A Little Bit of Freedom

Quentin Tarantino told us to watch The Devil's Rejects, and we pretty much do whatever QT tells us to do.

Hated House of a Thousand Corpses, Rob Zombie's previous effort, of which the present film is a sequel, but a couple of folks said this one didn't stink like that one, so we gave it a shot.

And you definitely get to a point where you start asking yourself why the heck you're watching this. These are bad people. They do bad things. But nearly all of this mayhem happens in the first third of the film. The rest of the film follows our dysfunctional psycho family and the police officer sworn to track them down as he steadily becomes as bad as them. Shrug, whatever. The notion of cops becoming as dark as the criminals they seek is hardly new, and has been done much more interestingly than it is here. It's nothing to keep you watching. But something does.

Maybe it's just wondering when and how they're going to top the last outpouring of savagery, but I don't think so. This isn't a horror film. Nor is it an action film. This belongs more in the realm of American Tragedy like Bonnie and Clyde or East of Eden (just watched it the other night so it's in my head): films about how the individual is at last brought to heel on the leash of society. As the years have passed, these films have gotten more and more pessimistic, both about the nature of the individual (going from Cal's broody-but-honest-and basically-a-good-guy to Clyde Barrow's narrow-minded but good-natured to Zombie's sociopaths) and the nature of the society (steadily more authoritarian and wrong and willing to descend to the level of the bad guys).

And the film ends with a deeply American symbol: the open road, winding away to the horizon. The promise of that open road has been a staple of American cinema for many years; the Western as a form is based on that and little else. And even in this day and age, when it seems like all our horizons have been tamed, when the desolate highway is more likely to lead to a suburb or a shopping mall than to the wide open country that I love, that symbol can still echo with us, still carry its whispering promise of renewal and rediscovery.

What's changed? What makes this different or new?

The sheer immorality of Zombie's protagonists, for certain. Clyde Barrow, as depicted by Arthur Penn, may not have been super-smart, and may have thought nothing of theft and may have valued his freedom over the lives of others, but he wasn't a character looking to hurt anyone. He was capable of love and loyalty. Zombie's characters are cruel and not only devoid of compassion but openly contemptuous of such softness. They rape and torture joyously.

And yet they cleave to each other. They ARE a family and when the house goes up in flames, they pull each other to safety. Big whoop. Like the cop "going bad" it's hardly original and it's not particularly well-done. Predictably, by the end of the film, the tables have been turned on our unsavoury protagonists, and they suffer their end together, determined to see their destiny through or perish together trying.

What the heck is their destiny? Well, much like Clyde Barrow or Thelma and Louise, these clowns want their freedom. They want to be left alone to pursue their version of happiness, just like it says in the Declaration of Independence. Or wherever Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness come from. And thence lies much of the unease of the American Tragedy: to what degree can a society allow individuals to pursue their dreams? At what point does the system have to crush the person?

Total freedom is anathema to social order, even a social order that claims to enshrine liberty. Total freedom is an illusion -- one person's freedoms must inevitably impinge on another's. Zombie's characters take that to the extreme. They deprive dozens of their lives, their liberty and their happiness. Lurking deep in all this is the unease engendered by the realisation that the notion of "Freedom" is not a simple one, and that it cannot be embraced as such. An especially poignant realisation these days, as the word gets used to justify so many atrocities, as though it were an invulnerable guard against dissent and debate.

The open road still beckons. But the lure of disappearing into a vast, unbroken landscape where nobody can interfere with us has acquired a disturbing undertone, a vague question: who needs to disappear like that and what is it they're doing that they want nobody to interfere with? How can we not feel a little uneasy about people who need TOO MUCH freedom? Aren't they just as dangerous as people who need too little?

And so in the end I think I know why I watched The Devil's Rejects. Not because it's a great story (because it's not). Not because it makes thoughtful observations on humanity (because it doesn't). Nor is it pretty, or funny, or cool. But because it did manage to make me think a little bit about freedom.

And Thelma and Louise. Mm, Geena Davis.