Controversial Clashes: “Napoleon Dynamite” vs “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”
One of these films is about a twisted outcast family in the middle of nowhere and the confused and desperate son who seeks to wreak his revenge upon humanity.
The other film is The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
Both of these movies brought fresh sensibilities to their genres, stunning audiences with new brands of “alien familiarity” that exist at the borders of, but still within, the American experience. They are experimental without trying to be artistic, and they manage to be uniquely quirky without being all “wink-wink look how clever I am” (take note, Duplass brothers).
They are both horror films (if you have ever been through adolescence) and are of utterly appropriate subject matter for this spooky installment of TRICKchart ControCURSEial RASHES. Let’s see how they stack up.
Bo Staff/Sai vs. Chainsaw
Immediately we must deduct some points from Napoleon because the bo staff is most likely imaginary, which makes it far less effective in a combat situation. And the sai, while being visually striking and one of the film’s best non sequiturs (due to a cut scene), lacks the range and stopping power of Mr. Sawyer’s Poulan 306.
Winner: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
Kip Dynamite vs. Sally Hardesty
From the beginning, Kip was always the one who really seemed to have things figured out. Even Rex exuded desperation and inner weakness. Deb may have fit into the more typical heroine mold, but she (like Napoleon) never really escapes anything; they “simply” learn to thrive in what used to be an intolerable context.
Sally’s escape was certainly the more literal and triumphant of these two, but she had a lot of help from luck and random men. By contrast, Kip knew what he wanted (his soulmate) and he worked hard to get it. And as a side effect, he managed to rise above those around him into a newer, better life. What an inspiration.
Winner: Napoleon Dynamite
Terrible glasses/squint vs. Mask made of human skin
Both our heroes try to keep the world at a distance, but only Mr. Sawyer really commits. Napoleon kind of phones this one in. And it shows in the end: which one ends up getting fucked with more?
Winner: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Mid-2000s Idaho vs. 1970s Texas
Both of these settings ride a fine line between being a very specific place (the only conceivable place where this stuff could happen) and being a completely blank canvas. Both are flat and dry. Both have that kind of American beauty which is in fact not that American (Idaho looks like eastern Europe; Texas looks like Australia) but still resonates in tune with American culture and characters.
Of the two films, only in Napoleon did the filmmakers explicitly attempt to showcase the beauty of the surroundings. The Texas of Chainsaw needed to be as ugly as possible to match the ugly story being told, which is “correct” I suppose, but is not what’s needed to win this matchup.
Winner: Napoleon Dynamite
Horrible Old Man
Farmer Lyle vs Grandpa Sawyer
These two characters occupy very little screen time, but they steal the scene every time.
Napoleon‘s Farmer Lyle (never explicitly named) is portrayed by real-life Idaho farmer Dale Critchlow (who may have in fact been Bowfingered into the film). The honesty of his performance is beautiful and authentic and he scares the shit out of me. (Though I would like to get a look at those Shoshone arrowheads.)
Chainsaw‘s Grandpa Sawyer is definitely the bolder, more colorful character: a 130-year-old serial killer who we get to watch try (and fail) to commit murder by clawhammer. But in many ways, he functions merely as a jerkified cherry on the top of an already mostly complete horror sundae.
Winner: Napoleon Dynamite
This is the real heart of what ties these movies together. We have two movies with very unconventional leading men who at the emotional climax of their respective stories suddenly break into dance. And not normal dancing, not “choreography”, so much as an abstract tone poem made physical. These already bizarre and alien characters move even farther away from us by their decision to suddenly dance in these moments. But by having these characters move in such a boldly dissonant visual language, both films manage to push the moment past the threshold of surprise (and potentially the comedic) into another mental space. The camera holds them both so fearlessly in these moments that we can’t help but see them as, for lack of a better term, art.
This resonates even deeper when you consider the fractal nature of Napoleon’s and Leatherface’s status as outcasts. Both men live in flat, dry, forgotten realms of America, places which have been excluded from the main thrust of society due to complex elemental forces. Within these zones of exclusion, both films focus on families which have themselves been cast out, excluded from whatever skeletal mainstreamacy has managed to take root there.
And then within those very families, the stories that unfold center around the family member who is the most different and marginalized. Napoleon is completely without power in his family, possibly an orphan, struggling to assert the same adolescent individuality that we all strove for, in a wood-paneled vacuum of validation and respect. Leatherface is mentally and physically disabled, a confused and fearful attack dog kept on a psychological leash by relatives blinded by insanity (and probably kuru) to their own desiccated sense of evil self-actualization.
These men sit at the center of concentric cones of exclusion and spiritual impotence, and once the onslaught of the plot’s rain of stones has reached a critical mass, there’s nothing left for them to do but to dance. They dance in different ways and for difference reasons, Leatherface in tortured frustration, Napoleon in desperate hope. And as such I’m going to award the winner to Napoleon Dynamite, for teaching us that we can still aspire from within our gilded cages.
How do you dance? And why?