From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)

D: Robert Rodriguez
S: Harvey Keitel, George Clooney, Quentin Tarantino, Juliet Lewis

To say From Dusk Till Dawn is a violent film is no more insightful than to observe that violence exists. To say it has no redeeming features is to make a judgment based on a personal reaction. To ban the film on these bases smacks of totalitarianism. Nonetheless the Irish Film Censor saw fit to keep this from all but the eyes of those lucky enough to secure a ticket for the Dublin Film Festival screening. Not that it was really worth that much effort, or that much hysteria on the part of the censor. The film is finally an enjoyable, self-indulgent postmodern pastiche so loaded with wannabe cultisms that it was always destined for devotion from legions of diehard film fetishists who would inevitably scour the face of the earth to find a copy once anyone in authority said a mean word about it. In banning it, the censor has merely elevated it to the status of a motion picture martyr, adding notoriety to its obvious bag of tricks. Yes, it is violent, and it is ultimately a shallow rehash of familiar generic ingredients and themes. But it is certainly no more violent than the average action film and no more shallow than any work of postmodernist art, though the tongue-in-cheek amorality and the gloopy make-up effects make it a bit more visceral. It is certainly more upmarket than some of the low-budget eighties flicks of which it is highly reminiscent (it is practically a remake of Vamp with gangsters instead of teenage sex comedy as the generic hook), and comes close to having enough style to pull of the delicate balancing act of making the ridiculous seem sublime (but doesn't quite make it). But at the end of the day; it's only a movie, Ingrid, so why get excited?

The plot follows the disjointed adventures of two murderous brothers (Clooney and Tarantino) on the run following a bank heist. They kidnap faithless preacher Keitel, his family and his RV, then head south of the border. Here the movie takes an abrupt turn from black comic heist into slapstick grand guignol as the sleazy Mexican bar where they plan to meet a criminal contact turns out to be a vampire lair. Though the film has been casually violent and occasionally gross to this point, it is at this moment that things get messy. If the presence of makeup artist Tom Savini among the clientele at the bar does not trigger chuckles of recognition, then it may take you by surprise. It's Dawn of the Dead meets Tex Avery, and you'd better find a way to orient yourself to the material or you'll find yourself repulsed or gob-smacked.

Robert Rodriguez directs the film with energy and style, but is a shade too concerned with affect to draw convincing characters from Tarantino's paper-thin script. The opening scenes are marvellous, and promise great things to come. The brothers face off against a Texas Ranger and a convenience store clerk in a John Woo/El Mariachi shoot-out which ends with a tremendous explosion and the title card. But it actually never gets any deeper and we learn nothing more about these characters from one end to the next. We simply follow their bloody trail to its natural end and conclude that they're no Butch and Sundance, or even Abbot and Costello.

Clooney is all bustle as the fast-talking antihero, but never really comes alive beyond no-shit one-liners and fast, violent reactions to everything he touches. As his brother, Tarantino has little depth as a performer and fails to imbue his psychotic pervert with the kind of twisted likability necessary to make him both sympathetic and frightening in the manner of Norman Bates or Hannibal Lecter. Keitel (who receives first billing) seems to be taking his part quite seriously, and does okay, but he operates in a low key which saps the pace. The most enjoyable performances come from the supporting cast, clearly drawn to the project as much for fun as for self-reflexivity. Tom Savini is hilarious as the delightfully named Sex Machine, Fred Williamson parodies the blaxploitation characters of Tarantino's youth with aplomb and Cheech Marin has his best roles in years as three different characters, including a foul-mouthed doorman.

The film is so replete with self-referential gags and asides that despite the organising presence of Rodriguez and the story credit for make-up designer Robert Kurtzman, the film belongs in Tarantino's canon. At the very least it represents a meeting of minds; a nexus of postmodern movie brats fully versed in the intricacies of good moments from bad movies, and with enough clout to raise a budget. So for those for whom the film represents a moral threat, it must bode badly for the future of cinema and hearken a return to the dark ages of censorial scissor-waving. For those raised on much the same kind of material as the makers, it must be a pinnacle of sorts, especially given its noted lack of authoritative approval. But it's really much ado about nothing, and should be seen strictly without expectation either way. With a bit more discipline, the script could possibly have been tweaked into something sneakily effective, but that may have hurt its sense of fun, and it is a heartfelt desire to have a good time making the movie which seems to have driven its makers. Of course, this is not always a recipe for success (Alex Cox's ill-fated Straight to Hell leaps to mind), but is usually works on the cult circuit. So I guess the irony (which may be the intention) of the film is that it is likely to inspire future generations of similarly crap-happy would-be directors to have a go at that idea they had that one night when they were drunk and rented out some godawful film from the local video store... "it's like this you see, there's these cowboys and these vampires..."

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1997.