Monday, November 1, 2010

From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)

Watching this again now, having recently rewatched all of Tarantino's films, and having seen all (I think?) of Robert Rodriguez's, it seems pretty easy to pick out what belongs to which director. I mean, I know Tarantino is credited with the script and Rodriguez with the direction, but I wouldn't be surprised if the actual division of labor wasn't as clear-cut as the credits have it. Everything about the film's first half - until they cross into Mexico - feels like Tarantino, and everything about the second half feels like Rodriguez.

In fact, from this vantage point, From Dusk Till Dawn looks like nothing so much as the prototype for Grindhouse - if the order of the component flix in that were reversed. Here, in fact, the order makes a little more sense, with the Tarantino-esque long, slow buildup followed by the Rodriguezian carnival-like climax. I'm not sure which arrangement I find more satisfying, to tell the truth; this feels more natural, which might actually be an argument in favor of Grindhouse.

How does it stack up? The Tarantino elements aren't quite primo Tarantino. After Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, the two killers here feel a little tired. The idea is interesting - a twisted version of the classic criminal partnership, almost an Of Mice And Men thing - and it's fun to see both Clooney play against type. But their dialogue doesn't have anything like the juice of what Tarantino gave the criminals in his first two films. Even the de rigueur opening monologue, here given to Earl McGraw, is kind of dry.

But the Rodriguez half (if that's what it is), the vampire shootout, is amazing, as lubed-up and slobbering as the first half is desiccated. It's got sex (Salma Hayek's dance is one of the hottest ever committed on celluloid), violence (vampire massacrees that make your most lurid dreams come true), and even rock and roll (Tito and the Tarantulas: Los Lobos meets ZZ Top). Each element goes just a little farther than you'd expected, until the movie almost dissolves into a ripe pulpy mass. It's even got humor - Rodriguez's fearless vampire-killers, it turns out, have been taking notes from the kids in Lost Boys - you can draw a line from here to Spy Kids, it turns out.

Does it mean anything, or is it just good dirty fun? Consider how neatly the film breaks down into two tonally different halves, and how the border between them is the Border itself; consider the you-all-look-alike snark of having Cheech Marin play not one, not two, but three different roles in the second half of the fim; consider that we're following two hardened criminals and one apostate preacher down, down, down, until they land in a den of iniquity that turns out to be the lair of the devil's children... As far as this movie is concerned, Mexico is Hell - this is Tarantino and Rodriguez playing with, laughing at, and relishing the gringo's suspicion of his southern neighbors, no?

Then there's the curious detail of where Clooney and his brother think they're headed. El Rey. The King. Never defined: some mythical vision of safety for the criminal element, where they'll be forever beyond the reach of the law. Someplace to which Cheech - who we've already seen as the Border Guard and the tout at the mouth of the vampires' den - is going to guide them. Someplace so dangerous that Clooney thinks the preacher's daughter, who has just survived a battle with hundreds of vampires, won't survive there. If that's not ominous, I don't know what is.


(I want to run through all of Robert Rodriguez's movies someday, too, but I'm waiting for Roadracers to come out on DVD. I saw it once, ages ago, and loved it, but don't remember it well enough to write about.)

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