Cinema, Review, Top Stories

Dragged Across Concrete—A Review

It may very well be that the individual who has been expelled, and who has now become embittered and reckless, will cause us further trouble.

The kind of trouble to which Freud alluded rears its head in S. Craig Zahler’s brutal new feature film Dragged Across Concrete, an exploration of two characters emblematic of that proletarian section of American society notoriously dismissed by Hilary Clinton as a “basket of deplorables.” Brett Ridgeman (Mel Gibson) and Anthony Lurasetti (Vince Vaughn) are haggard, vulgar, politically incorrect white male detectives who “don’t politick or move with the times.” Consequently, they are not the sort of people whose “truth” our febrile zeitgeist is especially keen on hearing.

Ridgeman and Lurasetti are working pariahs on a measly wage; they have paid their dues and followed the rules, and have little to show for it besides bitter disenchantment with the social contract. “One year away from 60,” Ridgeman complains, “and I am still the same rank as when I was 27.” Trapped by his income in a decrepit community, he is unable to afford the medical costs needed to treat his ailing wife (Laurie Holden) or secure his daughter’s future. The plot of Zahler’s movie turns on the scandal that erupts when the cops’ violent interrogation of a Latino suspect is caught on camera, and the two men find themselves ensnared in a PR nightmare and faced with the economically devastating prospect of six weeks suspension without pay. “We need the hours,” Ridgeman protests desperately. Sympathetic but unable to help, Chief Lt. Calvert (Don Johnson) grumbles, “Like cell phones, and just as annoying, politics is everywhere.”

As might be expected in today’s climate, the film is facing accusations of reactionary messaging and racism. The production company behind the film, Cinestate, previously produced a series of low-budget violent pictures including Bone Tomahawk (2015), Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2017), and The Standoff at Sparrow Creek (2018), and has been described as the purveyor of films that “reflect the Trump-era mix of fear of the outsider and paranoia about the government.” While these films do reflect the Trump era to a degree, the implication that they are exploiting “populist” anxieties for either ideological reasons (S. Craig Zahler has been called a “white supremacist”) or a quick buck, is hardly fair. In fact, this latest Zahler/Cinestate collaboration is doing something of which American politics (and filmmaking) are currently incapable: lending the deplorable demographic an empathetic ear. “Being called a racist,” a character complains in one deliberately provocative line, “is like being called a Communist in the ‘50s.”

In its attitude to the misfit and social outcast, the film recalls Taxi Driver’s lonely and damaged protagonist Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro)—like Bickle, Ridgeman and Lurasetti inhabit a milieu of urban despair, alienation, silent resentment, and social dysfunction. Naturally, in a culture that routinely confuses empathy with sympathy, adopting such an approach was bound to provoke controversy. When Taxi Driver was first released, a number of progressive critics were either reluctant or unable to distinguish between the attitudes of the protagonist and those of the filmmakers, which left director Martin Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader facing accusations that they had made a pro-vigilante and even fascist movie. The Daily Beast’s overwrought description of Dragged Across Concrete as a “racist right-wing fantasy” indicates that critics remain less keen on evaluating the metaphorical or aesthetic truth of art and entertainment than policing it.

Today, artists have been put on notice that aesthetics are less important than politics, and that those politics are expected to be explicitly progressive. Moral responsibility is heaped onto objets d’art whether the artists like it or not and the only important distinction is between pure and impure art. Paternalistic assumptions about what the masses are capable of seeing—as if merely portraying something unsavory constitutes endorsement—is condescending, censorious, and anti-art. At the last Berlin film festival, a number of critics were so outraged by Fatih Akin’s new serial killer picture The Golden Glove, they told me that merely reviewing it—negatively or otherwise—should be understood as an endorsement of its allegedly regressive politics.

But such crude utilitarianism is a misunderstanding of art and what it is for. Art is not political, it is spiritual—a “tabooed logic” in the words of Herbert Marcuse. It allows us to experience urges and irrationality we must otherwise suppress and to empathize with others as a means of understanding ourselves. Art does not exist solely to create a better world, it exists to reflect the one in which we live in all its beauty, ugliness, and maddening complexity—and, in this respect, Dragged Across Concrete excels, stranding its audience within an optimal zone of discomfort using an enthralling balance of moral ambiguity, questionable ethics, dark humor, and sadistic violence. Zahler is artfully out-of-sync with progressive imprimaturs, a filmmaker willing to complicate easy identification and moralism and to locate pathos in taboo.

Following their suspension, Ridgeman and Lurasetti respond in the only way they know how—they formulate a desperate plan to intercept a robbery and make off with the riches. Needless to say, as a result of happenstance, stupidity, and spiraling unintended consequences, things do not go according to plan. Sympathetic cultural critics have interpreted the narrative as a cautionary tale about the wages of moral turpitude and, from this reading, a surreptitiously progressive “message” can be salvaged. But this is an equally reductive and exclusively political paradigm, whether it is deployed by the Right or Left. The difficult truth about Dragged Across Concrete is that it’s neither progressive nor reactionary; liberal nor conservative. Rather, it exists as a thorn in all of our sides, refusing to offer even the reassuring catharsis of a redemption parable. With a brutal, if almost Zen-like detachment, Zahler tells a story about the brutal logic of action and consequence. If there is a moral, it concerns the vital importance of discernment. For while the film confines its profoundly flawed protagonists within an unforgiving socio-economic context, these men are not a social symptom but moral agents culpable for their own choices.

And yet, even a film as resolutely apolitical as this one resonates with contemporary political discontents. Zahler has his finger on the cultural pulse, even if it’s not entirely clear if he believes there’s a heartbeat worth saving. As the violent narrative closes in on its inevitable denouement, Lurasetti says, “I hope I am not remembered for this mistake.” But we know he is lost because the culture has commanded it. In a cultural moment that has seen reputations destroyed by a single tweet, each transgression can become the entirety of a person’s character. Beneath the car chases, shoot-outs, and smart dialogue in Dragged Across Concrete is an elegy, not for the passing of time (this isn’t a nostalgic film), but for those left behind when the cultural baton is passed from one generation to the next. The hands that built the nation are now tainted, their flaws have been exposed and denounced, and swathes of our fellow citizens have been condemned as unclean rabble-rousers. Here is a film that speaks to this cultural tragedy in the shape of two flawed cops, resigned to a world that despises them but doing their awkward and imperfect best to stay afloat and do the right thing as they understand it.

In Depth Psychology and a New Ethic, psychologist Erich Neumann cites “detective stories, crime films, and thrillers” as “evidence of the decline of the old order of life in the realm of aesthetics.” But this was no conservative lament. Rather, he saw in a film like Dragged Across Concrete “the germs of any possible future development in the West,” precisely because it is so defiantly amoral. The student of Jung suggests that an ethic forged in binary notions of “good” and “evil” inevitably leads to projections of our dark side onto the Other. This is how the individual is disappeared, how scapegoats are created, and how totalitarian thought takes root. To avoid this, wrote Neumann, we have to recognize our own capacity for evil.

Our polarized political discourse has been consumed by the old binary ethic. So, if politics won’t do the job of mediating between the lowly and dignified, art must. Far from being fascist, Dragged Across Concrete is a braver and more perspicacious piece of work than many of those films applauded for the correctness of their politics, irrespective of the paucity of their insight; it negotiates a relationship with the nastier aspect of ourselves in an attempt to save our culture, and to salvage the deplorables from the basket of history in the name of our universal humanity.


David G. Hughes graduated in Film Studies from King’s College London and in Film Aesthetics from The University of Oxford. He is the Founder & Editor-in-Chief of the film website, Electric Ghost Magazine / @EG_Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter @BelovedFire_


  1. Maybe the stranglehold nostalgic schlock and blockbuster predictability is over. One can only hope.

    Just the fact that two non PC actors, Gibson and Vaughan, were cast is refreshing. Maybe James Woods will get a job soon.

    Lately I get my entertainment news from Hollywood in Toto but will be checking out Electric Ghost Machine as well. Thanks Mr. Hughes.

    • I write about film, and I have increasingly lost interest in the medium over the last few years. Most of that has to do with politics, but some of it has to do with how inflated film budgets pretty much guarantee homogeneity across the genre blockbuster market – the only thing keeping cinemas alive right now. Disney’s recent acquisition of Fox left me feeling pretty pessimistic about the future of the industry, but I have contrived a reason to be optimistic instead. I’m hoping the lack of competition in the blockbuster market, increasing politicization of pop culture, and Hollywood’s habit of pandering to the Chinese market will hasten this current iteration of the blockbuster’s demise and usher in a renaissance in film. I have my doubts about whether cinemas will survive, but I have hope that film, in general, will. I’m already seeing hints that the industry is beginning to lean in the direction of smaller budget genre films (Blumhouse’s The Invisible Man). As far as the politics go, I don’t think art can be restrained forever. Some of the best film, theater, literature, and music ever made came out of the Soviet Union. Eventually some brave soul will lead the charge out of the darkness (maybe Zahler is the tip of the spear) and others will follow.

      In the meantime, I have turned my attention to television. TV, especially genre TV, is appealing because, from an economic standpoint, writers are able to play the long game, which allows them to develop story and character rather than relying on spectacle in the way that big budget films do. The politics are still there, but in many cases, it’s spread out more and seems less propagandistic. That’s not to say a lot of it isn’t propagandistic; it’s just a bit more tolerable in some cases in the way that bad whiskey is more tolerable when watered down.

  2. How ’bout that? A Mel Gibson movie i actually want to watch. Last time that happened it was still the 1980s!

    • Earnest Canuck says

      Zahler’s previous film was actually titled ‘Brawl in Cell Block 99’.

  3. Ed Hagen says

    Hillary’s “deplorable” comment was actually meant to defend mainstream Trump supporters to her LGBT audience:

    “You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. (Laughter/applause) Right? (Laughter/applause) They’re racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic – Islamophobic – you name it. And unfortunately, there are people like that. And he has lifted them up. He has given voice to their websites that used to only have 11,000 people – now have 11 million. He tweets and retweets their offensive hateful mean-spirited rhetoric. Now, some of those folks – they are irredeemable, but thankfully, they are not America.

    But the “other” basket – the other basket – and I know because I look at this crowd I see friends from all over America here: I see friends from Florida and Georgia and South Carolina and Texas and — as well as, you know, New York and California — but that “other” basket of people are people who feel the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures; and they’re just desperate for change. It doesn’t really even matter where it comes from. They don’t buy everything he says, but — he seems to hold out some hope that their lives will be different. They won’t wake up and see their jobs disappear, lose a kid to heroin, feel like they’re in a dead-end. Those are people we have to understand and empathize with as well.”

    • E. Olson says

      Ed – so Hillary was only accusing about 25% of the electorate (i.e. 50% of the 46% who voted for Trump) of being deplorable sexists, racists, homophobics, xenophobic – Islamophobic? And of course these 25% must all be white and male because females and members of “victim” classes can’t be racist, sexist, etc. Thanks for the clarification, and now that I understand it does seem amazing that so many people were upset with Hillary over this comment, but then again I guess there are 31+ million deplorable Americans out there.

    • Trump is doing a pretty good job fixing those problems Hillary said needed to be addressed. And he did this by actually caring about the people Hillary was fully willing to discard.

    • yandoodan says

      I’ve seen that quote before, in it’s entirety. I can’t see how anyone can interpret it as anything other than vicious. Hillary meant it to solidify her urban base while still giving the working and farming classes an out. After all who the heck self-identifies as a member of the Deplorable half? Well, everyone who lives outside a wealthy urban neighborhood, all those people who can only afford a two pound can of store brand coffee for their seven bucks. We knew she was attacking all us for living in the wrong places, having the wrong jobs, and having too little melanin. Us people of pallor are not stupid; we know when someone hates us.

      BTW, here’s Trump’s Charlottesville statement, in context:
      ““Excuse me, they didn’t put themselves down as neo-Nazis, and you had some very bad people in that group. But you also had people that were very fine people on both sides. You had people in that group – excuse me, excuse me, I saw the same pictures you did. You had people in that group that were there to protest the taking down of, to them, a very, very important statue and the renaming of a park from Robert E. Lee to another name. … I’m not talking about the neo-Nazis and white nationalists because they should be condemned totally.”

      For what it’s worth.

  4. Jean Levant says

    Well, you give me longing for this movie. I quote: “The difficult truth about Dragged Across Concrete is that it’s neither progressive nor reactionary; liberal nor conservative. ” Really? Is it still possible in this time?

    • Jujucat says

      My thoughts exactly, Jean, and so I just bought tickets. I seriously can rarely find any newer media that is not tainted by political correctness.

  5. E. Olson says

    Sounds like an interesting movie that is controversial because of its somewhat sympathetic portrayal of a couple of “deplorable” white cops facing tough economic circumstances. Mel Gibson is 63 years old this year, and plays a cop in a large American city about to turn 60, whose boss is 70 year old Don Johnson, whom I assume is playing a few years younger. Gibson is a senior detective so we can assume he is at the top of the salary pyramid, which according to salary charts I examined means his base annual cash income would be about $105,000 per year + overtime, plus city contributions to generous pension and health insurance plans, and yet he is struggling to make ends meet because of out-of-pocket costs associated with his sick wife and child. As a result, he and his partner apparently needs to resort to crime after they are caught being “racist” against a victim class prisoner and suspended without pay for a few weeks.

    What is wrong with this picture? In what “major US city” is a cop not retired with a pension of 90% of his overtime inflated final pay by his early to mid-50s (i.e. 25-30 years of service)? In what city is a cop not protected by his union from getting suspended without pay for even the most egregious abuse of power? In what city does a cop have such poor insurance and such uncaring colleagues and fellow citizens that he goes broke paying healthcare for his sick wife? I know movies often break away from reality to create a more compelling story line, but the under-paid and over-worked civil servant trope has become so far removed from reality that the script writers could easily have given Gibson and Vaughn comic book superpowers with no loss of credibility. With cities declaring bankruptcy and cutting back on public services because of outlandish public employee pensions, salaries, and benefits, perhaps it is time to have some movies where hard working private sector taxpayers are the victims.

    • Strawberry farmer says

      Ooph, it’s so good to hear about a movie that lands outside of the small circle of progressive narrative, but you just blew a big hole in the middle of it.

    • Ray Andrews says

      @E. Olson

      That was effective in disabusing me of my sympathy for this impoverished cop. The little buzzer in my head telling me that this vitimography was slightly overdrawn was buzzing, but not loud enough, and I came away buying the story. Anyway, two white male cops as Victims is at least a change.

      • E. Olson says

        Ray – Instead such an outlandish plot, they might have used the film to tell a story about young white cop who is politely telling a big black kid to stop walking in the middle of the street in traffic when he gets a radio report of an armed robbery at a local store by a big black kid. When he attempts to question the kid, the kid tries to grab his gun and in the subsequent struggle the cop shoots the kid dead. A black friend of the kid, a local drug dealer, tells the media that his friend had his hands up and was trying to surrender when he was shot in cold blood. The media and Democratic political machine run with the story and the cop’s life is turned upside down as he is accused of racism by the US president and attorney general, and is suspended while under investigation. Even though he is later quietly exonerated of all charges, his life as a cop is destroyed and he leaves the city to avoid further harassment. Meanwhile the black kid’s parents are invited to the Democratic national convention and all the big TV shows to tell the story of racist America and racist cops.

        • Ray Andrews says

          @E. Olson

          Geez, that reminds me of something.

          Seriously tho, how can there ever be peace when we have entire industries who’s bread and butter is inflaming tensions? Sweet, innocent Mikey Brown was about as legitimate a poster boy for White Cop Brutality as Nick Sandmann was for White MAGA Genocide of the Indians. Ferkrisakes. It’s time to move into the bush.

        • Martin says

          Excellent observation E. Olson.

          This film will have to include scenes of when the black “reverend”-huckster and known race-baiter (and the black president’s new righthand man on race relations) comes to town to stir the pot while simultaneously getting his all-important national exposure; their also needs to be scenes of looting and arson as the town gets burned down a few times and the liquor stores robbed as an organic expression of black community “protest” against white police violence. Maybe this film can include a scene with the mother and grandmother of this “big black kid” physically fighting each other over the selling of commemorative tee-shirts sporting their son’s/grandson’s face.

          This movie can end on a heartwarming note when the mother and stepfather of the “big black kid” get a 1.5 million dollar payout from the city while the young innocent white cop, who’s unable to get a job because no one is willing to take the risk of hiring him, carries on the best he can with his life of being a target of hatred by millions of Americans.

          Or is this plot premise too outlandish to be believed?


    • Richard Trombeister says

      You’re probably right, but I did meet a retired cop who was forced into bankruptcy when he stopped getting pension checks and started getting IOUs, due to high level financial mistakes. The city? A big one, in California.

  6. Check Your Review Privilege says

    The fact that so many movie reviewers (most of who are, let’s face it, dyed-in-the-wool liberals) feel compelled to see every show and every movie through a political lens and/or the lens of the blue state social media bubble, tells you everything you need to know about those reviews. Namely that they’re not worth reading. Not that right-wing reviews are any better. Reviews in general are in fact, a huge waste of time. All you need is a quick look at a simple ratings system like tomatoes. If you can’t decide for yourself whether you want to see and judge a movie without some stranger’s prior seal of approval, I dunno. Simplify your outlook maybe.

    I don’t watch movies to politically inform myself anymore than I listen to music to improve my physique. Movies are fictitious entertainment, shows are ficitious entertainment. I wish to enjoy being told a story in an interesting way, by compelling actors / acting. That’s it and that’s all.

    The fact that so many under 40s expect movies, shows and other stuff to reflect their political and social sensibilities is (hate to borrow a Trump Word: #sad). Are they so easily damaged emotionally and intellectually that they can’t just take a movie for what it is, watch it, enjoy (or not) and afterward say “that was a good movie,” or “that movie sucked,” judging same by quality of story and acting?

    Reminded of these idiots on social media who accosted Chelsea Clinton recently, saying her comments about supporting Israel were part of a larger societal problem that cause things like the NZ mosque shootings. Just absolute illogical, inane, echo chamber BS based on zero real-world facts. And all these Twitter-niks standing around the plaintiff, snapping their fingers righteously at Chelsea. Seriously, get a life you phony, self-righteous, losers. You give the rest of us who occupy center, center-left, and left parts of the spectrum (i.e. rational people) a bad name.

    Please go read a book or seven and learn something about sociology, psychology and all the stuff that goes into people’s political behavior (or crimes), before desparately seeking out the nearest available “celebrity” online or in person, and trying to find clever ways of shaming them on social media, for no reason. Or do us all a favor and move to another country. You are as big a part of the poliotical dysfunction and social dysfunction in this country as the idiots wearing the “I’d rather be lead by Putin than a Democrat” shirts.

    Sorry, truth hurts. And you are snowflakes. That term is definitely deserved. You want people to stop using it? Start acting like adults who have thick enough skin and developed enough brains to make vocal criticisms of people only when it’s actually warranted. Or uh, “check your social crusader privilege.”

    • Barney Doran says

      Thank you for that one, CYRP. I’m feeling better already.

  7. Ray Andrews says

    Gibson is holding a revolver in the pic. Do cops every use revolvers anymore?

    • @Ray Andrews

      Most city police departments mandate certain city-purchased firearms while on duty, or alternatively, a handgun purchased privately by the officer that meets official department requirements for a duty weapon. These are almost always semi-automatic pistols.

      Not having seen the movie, I might suppose that given the character’s age and personality, Gibson may have been given a revolver by the director as a signal to the audience regarding his “old school” mentality and resistance to authority.

      • Ray Andrews says

        @Morgan Foster

        Hmmm. That sounds plausible. Yeah, old cop, old weapon.

    • E. Olson says

      A revolver was good enough for Dirty Harry (“I know what you’re thinking, was it 5 or was it 6? You know in all the excitement I sorta lost count myself, but this is a 44 Magnum the most powerful handgun in the world that would blow your head clean off, so you gotta ask yourself punk – do you feel lucky?”), it should be good enough for Gibson.

      • Ray Andrews says

        @E. Olson

        I wish I had someone to ask: It seems to me that the instant backwards acceleration of the receiver of a semi should soak up quite a bit of energy whereas the entire mass of a revolver, tho momenta are equal, would soak up less energy. Not sure if that matters in practice. Semi automatic pistol actions have always seemed to me to be sloppy and dumb. I dunno why the cartridge doesn’t explode when it starts accelerating backwards anyway, the brass would be unsupported, no?

        • neoteny says

          why the cartridge doesn’t explode when it starts accelerating backwards anyway, the brass would be unsupported, no?

          The brass is indeed unsupported — after a while: by that time, the exploding gases left the brass, pressure dropped to ‘safe’ levels. This is where the genius of the weapon designer comes to play: to calculate & test just the right combination of masses & forces to make the action work, instead of it exploding (which happens quite often in development, I’m sure).

  8. P. McCarthy says

    Saw this film today. Husband & I both hated it. Yes, much of what this reviewer has written is correct but the film is tedious, slow as molasses with no redeeming features. No payoff. It’s grim and depressing. It’s also an hour too long. Clint Eastwood might have done a better job with the material. Little of what we saw was realistic: the weight of the gold, for example, that Mel’s car ran after being shot up. It is not believable that the two cops could be as tone-deaf as they are portrayed. No one these days is that dim about PC. No one. It may be a film just for film students to gab about but it is torture to sit through.

  9. D McCathy says

    Truly wonderfully written review but must have been for another movie. From your review; “Dragged Across Concrete excels, stranding its audience within an optimal zone of discomfort using an enthralling balance of moral ambiguity, questionable ethics, dark humor, and sadistic violence” As noted above, I went to see it with my wife; my personal feeling? It was wonderfully produced but it was also slow, tedious and totally unsatisfying for us. We got home and watched “Equalizer 2” to be reminded of what a good action film is; no wasted footage, satisfying conclusion and great character development. To give it its due, Dragged did give depth to the characters but it felt forced and pretentiously self important. Once again, your review was beautifully crafted but I still think that we saw a different film.

  10. Itzik Basman says

    Exceedingly strongly written review of a movie I have yet to see and am made eager to see it.

    Just a note on a most remote side bar—on the difference between empathy and sympathy.

    The difference is usually described along the lines of empathy denoting experiencing another’s pain and sympathy being the lesser state of feeling sorrow for it.

    My quibble has to do with questioning the basis for sympathy, i.e. from where does that sorrow arise.

    My thought is that the sorrow—a feeling, after all— of sympathy must be rooted in our identifying the source of that pain within ourselves: our sympathy with, say, someone having lost someone close to them stems from our ability to feel the loss of someone close to us.

    And I suggest further the difference between the two is made more complicated by our understanding that empathy is a metaphor insofar as attaining it is literally impossible. We can never get past our own consciousness. We can never literally experience another’s pain.

    I I don’t insist that there’s no difference between empathy and sympathy but I’d like to understand where my quibble about the difference fails.

  11. I don’t know about the film, but I certainly don’t look forward to reading more reviews from this particular critic in what is otherwise an excellent magazine. The review is a sorry mess, both in substance and style (is it too much to ask of art criticism that it should be well-written?). The author starts by arguing against bringing in politics into art and/or our appreciation and critique of art (and, though clumsily expressed, this is a valid point). One may then expect that the film would be assessed strictly for its articistic merits or entertainment value. Instead, the author goes on to do exactly what he criticises other film critics for, that is, discussing the perceived politics of the film and bringing his own politics into it. The film’s artistic quality is utterly ignored in the meantime (that said, the dialogue quoted in the review is abysmal). Finally, the author’s contrived analogy between the repercussions of the serious crime committed by the two characters and the Twitter mob’s orchestrating vicious campaigns over dubious jokes or other minor transgressions is laughable. To conclude, Quilette really needs to tighten its editorial policy. Such clunkers don’t do you justice.

  12. Shawn T says

    We are rapidly becoming a comic book culture. We either get dozens of movies literally covering comic book plots or others using a moral cudgel to beat the audience senseless. Movie makers seem incapable of telling a compelling story with interesting characters who are likeable or, at least, relatable. Let the audience gauge its value and maybe even be challenged. People are increasingly inclined to think themselves some sort of hero, out to fight injustice and defeat evil. The problem is life isn’t so cut and dry. When these self-proclaimed heroes can’t find a true villain, they impose villainous attributes on those with whom they simply disagree. Refining human complexities to good and evil and, most importantly, taking mob action based on this distillation in righteous fervor and anger is fundamentally wrong. Art is overwhelmingly a tool of this mob or, worse, a driving force behind it and our collective humanity suffers.

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