Robert Rodriguez’s “From Dusk Til Dawn” opens with the criminal Gecko brothers (George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino) destroying a convenience store and slaughtering those unlucky enough to run into them.
As the store burns to the ground and a man screams in agony, the Gecko brothers never waver in their hip, profane banter. They seem entirely detached from the chaos they just inflicted, both the no-longer-alive supporting characters and us, the audience.
Later, they take a fallen preacher (Harvey Keitel) and his two kids (Juliette Lewis and Ernest Liu) hostage, set off in a Winnebago and find far more than just the authorities after them.
Even without the reference to “Kahuna Burgers,” this is clearly Tarantino’s cinematic universe, a world where the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s and ’90s are all happening simultaneously. Based on a very-early Tarantino screenplay that became a hot commodity post-“Pulp Fiction” and directed by a post-“Desperado” Rodriguez, the filmmaker wild cards were at the height of their fame when they made this 1996 thriller.
Clooney is excellent and Fred Williamson is so cool and confident, he manages to be at home, completely get the tone and not seem at all out of place. Lewis is effortlessly natural and Keitel is miscast but good anyway.
Tom Savini and Greg Nicotero, two movie make-up giants, have a wordless, jocular battle; its not De Niro and Pacino in “Heat” but Fangoria subscribers will likely be thrilled.
Make-up effects wizards Robert Kurtzman, Nicotero and Howard Berger do rock star work. The make-up is great and holds up far better than the hit and mostly miss CGI.
There’s an “Of Mice and Men” dynamic between the Gecko brothers; they are by turns racist, perverse and unpleasant, with psychotic tempers just waiting to be ignited.
The most interesting thing about Tarantino’s character is the man playing him.
The “Pulp Fiction” director is playing a gun-toting, foul-mouthed, violence prone pervert. The casting is too obvious, and all the evidence we need why Tarantino was typecast in movies like these.
He never had a character actor career outside of projects like these or “Alias.”
Tarantino plays a disgusting thug with a fetish for Lewis’ toes and everything else, an especially uncomfortable touch – even though this is decades before everything we found out about Harvey Weinstein, the dashes of a misogynistic male gaze aren’t hip but ugly. Defending these moments as character building don’t feel entirely honest.
Rodriguez’s film felt like too much in 1996, and it still does. It’s certainly tense but also regularly off-putting. It tests audience tolerance early (the Peckinpah-like violence of the first is horrifying and not diffused by gallows humor).
Undoubtedly, the goodwill of “Pulp Fiction” and Tarantino’s pop culture emergence convinces the audience to not give up entirely, though only the most forgiving will proclaim it a career hallmark. Truthfully, Tarantino’s “True Romance” screenplay, and the glossy treatment it received in 1993, is also rough but far better at developing character, building a story and giving out dollops of memorable dialog.
Once the movie arrives at a massive, gaudily decorated and visibly unsanitary strip joint called “The You-Know-What Twister,” any semblance of good taste and wit above a frat boy level goes up in smoke (speaking of which, Cheech Marin’s gleefully vulgar and gratuitous monolog is the film’s Last Chance Before Exiting moment for anyone deeply offended so far).
Sporting “Sleaze Tequila” (a little on the nose) and “For Bikers and Truckers Only” Patrons, this portion of the film is either rock bottom or, if you’re a member of the cult following, when the movie gets really good. I give this film another let’s-see-if-it-gets-better-over-time screening every few years and have to admit: “From Dusk ‘Til Dawn” isn’t edgy, it’s smarmy.
At exactly the one-hour mark, things go in a bonkers, possibly unexpected direction. The intention was apparently “The Wild Bunch” meets, well, a different sort of genre.
I won’t ruin it, and neither should anyone else.
Nathan, my high school buddy, saw this movie without catching the hideously spoiler-heavy trailer. He spotted it wandering through the mall, noticed on the poster that it was a movie with a new Tarantino screenplay and was blown away by the big reveal of the second act.
If you don’t see it coming (and really, you should, as nothing here is remotely subtle), it is a wild change of expectation, if not mood.
Rodriguez proved to be dazzling at staging shoot-ups and chases in “El Mariachi” and “Desperado.” Here, he’s great with individual moments but he’s not an action movie director.
While made with showmanship, only the grand finale is as gross and exhilarating as this needed to be. Mostly, it’s just numbing.
“From Dusk ‘Til Dawn” ends on a reveal so cool, it spawned sequels, a making-of documentary and a TV series: I went to an Alamo Drafthouse screening of the pilot, which I disliked, but devoured the special “Mexican Milkshake” on the menu, which was sublime.
I don’t mean to step on any toes, or any other dismembered body parts. I get that this has a major cult following and I certainly get it: if gore, debauchery, detached humor and a cheap thrill sick kick is what you’re after, there is sick “fun” to be had here.
Tarantino’s best screenplays (ranging from “Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood,” “Inglourious Basterds” and “Death Proof”) aren’t just brutal, pop culture-infused comedies but brilliant. Tarantino is a caustic, confrontational, smarty-pants provocateur and denying his place in cinema history is delusional, but so is calling “From Dusk Til Dawn” a great movie.
“From Dusk Till Dawn” is a good attempt at the TKO the Rodriguez/Tarantino collaboration “Grindhouse” would be in 2007.
Tarantino and Rodriguez clearly adore the drive-in movie aesthetic, but they both did this better a decade later: instead of revisiting the aforementioned Twister, simply set aside the time to watch the entire “Grindhouse,” which make the Gecko brothers look like a warm up act for the main event.