From Dusk Till Dawn

“Okay, ramblers. Let’s get rambling.”

Robert Rodriguez’s From Dusk Till Dawn is a movie about a plucky band of misfits who learn the values of family, togetherness, strength in adversity, and Jesus. It's also about theft, vampires, gore, rape, and murder. And it’s got George Clooney. This review covers the basics but doesn’t give away the death toll. Although, obviously, I just gave away that people die. Such are the perils of Vampire Month.

Seth Gecko (George Clooney) and his brother Richie (Quentin Tarantino) are bank robbers on the lam in the wasteland of south-west Texas. When they bump into the Fuller family (Harvey Keitel is Dad, Juliette Lewis is daughter Kate, and Ernest Liu is son Scott) the Geckos take them, and their RV, hostage to make a mad dash towards the border. Once there, the group finds itself in an overwrought, bikers- and truckers-only strip joint that turns out to be filled to the brim (of its ten-gallon, of course) with vampires.

The entire first hour is taken up with the hostage/road-trip story; the last 40 minutes are almost pure gross-out gore in, as my Netflix envelope claims, the tradition of 1960s Mexican vampire movies. I love that Rodriguez and screenwriter Tarantino took this risks of making such a bisected movie: aside from Psycho, I can’t think of many other films that are willing to switch narrative modes so suddenly and with such panache. (Re-watching FDTD, though, I did wonder if Justin Cronin had it in mind when structuring The Passage.)

Allowing so much time in what’s basically the set-up also means that we get to know our heroes, and be alternately repelled and attracted by them. Seth is a dashingly handsome bank robber who never kills people “unless he has to,” but his brother Richie is much less ambiguous: he’s a rapist with a hot fuse and a mild case of schizophrenia. Tarantino doesn’t play him for much sympathy—I don’t think the Big T has the acting chops for it, comedic skills aside—but Seth’s love and concern for his brother makes their relationship touching in a sweetly sadistic way.

Harvey Keitel’s Jacob isn’t nearly as flawed, but he’s not perfect, either. He’s taking his kids on a forced road-trip after their mother, his wife, died in a car accident. He doesn’t hide his grief, or his spiritual crisis (he quit his job as a Baptist minister) from the kids, which is a considerable burden for them to bear: they’ve lost their mom, but it’s his despair that is structuring their family’s story.

His despair, and being hijacked by the Gecko brothers, of course. Seth and Jacob do some tentative bonding even before the vampires appear, and Jacob does seem to get stronger in the face of both adversity and a man who’s just sociopathic enough to speak plainly. Seth seems to have a sort of violent paternal urge towards Scott and Kate, too—despite his considerable flaws, he comes across as a man who takes care of the people that he promises to care for, which is what makes him so likeable. Plus, as I might have mentioned, he’s played by George Clooney.

Once they’ve all crossed the border (the US/Mexican border, the border between day and night, the border between action and reaction), there is a lot of blood, a lot of limbs ripped off, and more exploding heads than I could count. But even here Rodriguez takes his time: most horror movies are aware of the power of visuals; in addition to the music, it’s what’s on screen (more than what’s being said) that makes them interesting. But Rodriguez doesn’t just focus on the visual impact of bodily destruction, he also plays visual jokes (as when we see a real bad-ass playing Jenga) and allows the camera to focus on Salma Hayek’s dance with a snake. It’s damn sexy, and Rodriguez doesn’t rush it.

A few months ago I watched Desperado for the first time in about a decade, and I was astonished by the violence—I had really forgotten how long the gun-battles were, and how much blood was spilled. Duly re-prepared, I wasn’t shocked by the violence of FDTD: it’s also so very over-the-top, with ligaments spilling out of amputated legs and exploding eyeballs, that it’s hard to take it too seriously. (Rodriguez even pokes fun at our lust for violence in a hilarious newscast segment.) Having said that: this isn’t a kid’s movie.

Nor is it particularly quotable on a family-friendly blog. My list of quotes contain only two that don’t involve a hefty dose of obscenity: “I grind my teeth” and “Lap-dog of Satan.” So just trust me when I say that the dialogue is Tarantino-style funny, which is, I think, hilarious. The secondary characters are equally interesting: Tom Savini’s Sex Machine, and his wryly-placed semi-automatic weapon, is endearingly useful; Fred Williamson’s Frost does a great Vietnam mime show; and Cheech Marin effectively guards three different borders with his usual dopey panache.

I’m not a huge fan of cheesy movies with tacky plots and hokey dialogue. FDTD has all the potential to be silly, but by alternating between tongue-in-cheek and downright serious, it really rises above whatever descriptors we might give it.

Four out of four lap-dogs of Satan.

Josie Kafka is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)

1 comment:

GreenHornet said...

I have to say, I'm not really all that big on the Vamp-ish; it's a great theme, dramatic element, and gateway to so many directions, but in and of itself doesn't spark that much for me. Love some of the shows with vamps, but they're neither my biggest draw nor dread. Though that's probably just the bag (or silk-lined coffin) I'm in. But dang, I'm glad you reviewed this flick, Josie! I haven't thought about it in some time, and it was nice to revisit it, and in good company.

One of the odd things I noticed in meself at the time I first saw it was, how I felt almost RELIEVED once the vamp half of the story kicked in (nice explication of that bifurcation, BTW). I mean, Richie was really wigging me out, and Seth was in a certain way as bad, since he was nice and reasonable (and ok, GEORGE), and yet still would kill without hesitation etc. Shows you how important these supernatural-themed tales really are I guess (pace my disavowal above), since it's so painful encountering the real-life monsters in films about errrrr, real life. Not that RR and company haven't upped the exaggeration ante about that sick character, but no one would have any trouble finding and exceeding it with real-life examples if they wanted.

So the question I leave the movie with is, unsurprisingly: which monsters would ya rather tangle with? And me, I think I'll stick with the Twister, every time.

(Nice final pan before credits, too -- Aztec or similar ruins? Hokey smoke!)