From Dusk Till Dawn

Certificate: 18
Running Time: 108 minutes
Director: Robert Rodriguez
Starring: Harvey Keitel, George Clooney, Quentin Tarantino
Genre: Crime, Drama, Horror
Country: USA

“Ok ramblers, let’s get rambling”.  Looking back over Quentin Tarantino’s back catalogue of cinematic offerings two films jumped up at me but were exempt from the microscope because he did not direct them.  In the review of Jackie Brown I had mentioned how he was made to be a better director when he was working with someone else’s source material and the same can be said about his writing.  Without doubt one of the best Tarantino films to date is the Tony Scott directed True Romance and glossing swiftly passed the issues on and off camera with Natural Born Killers the other crown jewel of his genre style of narrative writing is the Robert Rodriguez directed From Dusk Till Dawn.

When Richard Gecko (Tarantino) breaks his brother Seth (George Clooney) out of custody at a Texan courthouse it triggers a state wide manhunt and a violent dash towards the boarder and towards the safety of El Rey (which fans of The Getaway will recognise from the book but astonishingly from neither filmic adaptation) but the brothers troubles have only just begun when they hold up in a Mexican bar until dawn.

There’s a lot to be said about the days before viral marketing and the dominant arm of the internet, when I went into my first screening of From Dusk Till Dawn it was cold, free from spoilers...even plot understanding and the sudden appearance of *ahem* you know what almost an hour into what was, until then, a by-the-book crime drama was as astonishing, revolutionary and unforeseen as the death of Marion Crane in Psycho all those years ago.  Now it’s impossible to keep that secret but at the time it not only served as an excellent narrative twist but broke enough of the genre rules that it made it a dangerous film, all of a sudden the guarantee of the lead surviving (pretty much assured in most genre pieces) was off the table freeing up Rodriguez to have fun with his audience.

Tarantino’s script is incredibly strong, unusually modest and lacking in flash but it’s Rodriguez’s editing of what’s required to tell the story that’s the best thing about the writing.  Having read the script in it’s original form there’s a degree of relief that Tarantino (for some reason) gave this feature to his friend and fellow Exploitation fan to direct as the QT version of From Dusk Till Dawn would have been a lot more Richie-centric and unnaturally colourful in the linguistic department.  Likewise Rodriguez matches his matter of fact treatment of the screenplay with a similar style of shooting the film that allows it to just exists; there are one of two moments of stylistic before reaching Mexico, the use of “Superman” vision into the trunk of the car (as RR put it) and the Hitchcockian quick flashes of the grotesque mess Richie has made of the motel room (while Seth was away) but by and large he keeps it locked down until they reach the Titty-Twister and then really cut loose.  It was shortly after this movie that QT became more hands on with his camerawork and it’s working alongside Rodriguez that fans of his later work have to thank for that as Rodriguez is a one man film crew on his sets, a real whirlwind of creativity.  His love of film making is contagious and this is, post El Mariachi, his most infectious of films.

The casting of Harvey Keitel is a wonder stroke.  For the film to have tension you have to believe that the man being dominated could stand toe-to-toe with his captors and there is nobody more capable than the Bad Lieutenant himself.  It’s an odd performance from Harvey, he’s very unlike himself in that he’s  passive, uncommanding and unforceful as a person yet it falls perfectly into his sandbox as you always feel that he’s giving as ordered but he’s got more in reserve.  You get a glimpse of it when all hell breaks loose in the bar and it’s a delight to see.  He’s a safe pair of hands and working on screen with him raises not just Tarantino’s performance but also Clooney (who wouldn’t better this cinematic offering performance-wise until Three Kings).  Clooney (as Gecko the elder) is nothing short of brilliant.  At this point it’s only really E.R and some guest spots on Roseanne that are the stand out performances on his resume and at that he very much played the rolls under his brow but Rodriguez brings the animal out of him in From Dusk Til Dawn.  Not only is he calmly menacing on screen but he has a degree of charm that you know you can’t trust and it’s that quality that chills you about the role.  His humanity is only ever really showcased when dealing with the psychopathic younger brother and how he caringly (but forcefully) puts him in his place before tightening the leash in order to stop him from breaking what is left of Seth’s moral code.  Tarantino gives a good performance, certainly better than Reservoir Dogs in which he was a little “aware” of all around him and is at his best during his interplays with Kate (Juliette Lewis) who I never bought as young enough to be Keitel’s blossoming daughter but that’s neither here nor there.  Special thought held of for Cheech Marin who’s three performances in the film punctuate the narrative’s transition through the triadic structure beautifully which brings us to Miss Hayek...words fail and that's before we even get round to Fred Williamson...incredible.

The film boasts an excellent soundtrack, whether it’s Tito and Tarantula, ZZ Top or Jon Wayne and his Texas Funeral it’s effortlessly cool and a guaranteed delight to listen to.  It’s almost a character in it’s own right and you can certainly feel the influence of Quentin as it’s a veritable mixed tape of genres, styles, eras and matches both the script and direction perfectly. 

The most interesting thing about From Dusk Till Dawn is how both directors have, seemingly, forgotten it.  With the release of Grindhouse, Machete and Inglourious Basterds the pair have been almost striving to make the best modern day Explotation film possible not realising that they did it in 1996 without really trying.  From Dusk Till Dawn captures all that’s great about Exploitation cinema, genre cinema and film making in general.  Though there are moments were narratively holes appear and some of the logic is somewhat lacking it’s an engaging film because of how much pleasure those involved had making it.  The last great Exploitation movie??  Perhaps!


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