From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)

Ok. So, as I said last night, we watched From Dusk Till Dawn. #19 on the Top 70 list. The screenplay was written by Quentin Tarantino (he acts in it too) and the film was directed by Robert Rodriguez. It opens with a Texas Ranger and a gas station store clerk chatting about the recent bank robbery/murders committed by Seth and Richie Gecko — George Clooney and Tarantino. Unbeknownst to the Ranger, the Gecko brothers are in the back of the very store and before we know it, the death toll has risen by two more.

Seth and Richie are making a mad dash for Mexico where they will fence their stolen millions and start life over again. As luck or fate would have it, Seth and Richie run into Jacob Fuller and his two children at a local motel. Jacob is a minister who has lost his faith because of the horrific death of his wife in a car accident and now he and his kids, Kate and Scott, are touring around Texas in their RV. Seth and Richie take the Fuller’s hostage and Jacob is charged with getting the RV across the border and to Seth and Richie’s rendezvous point.

(Why do gangsters always hold their gun sort of sideways like that? Tarantino looks very Tarantino.)

Seth and Jacob are both desperate men. But whereas Jacob can see Seth’s situation more clearly than Seth himself, Seth has entirely misread the kind of desperation that envelops Jacob. Seth’s desperation is simple, really. It is born from disappointment and guilt. It comes from Seth’s intense desire to leave his former life behind and his increasing disquiet over his brother Richie’s increasingly paranoid and uncontrollable behavior. Seth knows that there is something seriously wrong with Richie and only hopes they can make it to El Rey and their new lives before Richie snaps completely. But Jacob’s despair is of an entirely different order. As he explains to Kate, he still believes in God and Jesus but he cannot bring himself to love them. And although Jacob seems to acquies that this means he condemns himself to Hell, he can respond in no other way to the tragic loss of his wife. Although we might expect that Jacob wrestles with God to understand why his wife had to suffer and die, this Jacob refuses to wrestle and accepts his loss of faith with a grim quietness.

(Jacob with his shotgun cross. Kate has graduated to cross bow.)

(Jacob with his shotgun cross. Kate has graduated to cross bow.)

Seth reads this quietness as proof that Jacob has been cowed by his threats to kill Scott and Kate if he doesn’t cooperate but how wrong Seth is. Jacob isn’t cowed, he’s merely practical, even to the point of brutally honest and unflinching. Indeed, for my money, the most interesting interactions in the movie are between Seth and Jacob. For example, as they drive towards the border, Seth casually flips through Jacob’s wallet and quizzes him about his life. He discovers Jacob’s license for ministry and asks “So, is this a joke or are you the real McCoy?” to which Jacob slowly and quietly responds, “The real McCoy….” This response means much more to us, the audience, than it does to Seth because we know how complicated a response it truly is. Seth can only imagine two possibilities — either people believe in God or they don’t. Thus, anyone with a ministry license must either have one as a joke or they must be a real believer, and by “real McCoy” it’s clear that Seth imagines a sincere and earnest preacher. What Seth cannot imagine is a “real” minister that no longer ministers for the one he believes in. This scene is repeated again once the vampires have hit the stage and the group tries to devise a strategy to survive the onslaught. I won’t give it away, although it’s not hard to anticipate, but Seth tells Jacob that he has two choices: “So which are you? Are you a faithless preacher, or are you a mean motherfuckin’ servant of God?” Now, if I wrote the script, I’d dwell on the possibilities that these two scenes offer. Who’s right and who’s wrong? Seth’s question in the second scene returns back to his conceptualization of faith as being binary: to believe in God is to have faith — there is no such thing as a faithful preacher and love doesn’t particularly have anything to do with it. Seth imagines that faith is a matter of loyalty and fidelty and thus it’s possible to be “the real McCoy” and yet not have faith. That’s a meaty question but not one that the film takes up.

The first half of the movie feels very “Pulp Fictiony” to me. Even down to the way Richie (Tarantino) dresses. But once it becomes clear that the rendezvous point is really a vampire hangout, the film becomes pure Rodrigues. It’s certainly amusing and barrels through a whole number of vampire movie cliches (including, as with John Carpenter’s Vampires, the character who says “forget everything you know about vampires from movies!”) but it is completely incongruous to the first half of the film. Netflix tells us that Rodrigues “abruptly switches from hostage drama to tongue-in-cheek, vampiric melee” and that’s certainly true enough. There is a scene in which one of the bar patrons who has joined up with Seth and the Fullers to fight the vampires, explains his experience in “Nam” as any good war vet hard-ass should. And it’s funny to see the beautiful women dancing on the tables in the bar go from being objects of consumption for the leering truckers to literally consuming those same men. Netflix also reports that the film is a “blood-stained ode to 1960s Mexican horror movies.” That may be true but I haven’t seen any so I have no idea. I just wish that there had been a way to connect the humor and depth of the first half more securely to the second.

Harvey Keitel is completely awesome as Jacob and George Clooney is great at being George Clooney the Vampire Hunter. He’s still Clooney but totally the way I would imagine Clooney to be if he were a bank robber fleeing to Mexico and fighting for his life at a vampire bar. Quentin Tarantino is always funny — I wish he had stuck more to acting. Evidently there is both a sequel and a prequel to the movie, neither of which involve Tarantino or Rodriguez. I believe I will pass on those.

All in all, From Dusk Till Dawn was pretty fun. Definitely deserves a place on the list. Better than John Carpenter’s Vampires, in any case. I guess you just have to take each half on its own terms.