Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez were brought up with similar tastes in film, influenced by the kind of cheap, tacky grindhouse junk that often played at their local movie theater. While this exposure to underground cinema changed the styles of both filmmakers, it manifested itself in different ways. Tarantino took this influence and used it to make improved, updated versions of the violent, exploitative movies of his childhood. Rodriguez, on the other hand, decided to add to the genre instead of updating it. He produced films like El Mariachi and Planet Terror that were just as violent and sexually exploitative as the movies he grew up watching. 1996’s From Dusk Till Dawn is a valiant effort to connect the skills and passions of both filmmakers, with Tarantino as writer and Rodriguez as director and editor. The question now becomes, can you combine a style that pays homage to an underground cinema with a style that just is underground cinema?
The film begins in Tarantino-land; a duo of criminal brothers has forced a family of three to drive them across the Mexican border at gunpoint. Being told to meet their contact at an infamous strip club, the brothers and their hostages settle down to wait till dawn. However, their drinking and revelry are stopped by the revelation that the staff and most of the occupants are homicidal vampires. From here, the film becomes a Rodriguez action movie where the brothers and family must survive until dawn.
Tarantino fans will likely enjoy the first half of the film much more than the second. Even then, they will find the mixing of artistic styles on display dissonant. Tarantino often directs his dialogue in a way which emphasizes power dynamic within the scene, framing conversations in which each person has a goal they are trying to attain through words. His direction invites the audience to insert themselves into the conversation to determine the relationships between the characters and, therefore, understand their actions. Rodriguez, however, has a technical style which doesn’t allow for the viewer to engage. His shot framing and editing are set up to display the conversation to the audience, rather than inviting them to participate to get the full experience.
However, the quality of the writing manages to shine through. The dialogue is still fun to listen to, and the characters are engaging. The Gecko brothers are written with the sense that they are meant to be simultaneously feared and pitied. Their behavior shows desensitization to violence and cruelty that is shown to affect their interactions with other people drastically. Seth (George Clooney) seems to think he’s the most charming man in the room and everyone is mesmerized by him. He can’t see that everybody around him other than his brother Richie (Tarantino) is terrified of him. Richie, on the other hand, has schizophrenia and whose violent life and perverted sexual tastes have thoroughly damaged his already unstable psyche.
The adult cast does an admirable job portraying their characters. Harvey Keitel shows a quiet toughness as a faithless preacher. Tarantino surprises by delivering the strongest performance as Richie. While Clooney seems to be on autopilot with his suave, magnetic cool that has served him well in other films, it still works for the character of Seth. The child actors, however, are less than stellar. Juliette Lewis is just ok as the daughter, but Ernest Liu is awful as the son.
The second half of the film shows off an impressive array of special effects. The prosthetics for the vampires is appropriately disgusting, the blood spatter is over-the-top in a good way, and the way the monsters explode is grotesquely satisfying. The improvised weapons the characters use to fight the vampires are creative and hilariously vulgar.
The most exciting element of the film, however, is Tarantino’s contemplation on the existence and power of God. To defeat the vampires, our protagonists use Keitel’s preacher to bless their weapons with holy water and carve crosses into their bullets. To do this, however, the preacher must place his faith wholly in God. This message is odd coming from Tarantino, who has professed that he doesn’t know what to think of God. Perhaps this contemplation was tossed in to make the fight fair and wasn’t reflective of Tarantino’s beliefs. Or maybe it was written at a time in Tarantino’s life when he was contemplating God and what faith meant to him. It’s an interesting discussion nonetheless, especially considering the arc of Jules Winnfield from Pulp Fiction just two years prior.
From Dusk Till Dawn Summary:
Whether you’ll like From Dusk Till Dawn will depend entirely on your tastes. It’s not a film for everybody, nor is it a movie that everybody needs to see. If you like grindhouse cinema, you’ll love it. If not, stay away.