November 2010

Arts & Letters

Tools of the trade

By Luke Davies
Robert Rodriguez and Ethan Maniquis’ ‘Machete’ and Sean Byrne’s ‘The Loved Ones’

“Every time an illegal dances across our border,” says Senator John McLaughlin (Robert de Niro) at a rally, “it is an act of aggression against this sovereign state.” This Texan politician, the “Independent from Cocksucker County”, is running for re-election. A supporter at the rally carries a sign riffing on the World War I recruitment poster, with Uncle Sam proclaiming, “I want YOU to speak English.” We’ve already seen McLaughlin shoot dead a Mexican man attempting a border crossing; his parting words: “Welcome to America.” Here his public persona is a little more jocular – just a good ol’ boy, speaking for the people.

De Niro’s presence is one of many curiosities in the odd, at times inane, and often funny new Robert Rodriguez-helmed Machete (in national release 11 November), a gore-fest and ‘Mexploitation’ flick, which may also be trying to say something serious about contemporary America and the politics of ‘us’ and ‘them’. On that level, Robert Altman’s delirious Nashville (1975) it ain’t; at times Machete feels like a comic-book fever-dream made by a highly intelligent fourth grader with access to crew and equipment – and a love of B-grade gore.

Danny Trejo, an actor (and ex-con) with a marvellously battle-scarred face, is Machete, a man of few words, but very handy with knives. A former federale in Mexico, Machete has been betrayed by his own cartel-infiltrated organisation, and is now one of the thousands of ‘illegals’ living in border states such as Texas, Arizona and California. He scrapes a living day-labouring in a Texas border-town. Drug kingpin Torrez (Steven Seagal) long ago dispatched Machete’s wife and child, so Machete – as you can imagine – is inscrutable, bristling and powder-keggy. In short, he’s an awful lot of fun to watch.

The plot develops from Machete being talent-spotted as a political assassin – or, rather, an assassin-cum-fall guy – in a complex series of machinations and betrayals that wind from political aides to border vigilante groups, and all the way back to the drug cartels. In this world, the Mexican drug lords are pro-border control, because a secure border limits supply and drives up prices.

Some interestingly cast celebrities are in on the fun. Don Johnson is Von Jackson, leader of the vigilante organisation Freedom Force, which isn’t interested in taking prisoners. Michelle Rodriguez’s Luz runs a taco stand as a front for an underground resistance movement of ‘illegals’ and sympathisers known as the Network. The stand is under surveillance by an improbably baby-faced immigration cop (Jessica Alba), who later appears naked in a shower; Rodriguez likes to mix up the social commentary with Latino sex kittens. Lindsay Lohan, taking time out from the labours of inebriation, is hammy as the drug-addled daughter of one of the Machiavellian plotters, not that hamminess is out of place in this film.

Between the set pieces, which are fantastical ballets of preposterous violence, there are dramatically flat dialogue scenes in which background and exposition are leadenly ladled out. These entirely lack the cartoonish glee of the action sequences. There’s a wilful exuberance to much of the film, though, that makes you forgive – though not necessarily forget – these shortcomings.

Machete is an oddity: trashy and stupid, yet not entirely. In the US, where Arizona border-policy legislation has been a divisive topic recently, the film has been controversial. It’s certainly more cartoon than polemic but there is at times something subversive behind its lurid, preposterous surface.

An angry energy threads through the film, although it’s somewhat obscured by the eager abandonment to schlock and gore. Machete can be read as a scathing indictment of institutionalised racism in the south-western states, and perhaps even as an overt Mexican revenge fantasy. In the climactic battle scene that takes place between the redneck vigilantes of Freedom Force and the Mexicans and assorted revolutionaries of the Network, the latter emerge armed with whatever has come to hand: toilet plungers, garden rakes, AK-47s. It’s completely ludicrous, but it might be the most enjoyably ludicrous movie you’ll see all year. The big-name cast in a sense causes the movie to become something of a Trojan horse: masquerading as low-rent, mainstream American entertainment, it gets through the gates of Hollywood before opening its mischievous trapdoor of sedition.

Then, of course, there’s the hardware: the knives, the machetes and all the implements of torture that wallpaper the film. You certainly can’t accuse Machete of false advertising.

In Machete, Danny Trejo inflicts damage and death with a host of tools of his trade, including a Weedwhacker and a nail gun. The same kind of fetishisation of torture methods is at the heart of Sean Byrne’s The Loved Ones (in national release), a strictly genre affair, a teen horror-slasher film that is crisp, bright, well put together and quite loopily deranged. Xavier Samuel is Brent, an angsty, brooding heart-throb in a small country town; his father died in a car crash when Brent was at the wheel, and he’s racked with guilt. Girlfriend Holly (Victoria Thaine), a girl-next-door type, does her best to connect with him but this lad’s in a funk.

High school prom is coming up. Lola (Robin McLeavy), the school’s spacey ‘weird’ girl, asks Brent to be her date; citing Holly, he says no. Turns out the weird girl’s going to be a whole lot weirder than you imagine. Her doting Daddy (John Brumpton), an enabler in the truest sense of the word, drugs and kidnaps Trent on Lola’s behalf. Daddy and Princess (as he calls Lola) will put on a prom night all of their own, in the privacy of their home.

Such is the set-up. What follows is an orgy of torture: a captivity narrative, slasher-style, that winks to its audience as it enacts its genre conventions. Nothing new there – there’s rarely been a horror film in the past 20 years that isn’t in some way ironic and self-referential. The Loved Ones depicts – before we move indoors for the duration – an Australian country town that seems very much like rural America as evoked in much film. That’s perfectly all right: horror films are basically chatting amongst themselves.

The better ones (Haneke’s 2007 Funny Games, for example, or Jack Clayton’s 1961 The Innocents) touch at the heart of our anxieties about potentially becoming mentally or spiritually deranged – the chance our ‘self’ might be cut adrift from its very existence. Films dealing with conceptually complex themes such as these target the Prefrontal cortex, where the high-level filtering of experience occurs.

More basic, heavily genre-driven films (the extraordinarily successful Saw franchise is an example of the phenomenon at its most visceral) are anxiety-drivers too, though at a less complex level. Fight or flight in the limbic system, in other words, and the pleasure–pain of adrenaline. The fear an audience feels in these films is not of the mind’s sanctuary being breached; it is simply of the body being punctured.

Robin McLeavy and John Brumpton are beautifully off-tap as prom queen and doting dad. Enthusiastic body-puncturers, they give the film its heart of wicked fun, despite the uneasy edge of its incest hints. McLeavy’s Princess is alternately morose, petulant, coquettish and monstrous. Brumpton plays Daddy with a fragile gravitas, like a soulful sociopath. Their re-enactment of the “Queen of the Dance” award – Princess wins the title, obviously, and Daddy makes the announcement – is creepy and hilarious. “Crown me,” Princess demands of Brent, but that won’t be so easy for him, sitting in a chair, covered in blood, hands tied behind his back, mute from the bleach injected into his larynx, and feet pinned to the floor by carving knives.

Byrne manages to underpin The Loved Ones with humour and, while gruesome, it’s never really terrifying. I’m not sure if this is problematic for true horror aficionados. For the rest of us, it makes the film more enjoyable, and there’s something pleasantly incongruous about the high school prom horror flick, this intrinsically American leitmotiv, being transplanted into a small Australian country town.

There’s talk now and again about the rise of a distinctly Australian school of horror film, but the industry is surely too small to warrant a term like ‘school’. Every once in a while you get a Patrick (1978) or a Razorback (1984), curiosities rather than strong films. More recently Wolf Creek (2005), a tawdry and gruesome two-act piece – basic set-up followed by a smorgasbord of pain and mutilation – terrified audiences despite its lack of interest in character arcs. But country of origin is ultimately irrelevant when talking about slasher films; the subgenre itself is the country, and its citizens, the fans, are rabidly patriotic.

Luke Davies

Luke Davies is a novelist, screenplay writer and poet. He is the author of Candy, God of Speed, Totem (the winner of the Age Book of the Year in 2004) and Interferon Psalms (winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2012). 

Cover: November 2010
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