Welcome to the latest installment of Flickchart Road Trip, in which I’m starting in Los Angeles and “driving” across country, watching one movie from each state and posting about it once a week. The new movie I watch will go up against five movies from that state I’ve already seen, chosen from five distinct spots on my own Flickchart. Although I won’t tell you where the new movie actually lands in my chart (I don’t like to add new movies until I’ve had a month to think about them), I’ll let you know how it fared among the five I’ve chosen. Thanks for riding shotgun!
The Texas panhandle. I feel like I’m cheating getting in only the top of Texas, but hey, I’m not doing this trip to see the sights. Okay, maybe some sights — I recently passed Cadillac Ranch, just west of Amarillo and just off the I-40, which I’ve been following since Albuquerque. What’s Cadillac Ranch? Oh, I don’t know, maybe that place where the cars stick out of the ground in the middle of the desert?
Anyway, that was pretty cool.
I thought the hotel I chose outside of Amarillo seemed pretty nice, but I noticed a poor plaster job on the walls, covering up what looked like bullet holes — as though maybe two people in adjacent rooms had been shooting at each other. Oh well. As long as they weren’t shooting at each other right then, nor had plans to resume anytime soon.
I may not be getting deep into the heart of Texas, but I know what’s there: vampires. (The vampires are technically in Mexico, but just go with me on this.) With that, I bring you From Dusk Till Dawn (1996, Robert Rodriguez), globally ranked #558. I’m kind of shocked that a guy who ate up everything Quentin Tarantino was doing in the mid-1990s never got to this one. Oh yeah, maybe it’s because he was acting rather than directing.
Brothers Seth (George Clooney) and Richie (Tarantino) Gecko are in need of hostages after committing a robbery and killing a couple innocents (including police officers) in the process. They’ve wasted their first set of hostages through general recklessness, when they come across a former pastor (Harvey Keitel) and his two children (Juliette Lewis and Ernest Liu), staying at the same motel. The Geckos promise to let the family live as long as they help them safely cross the border into Mexico, so Seth and Richie can make a liaison with the brothers’ criminal associates at a wild Mexican strip club. The family’s RV should provide the perfect cover for the two gunmen. However, what none of them realizes is that a much greater threat than border patrol agents — an undead threat, in fact — awaits them at their destination.
This movie has two distinct halves, only one of which takes place in Texas. That said, that half is pretty Texas-centric. The reason Seth and Richie stop at the liquor store they end up shooting up and leveling is to get a Texas road map, and Rodriguez zooms in on this map (which reads “Texas” in clear letters) as they’re leaving, a hand appearing to snatch it. (The last thing they do before the place goes up in flames.) Abilene (where the original crime occurred) and El Paso (where they’re crossing into Mexico) are also name-checked.
Before we get to my thoughts on the film, let’s duel it against five other Texas movies I’ve already seen, shall we? As you know if you’ve ever added a film to Flickchart using the “By Title” feature, the new movie goes up first against the movie in the exact middle of your rankings. The outcome of that duel determines whether it faces the film at the 75th percentile or the 25th percentile, and so on, until it reaches its exact right place. With five movies, that means at least two and as many as three duels. Here are the films From Dusk Till Dawn will battle:
1) The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974, Tobe Hooper). My Flickchart: #494/3393. Global: #586. One of the original candidates for “most disturbing horror movie of all time,” The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is no less great just because it’s been rebooted more times than a computer with a nasty virus. The sheer impossibility of knowing or understanding the root cause of the violence perpetrated by Leatherface and his family make this an unholy terror that never gets dated. Massacre is creepy and icky and unforgettable, and by association, it transforms backwoods Texas into a foreign land where ordinary morality does not apply.
2) Bernie (2012, Richard Linklater). My Flickchart: #707/3393. Global: #2900. One could choose more prominent feathers in Linklater’s cap for this list of movies about his home state, but Bernie may be the first Linklater movie that actually tries to define Texas, presenting a graphic that divides the state into distinct sections with their own personalities (including an inscrutable question mark to represent the panhandle). Besides a career-best performance from Jack Black and Shirley MacLaine‘s game willingness to be despicable, what helps make this story of funeral directors and murder so winning is the participation of the real Texas townsfolk who lived in Carthage as the true story unfolded. They supply documentary-style talking head interviews and plenty of laughs.
3) A Perfect World (1993, Clint Eastwood). My Flickchart: #1401/3393. Global: #1429. Eastwood and writer John Lee Hancock have a lot of great ideas and moments on their hands here, but they coalesce into an imperfect final product. Still, what’s good is quite good indeed, and leading that list are the lead performances from Kevin Costner and child actor T.J. Lowther and the lush cinematography of Texas from Jack N. Green. There’s also a really nice father-son bond that forms between the escaped convict and the child whose life he improves by taking him hostage. Eastwood appears as the Texas Ranger who chases them across the state.
4) Friday Night Lights (2004, Peter Berg). My Flickchart: #1975/3393. Global: #1837. Before there was the critically acclaimed NBC show that ran for five seasons, there was a bestselling novel based on the Permian High school team in Odessa, as well as this movie, which is considered the weak link among the three. It’s not at all a bad movie despite a number of standard components, and benefits from Berg’s regular use of a handheld camera to give it an indie feel. It’s also got an intense performance from country singer and acting novice Tim McGraw as a father who pushes his son too hard. One of the defining elements of Texas is its undying love of high school football, and this film is the ultimate cinematic documentation of that football love.
5) The Astronaut Farmer (2006, Michael Polish). My Flickchart: #2848/3393. Global: #8268. If there couldn’t have been a list of Texas movies without one featuring football, maybe there also couldn’t have been such a list that didn’t have a token space travel movie. (Billy Bob Thornton, as it happens, appears in both, even though we won’t get to his home state of Arkansas for a couple more weeks.) Unfortunately, this corny movie about a former astronaut who tries to launch himself into orbit from his Texas homestead — a movie that invites us to root against NASA for frowning on this idea — is about as silly as the mental picture conjured by the title: a man planting crops on the moon. Houston, this movie’s got a problem.
First duel: From Dusk Till Dawns vs. A Perfect World. World‘s imperfections leave it short of being a true challenger for Rodriguez’ wacky genre hybrid. From Dusk Till Dawn wins.
Second duel: From Dusk Till Dawn vs. Bernie. Although Seth and Richie are giving lots of business to Texas funeral directors, Bernie Tiede isn’t one of them. From Dusk Till Dawn wins.
Third duel: From Dusk Till Dawn vs. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. There are plenty of monsters in FDTD, but no monster is scarier than a family of insane rednecks with all sorts of cutting implements at their disposal. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre wins.
From Dusk Till Dawn finishes second out of the six movies.
Finally seeing From Dusk Till Dawn made me realize that all these years, I’ve probably been punishing Tarantino for a short period during the 1990s when he seemed more interested in becoming a movie star than a great director, which I took not only as self-deception, but too prideful by half. As it turns out, this movie is the best case for why he might actually have been able to handle more regular acting roles, if he got the right ones. Not only does his technique not distract from this movie, he’s actually pretty scary. Maybe he just needed someone other than himself to direct him.
I was genuinely surprised by how well the two halves of this movie work separately, and in conjunction with each other. Some folks in 1996 and the few years afterward surely saw From Dusk Till Dawn without knowing about its vampiric second half, but this is 2013, so apologies if I’m spoiling the “surprise” for you. The first half has all the smart rhythms and crackling dialogue of a typical Tarantino effort (he’d already made his mark as the writer-director of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction and the writer of True Romance), with the kind of violence we had come to expect from Tarantino’s movies as well. The second delves into the goofy monster spirit of early Peter Jackson movies, with vampires that are more like demons than the Twilight variety, who melt, shrivel and blow up in a manner that’s downright comedic. Somehow it all comes together as a delirious celebration of the violent and the macabre, while planting its tongue in its cheek lightly enough that it never turns into full-on comedy. It was great to see Clooney play someone so borderline unlikeable (he describes himself as “a bastard, but not a bleeping bastard”), and I also loved seeing Harvey Keitel in a different role than I had ever seen from him. If you’re a Salma Hayek fan, well… watching her erotic dance with a long yellow snake will leave you about as dumbfounded as Tarantino’s Richie, as she lets a bottle of booze run down her leg, over her toes and into his waiting mouth.