Character and point of view in the film From Dusk Till Dawn (dir. Robert Rodriguez 1996)
Dusk to Dawn has been criticised heavily because it starts out as a gangster movie and ends up in the vampire genre. It is however a remarkable film for the way the rounded characters retain their integrity despite the very genre switch that the critics find so upsetting.
The two central characters are the brothers Seth and Richie, two armed robbers fleeing to Mexico after a jail break and a bank robbery. Obviously they are "outside society" but when they get to Mexico they find themselves up against characters who are outside humanity. The stakes are raised to the point where the tensions established earlier in the film have to be resolved.
Instead of subordinating the character to action or the other way round, the two seem to be interdependent as Henry James's dictum has it "What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character?"
Seth and Richie defined in action
When the film opens in Benny's World of Liquor there is a conversation between Marshal McGraw and Benny, in which the Marshal is complaining of food poisoning and Benny says "Isn't there a law against retards serving food to the public?" This, in microcosm, is another story of the sick being dangerous before we even meet Richie. It is an analogy between characters albeit removed to a narrative within a narrative. The point explicitly stated that an idiot relative in the family business is "a cross to bear".
Seth (George Clooney) is stronger than Richie (Quentin Tarantino). He is a leader. He is a seasoned professional with a clear ethic of what robbers should and should not do. Richie is a deranged rapist but this is a weakness akin to a disability, and a brief switch in point of view tells us that his outbursts of extreme violence are probably his honest response to hallucinations.
When Seth and Richie are walking to their car having shot McGraw and Benny dead and with the liquor store burning and exploding behind them we learn that Richie was supposed to be keeping a low profile when he initially entered to buy a road map of Texas.
Their characters have been directly defined in action. Richie insisted that Benny had been mouthing "Help us" to the marshall, although from the audience's point of view this never happened. Seth's decisive completion of the necessary slaughter demonstrates his gangster professionalism although he makes it clear to Richie that he would have preferred to avoid the unnecessary mayhem.
Sharing a sick point of view
As they drive down the highway, a cinematic effect allows us to see the bound and gagged bank teller in the boot of the car from an omniscient point of view. Hostages serve Seth and Richie as helpers under coercion.
At the motel, Seth leaves Richie in charge of the hostage while he goes out for food. When he gets back, Richie has raped and mutilated the hostage. Ritchie is tucking into his burger in all innocence. "As soon as you were gone she turned into a different person".
Seth then loses his temper with Richie: "Do you think this is what I am?". The goal is El Ray in Mexico. Seth seems to be struggling to cope with Richie until they get to El Ray where everything will be all right.
Staying at the motel is Jacob (Harvey Keitel) with his son and teenage daughter. They are also outsiders. Jacob was a pastor all his life until a crisis of faith when his wife died in a particularly unpleasant car accident. Jacob is a leader. The reason he gives for leaving his job is that the congregation needs spiritual leadership which he feels unable to give.
When Seth and Richie kidnap Jacob and Scott, his son, in their hotel room, Jacob's teenage daughter Kate (Juliette Lewis) enters and in a tight head shot, from Richie's point of view, says "Richie. Would you do me a favour and eat my pussy for me, please." But, as Richie is stammering his reply, the next shot shows us that this never happened. Seth was telling him to "take the keys and pull the RV up out front". "Identifying narrators is one of the primary ways of naturalizing fiction".
The above example shows the validity of Genette formulating the questions of "who sees? -v- who speaks?". And "According to Booth, 'any sustained inside view, of whatever depth, temporarily turns the character whose mind is shown into a narrator' (1961, p. 164)."
Characters established in dynamic relationships
The relationship between Jacob and Seth begins as a conflict between a weak idealist leader and a strong materialist leader respectively. Of course Seth wins. Throughout the movie, Jacob has a hard enough time asserting his authority over his own son - possibly mirroring Seth's difficulty in controlling Richie. These relationships develop in a realistic way despite the plot becoming less realistic - creating scenes of bizarre poignancy in the midst of schlock horror.
The brotherly love between Seth and Richie is further tested when they are hiding in the bathroom of the mobile home while waiting to pass through Mexican border control. Richie chooses this time to argue with Seth about whether he is "a nut". They only avoid being discovered because Seth knocks Richie out and Kate manages to convince the border guard that she is alone in there. Meanwhile in the cab of the vehicle, Scott has been vainly arguing with his father that they should use the situation to inform the authorities of the situation.
Character status development in action
Having crossed the border and arrived at The Titty Twister, the barman refuses to serve them all. Only truckdrivers and bikers are allowed. This is where Jacob demonstrates his leadership by presenting his truckdriver credentials (in the same wallet as his priest credentials). Jacob (whose biblical name is analagous) gains status at this point by this external means. He then drives this home by reminding Seth that the objective is to stay cool until the rendezvous with Carlos the fixer.
Jacob argues that there is no need to agitate over a barroom altercation when Seth should be celebrating the victory of having evaded FBI and the Texas state marshals. This spiritual leadership has pragmatic benefits which Seth can appreciate. But after some whiskey drinking and a spectacular floor show, three of the establishment's staff attack Seth and Richie in revenge for some violence they had done on the way into the joint. This becomes a gunfight in which Richie is stabbed through the same hand which had been shot in the liquor store gunfight - possibly a profane stigmata.
Ironic resolution of lifelong conflicts
The sight of Richie's bloody hand provokes a near-naked dancer from the floor show to transform into a monstrous vampire and then leap on Richie biting him in the neck. But Seth's gun is empty and Richie is dead before the monster can be killed. Then all the dancers transform into vampires, as do the "dead" characters, and there is a massive fight between the vampires and the customers. The only survivors are Seth, Jacob, Scott, Kate, a biker called "Sex Machine" (Tom Savini), and a black Vietnam vet. In the hiatus Seth stands over Richie's body, says "I love you Richie", and Richie replies "I love you too, Seth" - he has become a vampire.
It is consistent with the development of the relationship so far, that Seth prevents Sex Machine from killing vampire Richie. It is Jacob who says "Don't be a fool. He'll kill us all." There is a long moment in which Seth seems prepared to support Richie despite the obvious transformation. The camera shows us Richie from Seth's point of view. Unlike all other vampire transformations in this film, vampire Richie seems somehow restrained in the presence of Seth. Given Richie's prior excesses, vampirism may be seen to be merely a quantitative change rather than a qualitative leap. But Seth's pragmatism overcomes his lifelong commitment to Richie's protection and he puts a stake through his brother's heart saying "I hope you find the peace in death I couldn't give you in life."
Seth then goes to the bar and commences to drink whiskey, until it is Jacob who orders him to stop because "We need you clean and sober and thinking clearly." They are no longer captor and hostage but allies. Neither believes in vampires but each has to accept the evidence of their senses. Jacob has to depend on Seth's killing skills and it is not long before Seth calls upon Jacob to reassess his faith in order to use his spiritual authority as a weapon. Here the gangster is actually converting the Christian in a speech which begins with Jacob punching Seth to the floor and ends with Jacob accepting "I am a mean m***** f****** servant of God". It's funny, but it's moving as well.
By the time Sex Machine and the Vietnam Vet have become vampires, a further horde have arrived in the form of bats and it is Seth who leads Jacob's children into a small room, Jacob having already been bitten.
But Jacob does not immediately become a vampire, he improvises a cross from a pump action shotgun and a baseball bat and is able to fight his way through to the others. It is fortunate that they are in a room full of the unsaleable remains of cargo left from trucks whose drivers had been earlier victims of the vampires. Jacob is able to bless water to make holy water which Scott can load into a "SuperSquirter" water cannon. Seth builds a wooden stake onto a giant cordless drill. Kate finds herself a hi-tech crossbow. But Jacob makes it clear that he is as good as dead and he makes the others swear that they will kill him when he turns: "I'll be a lap-dawg of Satan". The motif of the handicapped family member as a cross to bear, is here taken to its fullest possible extreme.
By the time dawn comes and Carlos and his crew break down the door letting in the daylight which destroys all the remaining vampires, only Seth and Kate have survived. Jacob has been killed by Scott, who in turn is shot by Kate while he is being eaten by vampires. What is this film but a resounding affirmation of family values? Even Seth has found religion, whether or not he fully appreciates it yet.
Seth leaves with Carlos to his sanctuary in El Ray. Kate, politely rejected by Seth as a future companion, accepts a wad of cash from him and drives away in the motor home. They are both changed characters but the changes are consistent with the relationships between the characters through the events they have participated in. In a final change of perspective the camera pulls back in an aerial shot to show the back of The Titty Twister is actually the pinnacle of an ancient ziggurat surrounded by wrecked trucks. Returned to an omniscient point of view we see that even the diabolical setting of the third act has a past.
It is a mistake to look at this film as a half-and-half compromise of a gangster film begining bolted cheaply onto a vampire film ending. To do so is to rob the viewer of the fine character development which runs seamlessly from start to finish.
© Michael Burgess 1996