S. Craig Zahler’s Dragged Across Concrete is an extremely clever, gripping film, but you may come out of it wondering exactly what it is you’ve seen—uncertain whether it’s cynical in a productive or merely an exploitative way, or even downright nihilistic. Seen from one angle—and you can decide whether this angle is the most or least important—the movie is a steely, inventive, finely crafted thriller of a sort that doesn’t get made very often these days, a sensationalist narrative with an aura of stark, considered realism. From another, it’s a parable about how the system—let’s say the human condition, as much as any specific political or legal system—is irredeemably loaded against the disadvantaged. And from another, it’s a cop drama with appallingly reactionary protagonists whom we’re invited to identify with and even to like, though only up to a point.

From still another angle, the narrative isn’t primarily about the sour, embattled career cops played by Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn. From this perspective, you could almost say they’re supporting characters, hapless bystanders in the story of a young African-American man, Henry Johns (Tory Kittles), newly released from prison and ready for desperate measures to get his family out of trouble. The film starts by establishing Henry as protagonist before sidestepping to cops Ridgeman and Lurasetti—a move that could be read as a cynical cop-out on Zahler’s part, framing the film around an African-American hero when it’s really about two embittered old racists. But Kittles’s firm, measured performance, which establishes Henry as embodying a hard, pragmatic integrity from the start, provides a baseline—all the more so in that the movie keeps Henry playing a waiting game, holding him back from the foreground until much later.

What makes the film, which clocks in at 159 minutes, seem less calculating and cynical is the way that slow buildup is steeped in a melancholy that never lets up even through the subsequent violence. We first meet Henry in bed with a young woman, a hooker that his childhood buddy Biscuit (Michael Jai White) has set him up with to celebrate his prison release. When Henry mournfully confesses to her that he used to pine for her when they were in school, it’s clear that hard times drive everyone to desperate measures, including Henry’s mother, whom he finds turning tricks after losing her job at a grocery store. The opening section ends with Henry playing a video game with his younger brother Ethan (Myles Truitt)—an aspiring game designer confined to a wheelchair—which indicates Henry’s clear-eyed understanding of the differences between games and life. That lucidity informs what follows: an action-thriller drained of thrills, in which violence always signals inhumanity and frankly reminds us that it’s not fit material for entertainment.

Enter the cops. Ridgeman (Gibson) has been on the job for years without promotion, because—or so he thinks—he never played politics. Lurasetti (Vaughn) is younger and more morally scrupulous, but only just. Ridgeman is jaded and worn out, but not too much to use excessive force on a Latino suspect and his girlfriend, a bit of unpleasant business that the cops get through by egging each other on with flip racist backchat. Subsequently, their boss Lt. Calvert (Don Johnson) tells them they’ve been videoed by a neighbor. He semi-reprimands them in queasily complicit terms, telling them they should have been discreet, smarter about visibility, the media. Being racist is one thing, but being identified as a racist is the real faux pas.

Ridgeman later seethes about his lot: his failed career, his lack of reward. “I don’t politic,” he grumbles. “I don’t change with the times, and it turns out that that shit’s more important than good honest work.” It’s a telling glimpse of self-delusion: what he considers “good honest work” is clearly abusive behavior. He’s the epitome of the old guard who really need to change with the times because it’s a moral necessity, not just a cosmetic requirement to keep the old abuses rolling. By contrast, Ridgeman’s wife Melanie (Laurie Holden)—herself an ex-cop, now retired and coping with MS—wearily acknowledges something about herself that she clearly wishes she didn’t have to: “I never thought I was a racist before living in this area. I’m about as liberal as any ex-cop could ever be, but now…” No less excruciating is the blithely knee-jerk way in which Lurasetti at once acknowledges his reactionary tendencies and lets himself off the hook with one-liners.

The Ridgemans’ issue is that they’re living in a run-down neighborhood where their teenage daughter has been repeatedly bullied: illustrated by a scene in which an African-American boy flings a juice carton at her. You pause to wonder whether Zahler is justifying the Ridgemans’ racism and their acceptance of it. But presenting white characters who articulate—however cautiously—their own racism or, like Ridgeman, are entrenched in it, surely offers a more truthful picture of society than the pieties of Green Book, in which a character’s racism goes unquestioned by himself, and is then easily cured by a spell of road-trip bonhomie.

The key characters in this drama have gotten raw deals in different but parallel ways, as underlined by the visual parallel between the Ridgemans’ apartment and the Johns’s, both steeped in glum shadow, both captured in wide-shot tableau. They’re not the only people. At one point, Zahler does an extraordinary thing, halting the action for a seven-minute digression into the domestic anxieties of a character (Jennifer Carpenter). We only get to know her briefly, but her presence serves to remind us of the inhumanity of the routine thriller notion of the bystander as mere collateral: it’s as if Zahler has sabotaged a Tarantino scenario by applying the lessons of Michael Haneke’s 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance.

Though Zahler evenhandedly attempts to humanize most of the players in a thriller in which you’d expect people to be disposable pawns, when it comes to the out-and-out villains, he depersonalizes them to an extreme. Thomas Kretschmann is strikingly opaque as a European mastermind of whom we know nothing except his name. He’s accompanied by two masked minions in black body armor, effectively the embodiment of instant death, with their own repertoire of racist and misogynistic rhetoric—of a sort that the cops never approach, and which these guys turn into practice on a whim. The most horrific moment here—following Zahler’s previous Bone Tomahawk (2015) and Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2017), you might consider this the trademark “Zahler moment”—involves entrails, something I’ve almost certainly never seen in a heist movie before. The gruesome scene is made even more so by a comment from one of the henchmen, something you can’t quite believe you’ve heard.

The argument might seem to be unfairly loaded: the film hardly makes one set of bad guys redeemable simply because they can’t compete with the wholehearted viciousness of the opposition. What makes the movie so uncomfortable to watch is the matter of complicity: the cops, hoping to muscle in on some profitable action but not knowing what’s coming, stand by and watch terrible things happen, and so damn themselves. And we can’t help but feel complicit as we watch, especially because the film has persuaded us to see things somewhat from the cops’ viewpoint.

One might well feel suspicious of Zahler’s approach—not least as a result of his hyper-knowing touch of casting Gibson, of all people, as a cop discredited for racism. Zahler leaves us to decide whether he’s indulgently patting the actor on the back for the undisguised sincerity of his overt racism, or doing something more critically cogent: enlisting him to dismantle the macho maverick role he has so often embodied. Gibson’s solemn, leadenly rueful demeanor rather persuasively makes you wonder what happens when a character like Lethal Weapon’s Riggs grows old and embittered because he can’t understand how the world has changed.

Indeed, you could regard Dragged Across Concrete as a either a liberal or a reactionary statement—or you might just feel frustrated because the film doesn’t clearly explain which it is. But its pitiless scenario keeps you galvanized, and the film’s apparent cynicism doesn’t make it any less valid an exercise in genre-based provocation. When you emerge after a teasingly extended final act, plus coda—the ending has the bracing starkness, a matter-of-fact blast of cold water—you may feel uncomfortable and manipulated, and possibly even somewhat smeared with moral and ideological dirt. But the crime movie was never a genre that needed to be a safe space, let alone a clean one.

Jonathan Romney is a contributing editor to Film Comment and writes its Film of the Week column. He is a member of the London Film Critics Circle.