Sunday, September 18, 2011

Movies again: From Dusk till Dawn

I'm weighing in with this one a little late... about 15 years. Nevertheless, I saw Quintin Tarantino's From Dusk till Dawn yesterday for the first time.

I honestly can't remember the last time a movie raised my expectations so high and crashed them so low so quickly. Not even the soggiest ending has so disappointed me. And it was a new feeling. I wasn't mad, I didn't feel ripped off (particularly since I didn't pay to see it; a friend brought it over)... I felt sad.

Now, when my buddy showed up, he did say something about "vampires". But I quickly forgot that detail when I started watching the movie.

Starts off in a liquor store in the middle of nowhere. The bad guys, Tarantino and George Clooney (as brothers Richie and Seth Gecko, respectively), are introduced in an extremely clever and quite novel way. I was a little let down when the scene descended into over-the-top violence, but I reminded myself that, hey, this is Quintin Tarantino we're talking about. You can't have a scene about a guy going to the bathroom without a five-alarm homicide (see Pulp Fiction). So, okay, accept there's going to be a lot of gratuitous violence and weed the plot out as you go. That usually works with a Tarantino movie.

The goodies are Harvey Keitel, in an admirably low-key job portraying Jake, a recently-widowered preacher undergoing a deep crisis of faith, and his teenage kids, Kate (Juliette Lewis) and Scott (Ernest Liu), all on vacation in an RV. The set-up here is believable, with the blase conversation and arguments nicely underlining the emotional cap Jake has placed on himself.

The baddies and the goodies all wind up at the same motel, where Richie first demonstrates what an especially bad baddie he is by raping and killing their hostage when Seth makes the mistake of trusting him alone with her. Not long after, Richie and Seth break in on Jake and his family, insisting that the family will conduct them all safely across the Mexican border in the RV. Seth assures them that as long as they follow the rules, they'll be set free afterward. Initially, Jake flatly refuses, even offering to go with them alone, but he is forced to include the kids when Seth makes it plain they'll all die then and there otherwise.

On the road to Mexico, Jake and Seth get into a conversation that, while prickly, serves as the first inclination of a bond between the two men. Richie's attentions, meanwhile, are focused on Kate, which pleases neither of the other two men. The scene at the Mexican border is key. Scott urges his father to appeal to the Mexican guards for help, but Jake realizes the likely outcome of that and gambles that playing for time is the better move. When the guards become suspicious, quick thinking on the part of everyone saves the day, and raises the stock of the family with Seth.

Successfully in Mexico, Jake drives the RV to the rendezvous, a biker bar called "Titty Twister" with sign noting it is open from dusk till dawn. When an altercation at the bar between Seth and the bartender threatens to end in violence, Jake is the voice of reason and compromise who defuses the situation. Sitting at the table together, the five begin to drink, reluctantly at first, but then with a budding comradery. When Seth reveals that he intends to drain the whisky bottle and then break it over the head of a man who touched him, Jake takes a fantastic risk by asking Seth if he's a loser. When Seth demands an explanation, Jake points out that Seth must be a loser not to be able to appreciate all he's won. He has robbed and killed, escaped a huge dragnet across Texas, and has made it safe and clear in Mexico. When Seth realizes the wisdom of Jake's words, he insists that Jake, who has refused to drink with him, share a toast. The two men toast one another's families.

At this point, exactly the one hour mark, the movie ends. As far as I'm concerned, anyway. What should have followed hits the virtual cutting room floor, and what is spliced on is... some other movie, where the names and faces of the characters happen to be just the same.

First, there is a long, gratuitous, and surprisingly boring table dancing scene, so long and self-indulgent that it had me wondering which casting chair enjoyed the baloney-pony ride that clearly paid for it. It also made it clear that we had 75 minutes of plot that needed to be Hamburger Helpered over the 100 minute mark. Well, even that's okay; Tarantino's padding is usually interesting for dialog, at least, and quite often character development as well...

But then come the vampires. Turns out the bar is nothing but the vampire equivalent of a spider web. The rest of the movie is nothing more than the typical zombiefest of huge monster body counts, the slow but sure attrition of human characters, and the retreat to ever smaller rooms and ever more meager survival resources. Tarantino allows himself to ignore that he has spent over the first half of this movie creating a handful of intriguing characters we've come to care about, and pretty much turns them into Star Fleet red shirts who've beamed down on The Wrong Freakin' Planet™.

At the end, everyone's dead but Kate and Seth, and despite the fact that they've lost everyone else in their lives, and everything they've been through together, they basically just take off in different directions after Seth hands Kate a stack of money, as if that would mean anything to a teenage girl who's just lost her brother and surviving parent. I watched it to the end, just to see how disappointed I'd be. You can probably tell: palpably.

I can identify the movie I wish Tarantino had made; the movie I thought he was making around the time Seth and Jake were having their passive-aggressive conversation and I was starting to perk up thinking, "Damn! This is gonna be good! How did I miss this all these years?" That was the movie where they end up at the rendezvous in Mexico, Seth and Jake have learned to trust and even grudgingly admire a few things about one another, and either something goes wrong with the deal Seth's trying to make, or else Richie's intentions towards Kate clash with Seth's promise to let them go if they follow the rules, and in either case Seth has to make a choice between his principles and his love for his maladjusted brother. There's a scene in the movie where Seth has to kill vampire Richie, and he says he hopes he can give Richie the peace in death he couldn't find in life. Why couldn't Tarantino have given us that scene as the conclusion of a taut, razor's edge thriller where the fates of characters we've come to care about really matters? Where was the scene where Jake recovers his faith (and is it necessarily in God when he does get it back)? What was the point of having Jake in a crisis of faith at all, if all the movie needed was some joker who could turn tap water into holy water? Honestly, I have never seen such promising cinematic potential so gratuitously wasted. I suppose you could call Tarantino a genius for being able to build something that impressive and then burn it down himself, but don't ask me to applaud it.

This could have been something the calibre of Reservoir Dogs. Instead, when Mr. Blonde says, "Are you gonna bark all day, little doggie, or are you gonna bite?", Mr. White turns into a werewolf.

Yeah, exactly.

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