The Devil’s Rejects

a scowl. A scintilla of tension, held or released. A rifle report. A kiss. Cinema is composed of privileged moments, born of pulp and transfigured as art. In Scenes, a writer will study one of these moments. The approach is up to the writer. They may analyze the scene from a technical standpoint, discuss the dramatic elements in play, or find personal correspondences. Enjoy.

Gloriously sick, gleefully nihilistic, and brilliantly depraved, The Devil’s Rejects is not your typical 21st century masterpiece. In an era where even the best American films suffer from a sense of polite gentility, and where our most original filmmakers devote their creative energies to skimpy minuets, Rob Zombie’s film has the effect of a smelly, operatic fart at a Phillip Glass concert. It’s rude, dirty, and nasty, but it’s still a welcome break from the repetition.

Not entirely welcome, of course; a quick glance at the film’s Rotten Tomatoes page reveals blurbs like “The Devil’s Rejects doesn’t just deserve to be rejected, but to be buried in a hole so dank that no one will discover it”. (Courtesy of that tireless champion of the middlebrow, James Berardinelli.) Even the critics who don’t let priggish morality interfere with their judgment tend to praise the film as an unusually well-crafted horror, and leave it at that. There’s nothing wrong with that assessment, but to say the film is just a disreputable good time is to deny Zombie his due. The monster he’s stitched together has a brain, as well as a twisted sense of satire and a willingness to follow its ideas to stark, ugly places where supposedly higher-minded films dare not tread. For instance, a stretch of seemingly infinite Texas highway that suddenly ends in an orgy of self-annihilation, a last stand without a hint of desperation, a dizzying example of pure, shoot-the-lights-out, virtuoso filmmaking.

The scene: For two hours, we’ve watched the Firefly family (Sid Haig, Bill Moseley, Sheri Zombie) cut a bloody, Shermanesque swath through a South so backwards, it might as well still belong to the Confederates. They’ve tortured and slaughtered almost everybody they’ve encountered, and they’ve paid special attention to any symbol of righteous, decent, good ol’ boy machismo they can find. They’ve beaten wizened, helpless cowboys to death; they’ve skinned hormonal shit-kickers alive; they’ve driven a righteous, God-fearing sheriff so far over the line that he couldn’t help but commit suicide by taking them on. They’ve got chips on their shoulders, and they’re hoping some honkytonk will try and knock it off.

Of course, our antiheroes might not even be able to spell “ideology,” and they’re not so picky that they won’t kill people who don’t symbolize a damn thing. Zombie has gone to considerable lengths to make sure nobody could think this movie was about a band of lovable rogues fighting a society that doesn’t understand them. This isn’t Bonnie & Clyde; this isn’t a movie where sick, sadistic criminals follow understandable codes of conduct. This is a movie where a society based on quaint notions of macho behavior tries to put down a pack of rabid animals, only to find that the animals have the upper hand because they have a truer, ghastlier definition of “badass.”

In fact, the only reason they’ve survived up to this point is because they’re just that much crazier than anybody they’ve encountered. But now, they’re battered, bloodied and bruised, and we know the end is near. Like Babe Ruth pointing towards the fences, Zombie announces it’s going to be a big finish with a series of elegant, slow-motion shots of the Rejects cruising through the Texas wilderness in a vintage, all-American Cadillac. Between that and the slow, elegiac organ music on the soundtrack, Zombie makes sure even the potheads in the audience understand that it’s all-or-nothing time. Then, a slow, twangy guitar kicks in and we cut close to the Caddy and the survivors inside. They’re blackened with such a thick coat of dirt and blood that it’s easy to see them as pre-human savages. Then we cut to a close-up of Moseley, playing the most twisted of the beasts, staring wistfully at the road ahead. The lyrics kick in, giving a reedy, plaintive voice to the maniac’s thoughts...

…If I leave here tomorrow…

…And we ask ourselves where the hell we know this song from. Or at least we would, if we weren’t busy wondering just where Zombie’s going with this scene. See, now that the end is near, the director seems to think it’s the right time to show us some hazy flashbacks to the family’s happier days, for us to see a pack of stone-cold killers laughing and making merry like some kind of Manson Family Circus.

At first, it works at a basic sick-joke level, but it’s still a disappointment; up to this point, Zombie’s sick jokes have been small, elegant wonders of depravity—they’ve been anything but basic. Plus, we can’t help wondering if Zombie, after going to such great lengths to avoid glamorizing these psychopaths is going to choke at the finish line by painting them as a bunch of misunderstood souls too good for this rotten little Earth. But…

…’Cause I must be travelin’ on now…

…Even after we’ve watched these characters torture and kill people who did nothing but stay at the wrong motel, Zombie does manage to create a fair glimmer of sympathy for them. As he cuts back and forth between the giddy, sunny flashbacks and the bloodied husks lying near death in the back seat, the savages are imbued with a perverse sense of nobility. Watching the scene, and listening to that damn unplaceable song, you don’t feel sorry for them, but you do have to give them credit for surviving this long. After all, they’ve made it farther than most rabid animals manage.

…There’s too many things I got to see…

So, when the Cadillac comes to a slow-motion stop (actually, Zombie focuses so intently on the car that it seems more like the world around it is halting), and Moseley’s face collapses into the teary expression of those who are deeply, sorely fucked, you don’t cheer. And when we cut to the wall of cop cars blocking the road, you don’t get the sense that the cavalry has arrived. And when the chorus kicks in…

…’Cause I’m free, free as a bird now…

…And we realize that this last bloodbath is set to the mother of all rednecked, shit-kicking, sister-fucking hillbilly anthems, the very elementary sick joke of the flashbacks takes on a few extra dimensions, as does the entire movie. We realize that we haven’t seen many movies about the kind of snake-handling, Bush-loving Southern culture that’s dominated our country since You Know When. In fact, we hadn’t seen one this whole decade until we popped The Devil’s Rejects into the DVD player.

Come for the gore, stay for the social commentary! Here, we have a movie where cowboys are emasculated and self-righteous sheriffs get themselves slaughtered in the pursuit of holy justice. And by who? A bunch of dirty psychopaths who understand only one thing: That real machismo, real badassery, is in fact very dark, very bleak, and, above all, not to be trifled with.

Of course, people like that know of only one way to deal with a police roadblock. They break out the guns and load ‘em up, smiling and laughing, as if they realize that they’ve had a good run, and it’s time to end it before they jump the serial-killing shark. As the guitars speed up, going from plaintive to screechy, they barrel towards the roadblock, guns a’ blazin’, and you can’t help but cheer them on.

The ironies are reflecting each other now, and the film has turned into a pitch-black funhouse of genuinely relevant ideas. We’re pulling for the savages in their suicide attack, even though we know they’d only kill more people if they got away; we don’t exactly hate the cops for putting them down, but our sympathies lie with the real Southern rebels, the ones who haven’t gotten up on any high horses and haven’t made any bones about what they are, even though what they are is human waste.

They don’t stand a chance, of course; they take a few cops with them, but they’re ripped to shreds. The last shots are of the family being ripped apart by bullets that slam into their bodies in perfect step with the frenzied guitar licks. Then a freeze frame of Sid Haig’s head, caught in mid-recoil as it splits apart. The music stops cold, and all we hear is a hail of gunfire. The cut to black has the force of a book slamming shut, and as the credits roll, we get a very rare feeling. It’s one that the Wes Andersons and Spike Jonzes of the world, however great their abilities, will never provide. Our chests puff out, our balls swell just the tiniest bit, and we nod in recognition of the fact that, goddamnit, we just watched a fucking movie.

By: Chris Anderson
Published on: 2006-11-06
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