Film Reviews

Sodom south of the border

If Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino aren't careful, they'll risk overstaying their critical welcome even before they've had a chance to get really cozy.

Both directors' careers have followed arcs that quickly intersected: Each directed independent, critically lauded feature debuts (Rodriguez, his $8,000 miracle El Mariachi; Tarantino, the festival-circuit hit Reservoir Dogs), and followed them up with well-received, bigger-budget successes. About the time Rodriguez was making Desperado, his second film, he hooked up with Tarantino, who actually played a small role in it. Both took part in the disastrous anthology Four Rooms.

From Dusk Till Dawn is their third collaboration of sorts, with Rodriguez directing, Tarantino writing and acting, and both producing. If it weren't such insignificant, derivative fun, you might grow weary of these increasingly one-note cinematic cowboys thinking they can get away with showing us the same stunts over and over again. Thank heaven they do it so damned well.

Rodriguez and Tarantino are known for their gut-wrenching, visceral, almost cartoonish fascination with violence, and the opening salvo of From Dusk Till Dawn is no exception. The first scene takes place in a desolate liquor store along the interstate which soon becomes a firestorm of thunderous gunplay. The Gecko brothers--comparatively levelheaded fugitive Seth (George Clooney) and the erratic, homicidal Richie (Tarantino)--rob a bank in Amarillo and head south to Mexico where they expect to live in comfort. They shoot up or burn down everything (and everyone) in sight--including the liquor store--and leave a wake of destruction like Mickey and Mallory from Natural Born Killers, another Tarantino-penned exercise in bloodletting. In order to cross the border unnoticed, the Geckos hide out in a hijacked Winnebago, driven by Jacob Fuller (Harvey Keitel) and his two children (Juliette Lewis and Ernest Liu).

It takes the first half of the movie for the Geckos just to make it to their rendezvous point--a seedy all-night Mexican biker bar called the Titty Twister--and until then, From Dusk Till Dawn is a witty crooks-on-the-lam action picture with some interesting subplots and characters. Jacob Fuller is a widowed ex-minister who has lost his faith since his wife's violent death. Keitel might not be the first person you'd think of casting in a quiet, sad role like this, but he's perfectly suited to it. His doleful performance brings out Jacob's strength of character and makes the subplot honest and not seem tacked on. The depths of Richie's psychosis are also explored in the early scenes, and Seth's frustration at Richie's behavior suggests a hidden morality underlying his own personality.

The second half of the film, though, is a classic example of style over substance. The Titty Twister isn't just some dive saloon, but the stomping ground for a colony of ravenous vampires. These vampires are not of the cloak-wearing, smooth-talking, European variety--the kind, the script reminds us, through which Peter Cushing used to stab stakes--but the gory, demonlike mutants that have all but taken monopoly control over the cinematic horror market. From this point on, subplots be damned: The story is single-mindedly concerned with having the Fullers and the Geckos battle it out with the walking undead.

It's a shame that Rodriguez and Tarantino barter off virtually all aspects of the film that enthrall us for a full hour and replace them with unbounded bloodshed; we lose the meat of the movie in exchange for the flesh. The decision is forgivable, though, if only because the vampire scenes have such a repulsive, heady energy. To say that From Dusk Till Dawn is not a movie for all tastes is an understatement of drastic proportions. The special effects are simply far beyond the merely grotesque and enter the sanctified realm of the truly repugnant.

The carnage is made all the more creepy by the strong undercurrent of black humor laced throughout the screenplay. Cheech Marin, playing a scatological carnival barker who sells sex as if it were newspapers on a street corner, scores the most points with his endless, explicit monologue.

The script isn't afraid to poke fun at itself, as it does by making one character's confessional about a foxhole in Vietnam seem completely comical. In that way, From Dusk Till Dawn seems to owe much of its style to the New Zealand cult favorite, Dead-Alive, but it also hews pretty closely to the paths pioneered by other recent horror films, like last year's underrated screamer, Demon Knight, and even Bram Stoker's Dracula.

Clooney, in his first post-"ER" feature role, proves himself to be a compelling action antihero. With his salt-and-pepper Caesar haircut, squinty glare, and snake tattoos, he seems mature yet wild, and oozes a menacing charm.

It naturally follows that Kate, the well-behaved teen-ager played by Lewis, would be drawn to Seth. Lewis has made a career out of playing variations of the same role: the ingnue attracted to dangerous losers. Since sucking on Robert De Niro's pedophilic thumb in Cape Fear, her characters have repeatedly shown the poor judgment of guests on the Jenny Jones show: girls who love men who treat them like two-dollar whores. With Woody Harrelson in Natural Born Killers, Brad Pitt in Kalifornia, Gary Oldman in Romeo Is Bleeding, and most recently Michael Wincott in Strange Days, Lewis' heroines perpetually associate with lowlifes who have poor hygiene habits.

What's noteworthy here is that Lewis brings a newness to the part that has long been lacking. Kate seems genuinely pious and devoted to her family, so when she accepts Seth's offer of a shot of whiskey, you can't tell whether she's tempted merely because she's surrounded by this Sodom south of the border, or if she has finally decided to stretch her wings à la Patty Hearst. It's a nice ambiguity--one of the few in the film's second act.

The biggest distraction is the performance by Tarantino. In interviews, Tarantino has said he got involved in movies because he has wanted to be an actor since he was a little boy. He gave himself small parts in Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and Four Rooms, and has taken cameos in other directors' movies. Based on his performance here, he'd be well-advised to stick to writing and directing. With his Jay Leno-scale chin, weaselly lips, and high-slung forehead, he looks less like a serial rapist than he does some geeky college dropout. Add to that his whiny voice and mundane line-readings, and you'll wonder why Seth doesn't shoot him rather than the state troopers.

From Dusk Till Dawn doesn't get too hung up on the mythology of vampires; in fact, it pretty much makes up the rules as it goes along. How long does it take to become a vampire? That depends on who's bitten. How do you know they are dead? They burn up, or explode, depending on which looks coolest.

What "looks coolest," in fact, seems to be the sustaining principle behind Rodriguez's operatic work. From Dusk Till Dawn isn't classical Italian opera, though, but a horse opera--a seedy parable about life on the road, a morality play populated exclusively by amoral characters. There's no meaning to it, nothing but blood and butchery neatly packaged to be enjoyed and disgusted by. Rodriguez just wants to entertain you for a few hours; if you aren't entertained, well, don't say he didn't try.

From Dusk Till Dawn. Dimension Films. George Clooney, Harvey Keitel, Juliette Lewis, Quentin Tarantino. Written by Tarantino. Directed by Robert Rodriguez. Now showing.

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Arnold Wayne Jones