Thursday, May 5, 2011

'From Dusk Till Dawn' is one of Tarantino & Rodriguez's best

From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)
Starring: George Clooney, Harvey Keitel, Juliette Lewis, Quentin Tarantino, Ernest Liu, Salma Hayek, Tom Savini, Fred Williamson, and Cheech Marin
Directors: Robert Rodriguez
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

Professional criminals Seth Gecko (Clooney) and Richard Gecko (Tarantino) take a family hostage (including Keitel, Lewis, and Liu) and flee to Mexico following a robbery gone bad. Here, they take temporary refuge in an isolated strip club until they can meet up with their contact. But the club harbors are dark secret, and the Gecko Brothers and their hostages must work together if they are to survive the night.

There are a rare few movies that take as sharp, surprising, and, frankly, genre-hopping plot turns as "From Dusk Till Dawn" and not lose control and explode into a fiery wreckage. Even fewer do it as effectively as is done here, as, for the most part, they have no re-watch value, because the main point of the film is the sudden change in plot direction and once you've experienced it, there's no reason to go back.

But "From Dusk Till Dawn" is so jam-packed with action and grim humor that it's worth coming back to every few years; you will either find something in it that you missed the first time around, or there is simply so much going on that you only remembered the highlights.

The film succeeds first and foremost because of its strong script. Quentin Tarantino's writing has never been as good as it is here... maybe he should try writing a few more linear screenplays every now and then so he can focus on character and dialogue instead of trying to be clever. Nothing he has written before or since has so many funny lines and really well done black humor; like some of the best moments in "Pulp Fiction", you will find yourself laughing so hard you'll tear up, even if you know you shouldn't be laughing at the gory, nasty action unfolding before you.

Secondly, the direction from Robert Rodriquez is rock solid at every stage of the film's unpredictable course from the opening to closing credits. The first half is a tense, border-line psychological thriller about violent killers on the edge and innocent victims trapped in their grasp. The acting is solid and the cinematic approach is intimate in the way scenes are filmed. We can feel the emotional and physical threats that the various characters pose to one another, and we know that whatever will unfold in the hijacked RV, it's not going to end well.

But there's no way we can predict exactly how badly and strangely things are going to end, because the first half of the movie gives no hint whatsoever what is to come...

And Rodriquez not only manages the transition from thriller to gory and over-the-top violent horror movie monster fest, but he does so with such efficiency and style that the viewers are startled and surprised by the sudden genre change, but we are not confused or put off by it. We all have a "what the hell just happened?!" moment, but Rodriguez is in such tight control of his movie that even as the story explodes into complete and utter mayhem, he never loses our attention for a moment. In fact, the shock only pulls us tighter in. And, of course, his control is bolstered by the exceptionally well-crafted script from Tarantino.

Finally, there is the acting. Every performer in this film may be portraying stereotypical characters, but they do it with great conviction and zest. Every actor in the film brought their A-game to the shoot, and every character seems fully alive on the screen. Clooney is fantastic as the handsome but dangerous hood with a (small) heart; Tarantino is great as the whiny but crazy hood; Lewis rocks as the rebellious teenager who doesn't comprehend the danger she's in; and Keitel excels as the concerned and deeply religious father who just wants to get himself and his kids out of the situation alive. (Keitel is perhaps gives the most admirable performance of all, because it is unlike almost everything else I've seen him do.}

The supporting cast is equally superb in their performances, with Salma Hayek leading the pack as the strip club's main attraction--a stripper whose act involves a boa snake and other twisted elements--as she manages to be very sexy and very menacing, at the same time on occasion. Tom Savini, Fred Williamson, and Danny Trejo stand out as a pair of outlaw bikers that join the Geckos in their desperate attempt to survive the night, while B-movie mainstays Cheech Marin and John Saxon also appear in small but memorable roles, due to their good performances.

"From Dusk Till Dawn" is a film that succeeds on every level. If you have a taste for trashy entertainment and don't mind gore, it's a film that you absolutely must see. (And if you're reading these words and haven't seen it yet, you shouldn't waste another minute. Rent or buy it NOW!)


borky said...

Steve, I remember over a decade ago stumbling across this film on British cable in the early hours of the morning.

I knew nothing about it, but me and me brother, and me son aged seven and me daughter aged four, all found ourselves engrossed by it, wondering what the hell was going on.

It kept taking all these mad swerves, with vacational vehicle driver Harvey Keitel suddenly being revealed as the parent of a white girl and a Chinese boy, then as some sort of religious figure who's lost his faith, then as suicidal.

Then all of a sudden Clooney and Tarantino turn up, it becomes apparent their criminals on the run, that Tarantino's an Of Mice And Men retard in some way, then that he's a killer, then a psychotic serial killer, then that Clooney despises him but feels obliged to protect him because he's his brother.

And even while you're still trying to keep a handle on all this, they finally evade the police, cross the Mexican border and arrive at the titty bar...

I couldn't believe what happened next, the way everything kept ramping up until suddenly there where vampires everywhere.

The bit that had us all shrieking with laughter and my kids pissing themselves over it for weeks afterwards was the scene where the Hispanic guy wags his finger at someone who's trying to pick a fight and suddenly reveals his codpiece is a miniature cannon capable of blowing his head off!


Fritz "Doc" Freakenstein said...

Steve, you are obviously a man of refined film tastes, as your admiration of From Dusk ‘Til Dawn indicates!

Robert Rodriguez has been one of my favorite filmmakers since Desperado. All the things that Rodriguez finds entertaining about films are also some of my favorite things. From Dusk ‘Til Dawn was my favorite film by him, until I saw Planet Terror – the first half of Grindhouse. This has all the elements of From Dusk ‘Till Dawn – only replacing the vampires with zombies – but has a much tighter script than the Tarantino-penned FDTD.

I will agree with you that this is Tarantino’s best screenplay, because he doesn’t indulge in the long dialogue-heavy sequences as much as his self-directed films. Still, some of the creepier moments of the film – particularly the scenes involving Richard Gecko played by Tarantino - have Tarantino written all over them.

I agree with you that Harvey Keitel is the best actor in From Dusk ‘Til Dawn and his character carries the most emotional weight of the film. My favorite supporting character(s) of the film is Cheech Marin, who plays three different characters. The funniest scene in the film is when Cheech plays Chet Pussy, who stands outside the Titty Bar advertising all the varieties of “Pussy” that can be seen at the establishment. This is even funnier if you’ve seen Marin’s film Born In East L.A., where he has a similar job outside of a strip club in Mexico in that film.

I also agree that From Dusk ‘Till Dawn is indeed a film “worth coming back to every few years”. Every time I watch it, I find some funny in-joke, or see some obscure character actor that I missed the first several times I watched it. I also really enjoyed Rodriguez’ Machete, which shares some of the sensibilities of From Dusk ‘Till Dawn, Terror Planet and many of his other films.

borky said...

Steve, since reading and commenting on this piece, yesterday, I've found myself dwelling on it more.

The bit you said which stuck in my mind was you can't see any of the second half of the film coming - and you're right!

In fact, it's almost true to say, even during the second half, (second film?), you can't for sure actually see the last quarter coming.

Yet the more I reviewed the first half over and over in my head, the more I began to notice certain themes hinting at what's to come.

I'm not so much referring to obvious stuff like Keitel's holy man who's lost his faith, but more subtle clues like the journey him and his kids've embarked on seemingly being a response to his wife/their mother dying.

Then there's the fact Keitel's character wants to die; add to which Clooney and Tarantino's advent as agents of death; then the fact Clooney, no matter how reluctantly, can kill anyone at the drop of the hat, yet the one person in the world he really wants to put down - his bro' - both because he deserves it but also because he's a major liability, he can't bring himself to.

But even having identified the fact Keitel and his kids, thanks to Mom dying're haunted by Death, as in a more obvious way're Clooney and Tarantino, (though in a diametrically opposed fashion), I still felt I was missing something, something to do with the function of Keitel's vacational vehicle, something about it which reminded me of something else...

Then it hit me - its function as an ordinary everyday vehicle which was about to transport them to the land of the dead was identical to all those old Hammer films which used props like elevators or railway carriages as devices to unfold tales about people who haven't yet realised they've already plunged to their doom.

Steve Miller, Writer of Stuff said...

Borky: Those are some great insights into the film. Thanks for taking the time to post them.

Doc: I thought "Planet of Terror" was the best thing about "Grindhouse" (other than the hilarious Nicholas Cage as Fu Manchu mock preview... THAT's the film I want to see, screw "Hobo with a Shotgun!"), but I think I enjoy "Dusk" more. "Planet" was amusing because it plays on one level as a spoof of zombie movies, but the only real surprises in it was how far over the top it goes. That's not to say it wasn't entertaining as all get-out! For the life of me, I'll never know why so many critics seemed to prefer the badly constructed Tarantino segment ("Death Car"? I forget its name at the moment).

Fritz "Doc" Freakenstein said...

Tarantino is still the critics’ darling, who continues to ride the coattails of his success with Pulp Fiction. I have a love/hate relationship with Tarantino the director/writer. I love his dedicated admiration of the b-movie/exploitation genre films. I really enjoy his development of character archetypes and the way he allows scenes to take their time to develop. However, Tarantino continues to overindulge in protracted sequences of dialog-heavy character interplay. Death Proof is guilty of this more than even his craptastic Kill Bill, Part 2. Oddly, the more I watch Death Proof (I’ve now watched the short “Grindhouse” version twice and the “extended and unrated” version once) the more I like it. Kurt Russell’s transformation from cold-blooded killer to hysterical, frightened victim is amazing. Yes, the hot chicks and badass muscle cars certainly help make Death Proof rewatchable too!