes, in which Vince Vaughn, weeping, says goodbye to his pregnant wife, is the grindhouse version of De Niro’s “I am not an animal” breakdown in Raging Bull, or the Terry Malloy “Contender” speech in On the Waterfront. It’s a small moment with an epic power and it’s unforgettable.

Weirdest and most miraculous of all, the movie has a topnotch soundtrack, featuring new songs by old R & B warhorses like The OJs, with lyrics written by …you guessed it, S. Craig Zahler.

I am usually not curious about the people who make movies (and I honestly don’t respect many of them), and I generally don’t care for men with ponytails (it’s a knee-jerk reaction, but I’m being honest). Having frontloaded those caveats and fired my birdshot from both barrels, though, let me just say that this Craig Zahler guy is, to quote the writer Charles Willeford, “an oddity of some magnitude,” and I mean that in a good way.  He does not seem to be a product of Tinseltown, but someone like, say, Steve Buscemi, who lived a full life before venturing into the land of make-believe. It seems to have given him an armored authenticity most directors lack, even those who make movies about tough men enduring tough times.

I’m glad he has a new movie coming out in 2019, and no, not a day has gone by since I saw Brawl that I haven’t at least contemplated Dragged Across Concrete (the title of his new one), and yes, it’s the only movie I’ve been looking forward to seeing next year. I generally don’t get excited for movies, and haven’t since I was a child waiting for Tim Burton’s Batman to hit the big screen, but I am waiting with bated breath for Zahler’s new one.

In Christopher Frayling’s book about Leone, Something to do with Death, the author described the reaction of fanatical moviegoers and cineastes who were blown away by Leone’s first Dollars movie, and who were frustrated and somewhat jealous that Leone managed to best himself with next outing, in turn also besting audience expectations. Leone’s genius pissed them off a bit, in a good way, and Zahler’s films have the same effect on me. I admire and envy them, and while it’s normal for me to feel that way sometimes about writers, it’s almost-unheard of for me to pay such attention to the current world of film.

Each of Herr Zahler’s films thus far have had a mythopoetic dimension to them, which brings me back to the title of this piece. “Katabasis” is a type of narrative in which a character (usually the hero) discovers something about himself by passing a test which requires going under or through some chthonic, Hades-like world or underworld, in order to redeem himself or rescue someone, or to do both. Bone Tomahawk features a katabasis in which a group of white men on the frontier meet the ultimate horror in the form of a group of indigenous cannibals who are pissed that their burial site has been disturbed; things get very, very gory inside a cave hewn into the face of a mountain. Brawl features a figurative and literal descent of a different topography but of a similar unnerving tenor, in which the Vince Vaughn character meets an old friend who’s in the dope game in his basement parlor, spends some time hiding underwater after a quayside drug deal goes bad, and then finally is cast into the belly of a dungeonlike prison run by a cruel warden, who keeps the worst cases- the psychos and chomos- in the deepest bowels of the gaol, in a torture chamber hidden behind a trap bookcase.

Ridiculous yes, but that Zahler is able to pull it off with a straight face and even make the whole underworld eschaton poignant is the film’s great achievement resting atop a heap of minor but cumulative miracles that give the tale its transcendent heft.

I don’t want to put the jinx on Zahler, and many directors have turned into mediocrities or journeymen after one or two truly great projects, but something tells me that this guy is following his muse straight to hell, and that Dragged will exceed my high expectations. And somewhere along the way the scuffling is going to be done underground. Maybe in a parking garage? 

Joseph Hirsch is the author of several novels including Rolling Country, Flash Blood and Kentucky Bestiary. He previously worked as a sports correspondent for Fight Hype covering boxing matches around the globe, and he was also a finalist in a Glimmer Train Short Story Award Competition for New Writers. He served four years in the U.S. Army, wherein his travels took him to Iraq and Germany. He currently lives in Cincinnati, Ohio. Keep up with him at his website.

Source: spaceythompson

The Katabasis of S. Craig Zahler