FROM DUSK TILL DAWN: I’m a Mean Motherf*ckin’ Servant of God

From Dusk till Dawn (1996) – Directed by Robert Rodriguez – Starring George Clooney, Quentin Tarantino, Harvey Keitel, Juliette Lewis, Ernest Liu, Salma Hayek, Cheech Marin, Danny Trejo, Tom Savini, Fred Williamson, Michael Parks, John Saxon, Kelly Preston, and John Hawkes.

FROM DUSK TILL DAWN is a collaboration between Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez; Tarantino wrote the script, Rodriguez directs the script, and Tarantino acts in the script. DUSK is really two movies mashed together, the Tarantino opening setting up the Rodriguez closing, and it’s a clear first run for their Grindhouse project a decade later.

In the first half of the film, we focus on Seth (George Clooney) and Richie (Tarantino) Gecko’s run from the law. Seth is the cool bad-ass and Richie is the disturbed psychotic; the former kills only when necessary and the latter kills whenever he can. Both Clooney and Tarantino are fantastic as the brothers; while his status as an international movie star is now a given, DUSK was the film that proved Clooney could transition off the ER set and become a movie star. He’s electric as Seth, playing the cool customer who’s got the simmering anger waiting to explode beneath the surface.

We first see the brothers in action in a crummy roadside liquor store, operated by John Hawkes and visited by Texas Ranger Earl McGraw (Michael Parks, who also appears in Kill Bill and Planet Terror as the Ranger). The brothers are hiding in the back, keeping hostages close and mouths shut, but Richie kills McGraw with a bullet in the back of his head. Seth is furious, but Richie insists that he saw the cashier mouthing help to the Ranger. We know this is false, and Seth has to know this is false, but this is the lot he’s drawn so he ends up blowing up the liquor store before heading to Mexico.

They entered the store to get a map, and ended up in a bloodbath, which is the S.O.P. they follow for the rest of the film. They get a hotel room in order to contact their handler that guarantees a place for them in Mexico, and Richie ends up raping and killing their hostage. They kidnap Jacob and his two kids, Scott and Kate (Harvey Keitel, Ernest Liu, and Juliette Lewis) because they’ve got an RV that Seth is convinced can help get them across the border, and then when they stop at the Titty Twister bar to wait for their contact, a vampire massacre breaks out.

It’s the second half of the movie that most people remember, of course (I was a bit surprised when I watched DUSK again the other night that the Tarantino half of the movie takes an entire 45 minutes to work through), because this is where all the blood and killing and dancing Salma Hayek happens, but it’s the first-half of the movie that’s more enjoyable for me to watch. If Tarantino is remembered for only one thing when he’s done making movies, it will be his dialogue. While there’s nothing as memorable here as Pulp Fiction, or as cool as Kill Bill, or as intense as Inglorious Basterds, Tarantino knows how to play characters off of one another. When the Gecko brothers first encounter Jacob’s family, Seth wants to know what relationship Jacob and Scott have, asking, “What’s the story with you two, you a couple of fags?”

Jacob answers, “He’s my son.”

“How’s that happen? You don’t look Japanese.”

“Neither does he. He looks Chinese.”

“Well, excuse me all to hell.”

There’s a real unbalanced relationship between the five traveling companions that’s driven by Clooney and Keitel; Seth comes off as a likable guy, but one that’s never far from violence. He wants everyone to get along because he’s in a good mood, but Jacob stakes out his own ground in order to protect his kids. Seth is protective of the kids, too, knowing that Richie’s interest in Kate isn’t one of captor and hostage, but while he keeps Richie in check, he also lets Jacob know that he can unleash Richie if Jacob doesn’t do what he wants.

Juliette Lewis and Ernest Liu are good as Kate and Scott as two kids who obviously love their father but are also intrigued by Seth’s lawlessness. When Seth demands that everyone drinks with him, Scott and Kate are hesitant at first but willing to knock a few back. The scene works because Seth and Jacob, seated next to each other, are clearly battling for control. “Are you so much of a f*cking loser that you can’t tell when you’ve won,” Jacob asks. Seth flips, but Jacob is right and Seth knows it.

At the Titty Twister, the tone shifts from Tarantino’s slow burn to Rodriguez’s splatter revelry. A bunch of Rodriguez regulars make an appearance (Danny Trejo, Cheech Marin, Hayek), Tom Savini and Fred Williamson are tossed into the mix, and after a non-strip table dance from Sat├ínico Pandemonium (Hayek), it’s all vampire killing until the end. All of the vamp splatter is good fun, as each of the participants falls in turn, until we’re left with Seth, Jacob, Kate, and Scott.

Jacob is bit and he forces his kids to promise him they’ll kill him once he starts to turn. They don’t want to do it, of course, but he insists that he won’t be their father any more, but rather, “I’ll be a lap dog of Satan.” The final run through the vamps is a good shootout that sees Jacob turn lapdog, Scott get devoured, and only Kate and Seth survive. Kate lets Seth know that she’s available to go with him, but Seth tells her no, that El Ray is too rough a town for her. “I may be a bastard, Kate,” he insists, “but I’m not a f*cking bastard. Go home.”

As Seth and Kate drive away in separate directions, the camera pulls back to reveal that the Titty Twister was located atop an old Aztec temple, hidden and buried but still very much active.

There’s nothing legendary about FROM DUSK TIL DAWN and I can see why people would get frustrated with a film like this; Tarantino and Rodriguez are so talented that it could seem a bit odd that they’d combine their talents for a splatterfest, but it’s movies like DUSK that provide such an insightful key to their more respected and beloved works. Tarantino and Rodriguez love the entertainment aspect of movies more than the literariness of movies; they’re no more right, of course, than those who favor the other side of the coin, but neither of these men are ever all that interested in the deeper questions of life, the universe, and everything. They’re more interested in people trying to get through the day and past the obstacle in front of them.

Tucked between Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown, between Desperado and The Faculty, (forgetting the forgotten Four Rooms, in which each directed one of the four sequences) DUSK doesn’t hold a candle to the films that come around it, but it’s still an enjoyable romp.

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