S. Craig Zahler: The Director who Refuses to Play by the Rules
S. Craig Zahler doesn’t seem to like his films being put into boxes. But then again, that isn’t really much of a surprise when you look at the director’s career trajectory thus far. Starting out as a cinematographer on independent films, he soon shifted to writing novels and screenplays (including the acclaimed A Congregation of Jackals) before finally turning his hand to directing with his debut release, the 2015 horror-western Bone Tomahawk.
Alongside this, Zahler has also played in two metal bands as a drummer and singer (check out one of his tracks below), and has subsequently scored all of his films so far. Through this wildly unpredictable path, Zahler reflects that he has become both “confident” and “critical” of himself, with his music career pushing him to become “ambitious as hell.”
And clearly this ambition has paid off. In the last 4 years, Zahler has directed three of the most unique, distinct and stylish films in recent memory, with each project pushing further and further against the boundaries of what is to be expected from modern-day Hollywood. As Zahler himself admits, “it’s very hard to get my movies made in Hollywood… because they are unlike movies Hollywood is making.”
For example, take Dragged Across Concrete, his most recent project released in April. This twisted buddy-cop movie that was equal parts understated and explosive had two of the most unlikely (and controversial) lead actors in Vince Vaughn and Mel Gibson.
The film drew some heavy flack for this latter casting choice, with Gibson’s role in the film as a ruthless racist cop cutting too close to home for many, considering his checkered past involving racist, antisemitic and sexist rants. Despite growing up in a Jewish family, Zahler defended this casting decision, telling RogerEbert.com that “I'm not really interested in discussing their personal lives” because “I just don't know that much about it.”
This approach by Zahler of focusing solely on his projects and selecting the right characters for the roles, with little regard for personal issues, has led to some inspired casting decisions elsewhere, the prime example being Vaughn. Previously known for his comedy roles (ranging from hits like Swingers and Wedding Crashers to stinkers like The Internship and The Break-Up), most people would have laughed if you’d suggested Vaughn for a gritty, violent lead role in years past (Vaughn had previously tried his hand at a more serious role with True Detective season 2, to disastrous effect).
But with 2017’s Brawl in Cell Block 99, Zahler did exactly that, presenting a shaven-headed Vaughn who shocked critics and audiences with his stunning performance as an incarcerated man hell-bent on reaping revenge on his enemies.
Gruff, fierce, and intimidating but with a fragile side too, Vaughn powered the film to being a major critical success, rebooting his career in similar style to Liam Neeson and Keanu Reeves’ resurgences, although with far more jaw-breaking, skull-caving brutality to boot (it’s worth noting that Vaughn has also drawn criticism in the past for some choice comments surrounding gun rights and, particularly, their presence within schools).
Beyond Zahler’s choice in actors, his three releases thus far, Bone Tomahawk, Brawl in Cell Block 99, and Dragged Across Concrete, have many commonalities when it comes to their unique pacing, sublime world-building and barbaric violence.
Each film takes its time in establishing meaningful character relationships (Gibson & Vaughn’s friendship in Concrete, Vaughn & Jennifer Carpenter’s relationship in Cell Block 99, and the search group of Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Richard Jenkins, and Matthew Fox in Bone Tomahawk) and building the bleak, rough worlds that each story is told in.
Zahler is also a director who doesn’t believe that every scene has to drive the plot forward, taking the time to include interactions and moments that, though they may appear frivolous or unnecessary when viewed in isolation, play a crucial role in building a full picture and immersing you in the world of each film.
Just look at the amazing car-destruction scene that happens early on in Cell Block 99 or Bone Tomahawk’s “Can you read a book in the bath?” exchange. These scenes, which would never make it into films of a similar ilk, are what makes Zahler’s film worlds so all-encompassing and realistic.
Each film also uses its cinematography to establish the setting and feel of the world, most powerfully in Cell Block 99 through its use of colour. The whole film is swathed in a dark blue/green pallette that gives it an oppressively murky edge, making the streets of Staten Island and the corridors of the cell block look equally as desolate (Zahler explains that the dark visuals were primarily used to evoke the “medieval-dungeon feel” of the final act).
Dragged as Concrete employs similar techniques to emphasise the bleakness of its urban environment, bringing to life the scummy criminal depths of the fictional city of Bulwark (shot in Vancouver), while Bone Tomahawk, despite being set in a vastly different time and place (The Old West), immerses us in the vast, empty wild landscape to similar effect.
Of course, the main talking point for anyone who’s seen a Zahler film is the visceral, cringe-inducing violence that punctuates each story. Zahler has described how he likes to shoot his violence in a “really unvarnished way, without all this cinematic frosting, and there’s no CG… It makes the impact sharper, because it’s not how audiences are used to seeing movie violence.” There are numerous examples of this approach in all three films, with the unflinching camera, sparse soundtrack, and powerful sound design revealing the brutality in all its exploitation, grindhouse glory, the most shocking example being the “face-scrape” scene in Cell Block 99 (you’ve been warned).
These brutal sequences of “unvarnished” violence is often what makes it so difficult to fit his films into any one genre, Bone Tomahawk being the best example. The first act establishes itself as a pretty straightforward western, complete with legendary actor Kurt Russell (who began his career in a number of Western TV series) and a script populated with drily humorous exchanges.
But, without venturing into spoiler territory, as the search party ventures further away from home, things escalate and the film eventually kicks into a gory shock-fest (but one where we feel deeply concerned for the well-beings of our lead characters, unusual for such a sequence).
S. Craig Zahler is a director who doesn’t like to be told what he can and can’t do in his films. From making his stunning horror-western debut on a shoestring budget of just $1.8 million, to casting infamous Hollywood bigot Mel Gibson in a racist cop exploitation flick, Zahler likes doing things his own way. He is outspoken in this determination to never compromise in his filmmaking, stating that, while he hopes "people enjoy” his films, “I’m not going to make different creative choices so that more of them do.”
His films feel like a blast from the past with their crunching, unrestrained grindhouse violence, punchy scripts and gritty colour palletes. But look further and you will see the care and precision that Zahler applies to his projects, the arthouse inflections that elevate these films to a higher ground, with their slow-burn approaches, subtle pacing, and careful character development. Just recently, it was announced that Park Chan-wook would be directing a film based on Zahler’s old screenplay The Brigands of Rattlecreek, and what a match made in heaven that promises to be: the two heroes of modern exploitation cinema, both not afraid to break the rules, together at last. Bring it on.