Now I get to go off the deep-end! To some extent, if only some, reviewing Rob Zombie’s greatest film thus far, The Devil’s Rejects, is an excuse to discuss Rob Zombie’s work on the whole. Yes he’s schlocky and his films are often messy and chaotic and have no idea what the hell is going on, but boy if they don’t have the damnedest time of their lives doing it. For all his faults, Zombie knows what he wants and isn’t about to see that vision sullied by a production company. He’s impassioned, cock-sure, self-centered, angry, obsessive, and perverse – which happens to sound like a laundry list of features that have composed many (most) of the great directors of the past hundred years. And the most important bit, lest I forget: he absolutely loves movies, and he wants us to know it too.
It is within this frame-set that I approach The Devil’s Rejects, Zombie’s most fully realized, most gloriously depraved, most caustically subversive, most oddly, uneasily touching, and most visually witty pieces of filmmaking yet made, and it is wrapped up in some of the finest genre clothing I’ve seen in years, exuding a positively desperate love of cinema in every frame. It’s disgusting, undoubtedly, and it doesn’t want you to think otherwise. But disgusting does not a bad film make, especially when it’s about disgust in cinema and how we cartoon-coat violence when we want to make it seem respectable. For Zombie, much like a Tarantino gone off the deep end of his own anarchism, there is an awareness that films mostly end up entertaining with violence even when they pretend not to. Unlike Tarantino however, Zombie doesn’t so much want to make violence cool as explore the tension between violence being cool and violence being disgusting, for his films are disgusting and they don’t hide their disgust away with corporate sleekness, composed formalism, and clean filmmaking. Devil’s Rejects is sloppy, amorphous, and sickly looking, showcasing film grain and making no bones about how ugly it looks.
It’s unsettling, and if it entertains us with violence, it also shocks and staggers us with it, never looking to desensitize us with it even as it comments on how most movies, even in their self-conscious “seriousness”, still entertain with violence. Zombie posits, if nothing else, that if most movies are going to entertain with violence even when they say they won’t, we might as well not lie to ourselves about it. We ought to address it, put it right out in front of us, and make the violence look as grisly and decayed and ugly as possible. That tension – of simultaneously entertaining and disgusting with violence as a reflection on horror and filmic violence altogether – is Zombie’s “thing”, and he knows how to take this thing from mind to screen in the most wonderfully tangential, sadistic slice of grubby visual poetry imaginable.
Even without talking specifics, the sheer episodic nature of his narrative, detailing a triad of members of a serial killing Southern family now on the run in the 1970s, has a rambling, unfocused, drugged-out feel like a perpetual desert-high. It sees the film taking on its characters’ lives – sacrificing narrative ambition for in-the-moment joy and trading in maturity for skill and craft aimed at something very actively anti-mature. It’s not so much a The Texas Chainsaw Massacre pastiche, as many will claim it to be, but a film which uses The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and all those other classic works of Americana lore as a jumping off point for Zombie’s own anarchic, zealous vision of art and its relationship to the world. Zombie’s film is silly, but it implicitly has a lot to say about how TCM and other gross genre works are really part and parcel with classic “respectable” Westerns, one presenting an American dream and the other a nightmare. He equalizes them by lowering the Western and raising horror until they are one in the same, positing the connections between the genres and the dreams and nightmares of the nation that births them.
And then there’s the ending, which plays like a hilariously over-indulgent commentary on manipulative sentimentalism and the hyper-individualism found in American filmmaking, even as it is very much in love with that spirit of Americana all the same. It is the culmination of Zombie’s film functioning as a two-fisted pastiche of Americana lore, film history, Western iconography, and it is the only way his film could have ended as is. Take for example how it concludes his characters by sending them into the ether of the American film tradition; they are classical rebels in the Americana tradition, very much a modern day Bonnie and Clyde, and yet they are far more grisly than just about any other such character we can imagine. Treating itself with the filmic lens of the curdled pseudo-objectivism those films all love to trot out themselves, Rejects lightly mocks the whole idea of falling in love with blind maniacs by giving us the ending we would sympathize with in a Bonnie and Clyde, a The Wild Bunch, or a Badlands but detest here. It so much as says we’ve all fallen in love with these characters many times before in films that don’t as explicitly come out and say their characters are maniacs, asking why we like Bonnie and Clyde but are afraid to like Zombie’s Firefly family.
When this sick murderers’ row of a family rides off in the sunset and Zombie cheerily lights them up in a blaze of romanticized death, his film is an attempt to read the late ’60s/ early ’70s weary nihilism in American cinema to its breaking point, testing it and implicating it and implicating us by asking us if we are ready to address our own desire to romanticize the decade as a lost era despite all its mania and violence and grubbiness. It’s a remarkably complex take on the myth, a deconstruction of it by implying its cartoon nature, but still in love with it for how fun a great cartoon it is. It is as if Zombie, ever the weird humanist-nihilist, is saying that this Americana is a lie, but that we should celebrate it, warts and all, for being a lie. He’s not so much being sick as asking us about our own sickness.
There is yet more though; in his melding of TCM and the ’70s romantic crime myth, Zombie is saying something else about the decade that was, and for many, still is. He’s addressing the loss, the sense of reckless and abandon brought on by a hopeless cynicism left rotting outside in the heat of a nation with no sense of identity any longer, excepting its own bitter torment and loss of innocence. Zombie directly confronts the loss of innocence, and finds an America of criminals that both loves criminals and hates criminals, but loves some criminals more than others. He gives us the vilest of the vile and then asks for a twisted redemption for them, and then stares at us as we give our warped answers. He throws the entire idea of the romantic criminals-on-the-road movie into disarray, finding himself fully in love with it but unsure whether he should be. He finds an America without any idea of what to do with itself, an America turning to crime and anarchy because its institutions had lied to it and cheated it, and Zombie is just rubbing the wound before it’s safe.
Many have asked whether he sympathizes with the anarchy and the crime. What matters is that he empathizes with the choice in a world that finds nothing else for people, and that has systematically broken us down together and turned us against one another. He’s afraid of what people can do, but he is more afraid of why they feel like they have to do it. If he’s afraid of the Fireflys, he is more disquieted by the depressingly empty, barren landscape they inhabit, essayed with bile on the screen by Zombie’s muted camera, tactile, sweaty, sun-soaked framing, and subversive treatment of the landscape of the American West. He creates his deserted America as a visual hellscape, as the kind of lost, hopeless plain where the actions of the Fireflys feel, if not sane, explainable. This location of dirt and grain and emptiness, this America that would drive people to murder, this America where the mind and the 1970s meet once and for all, is the fear in Zombie’s view. He’s asking us to look at the disease and not the symptoms; not the people who commit crimes, but the milieu of detachment and stagnation and lack of opportunity that coerces them
If that’s not enough, how’s about this: Rob Zombie is one of the greatest auteurs of the new century. Of course, being an auteur doesn’t mean being a good filmmaker; it merely implies having a very particular, very unique vision of what film ought to be and using every sweaty, grimy, earthy talent you have to pursue that vision full-force without heeding anyone else’s word for fear of the corruption they may cause). And Rob Zombie is (except when the second halves of his films turn into remakes) unabashedly that. It may mean that his movies turn out half-finished or unwatchable or difficult or poorly focused or poorly reasoned or just plain poorly conceptualized, but the guy has vision. And with this film, he pulled that vision off wonderfully.