So it came to be that one man from Austin, Texas revolutionized the film world with something completely new. I am not talking about a new style, a new movement, or a new franchise that inspired many copycats. Alright, maybe the last one has occurred. But it is not why people talk about this film. They talk about the director for his absolute frugality.
Robert Rodriguez (who many probably know as the director of Sin City and the Spy Kids series) shot El Mariachi for $7,000. That’s right. Many have probably already mentioned that statistic countless times in countless reviews. But it bears repeating because it is simply so unbelievable. That figure probably would not be able to pay for Brad Pitt’s lunch expenses on his sets. Many films brag about their vast expenses used to create their computer generated effects that still do not look convincing. Rodriguez has marked his career by sheer frugality.
But is that all the film is? Is it simply a show of how to make a film for the price of a cup of coffee in Hollywood? A cheap curiosity piece that lead to bigger things for its creator? Or is it a film that is still worthy of critical consideration and examination?
The film opens with a jail break. An assassin named Azul, who carries around a guitar case full of weapons, worked for a drug dealer named Moco. Moco has apparently not paid money that he owes Azul. Azul goes on a killing spree in a nearby town, eliminating many of Moco’s henchmen. At the same time, an unnamed Mariachi arrives in the town looking for work. Because he is dressed similarly and carries around a guitar case, he is confused for the murderous Azul and finds himself running from drug dealers and even killing a few himself.
First and foremost, there are times when the budget does hurt the film. Far too often, you can see the devices on the actors’ chests that held the squibs in place. The acting is pretty wooden (particularly Moco’s cringe worthy accent) and there are times when the sets do not look polished at all. OK, they didn’t have sets, but in some cases it just feels like they drove around the town they were filming and just put into the film whatever they could find (which, according to the commentary, they did). For the most part though, it was surprising just how tight the film was. Usually, when people think of low budget, they think of 50s B-movie schlock where continuity was just something they read about in variety and where special effects meant pilfering paper mache masks from the local elementary school art class. Yet those errors do not appear here. Rodriguez clearly planned around his budget and made adjustments accordingly. The editing on this film is fantastic, sort of like the short gun bursts that come from the weapons. And that was a result of the budget rather than any sort of preplanned stylistic choice. Rodriguez deserves to be in the top tier, not because he made a film for seven thousand dollars, but because he made it work.
In addition, the content of the film itself is actually quite intriguing. It feels more like a spiritual successor to John Woo’s The Killer with the typical Western cynicism. The Killer was about a bad man who wishes to redeem himself by doing good deeds. “Is redemption in this manner possible?” Woo asks. El Mariachi is about a good man who is forced to do terrible things in order to defend himself. “Does this make him a villain?” Rodriguez asks. And, in many ways, yes. By being good in an environment that thrives on violence, the man is absolutely destroyed both physically and emotionally. In some ways the sequels (which are the more well known Desperado and Once Upon a Time in Mexico) expand on this theme and almost come full circle to Woo’s magnum opus. But again, Woo was far more optimistic about the human spirit. The men in his films at least have a chance to be redeemed. The Mariachi only has a chance when he tries to seclude himself from his environment. But it never ends up working.
This dynamic reminded me of the differences between the novel and the film version of A Clockwork Orange. The novel was better simply because it tied everything together with Alex De Large and allowed him a chance at redemption. The film did not, and ended frustratingly too early. Kubrick asked the same questions Woo and Rodriguez asked. But he left them unanswered. Alex was given his freedom back, but was it worth it if he was to commit more murder? Some would say yes, others would say no. Kubrick didn’t say anything. But Rodriguez ultimately did. It took three films to find the answer he was looking for, but it was a very satisfying saga that took the best elements of Woo and Leone.
So, yes, don’t let the price tag fool you. This is an even better film that explains the nature of man vs setting in ways that many action films ignore. Yet the real people who should be watching this film are Hollywood directors. Again, I look at you Mr. Bay. Every time you complain that you do not have enough money, just remember there is a man who made a full length film on the budget you set aside for your lead actresses make up.