Directed by Robert Rodriguez
El Mariachi was made for $7,000 when Rodriguez was only 23 years old. He chronicles the making of this film in a book I read four or so years ago. It was the most inspirational thing I had read at that time. I was 21 years old and washing dishes in a retirement home over the summer, and most of my time was spent daydreaming. I’m a bit surprised that it took me this long to watch the film, but I was drawn to Rodriguez’ experience making the film more than the film itself.
The story is simple and gets straight to the point. There’s a killer on the loose with revenge on his mind. He carries his guns in a guitar case, and his nemesis, Moco, sends his men to kill the man wearing black and carrying a guitar case. The problem is that Moco’s men have never seen Azul, the killer, before, so when the Mariachi (Carlos Gallardo) gets to town the same day, also carrying a guitar case, he’s mistaken for the killer and viciously hunted. So it’s a simple case of mistaken identity.
The mariachi struggles to survive, but he quickly proves himself adept at handling weapons and kills several of Moco’s men. He then meets a woman, Domino, and soon falls in love, hiding out in her apartment above the bar she owns. Moco has apparently been trying to woo Domino, and it’s another sign of Moco’s fingerprints all over the town. This is his town and everyone is a threat to the mariachi.
Eventually the men capture the mariachi, but Moco chides them for getting the wrong guy and they simply dump him back on the street. Azul’s mission to hunt down Moco isn’t over, however, and after accidentally grabbing the wrong guitar case earlier, he returns to Domino’s bar, gets his guns, then demands that she show him to Moco’s ranch.
Moco, pissed off that Domino has found a new love interest in the mariachi, shoots and kills her before killing Azul. What’s amusing about this scene yet keeping with the film’s tone, is how Moco remarks that Azul’s flaw is that he has too much heart. This is after we’ve seen him ruthlessly kill several men already.
Moco and his remaining men turn to leave the two bodies on the ground when the mariachi arrives, cradling Domino’s body. Moco shoots and damages and the mariachi’s left hand, but then the mariachi grabs a gun and shoots Moco dead. Moco’s men simply walk away, relieved that the bloody fight is over.
The mariachi leaves town on a motorcycle and with Domino’s pitbull in tow. He arrived a harmless mariachi but now he appears to be some sort of terminator.
What I love about this film is how pulpy it is. It’s ridiculous that a simple mariachi player would be such a great shooter, and yet he is. Then the film ends and you can picture the Mariachi as a comic book legend, his motorcycle blazing a path through the desert.
Desperado appears to be a sequel to this film (starring Antonio Banderas) though I originally thought it was a remake, so I guess I’ll be watching that film soon.
This film is wacky (with small moments in which the camera speeds up, and the wide angle lens are extra distorted) and lean. Rodriguez hardly ever (if ever) reshot a scene for out of budgetary concerns, so everything in this film exists for a reason.
The first scene, for instance, establishes the conflict that drives the film. It’s a prison shootout that unleashes Azul on the world and makes clear his hatred for Moco. This immediately sets up the two extremes (one wears only white, the other only black) between which the Mariachi will try to survive.
The Mariachi arrives in town and heads into a bar, looking for work. The moment he leaves, Azul appears with his guitar case. He confirms that the men at the bar work for Moco, and he brutally kills them all. This establishes the similarities between Azul and the Mariachi, which will get the Mariachi in trouble as well as demonstrating how ruthless and powerful Azul is.
Then the Mariachi goes to a second bar, continuing to look for work and this is where he meets Domino. They only get an introduction together, however, before he leaves when she doesn’t offer him a job. What this sets up is a reason for the Mariachi to return when things turn south.
The bartender calls Moco, telling him about Azul, and now the word is put out to be on the lookout for a man in black holding a guitar case. Next thing we know, the Mariachi checks into a hotel at which the manager sees the guitar case and notifies the men that he’s there. A shootout follows, and the Mariachi returns to Domino’s bar, looking for a hideout.
Domino has her suspicions about the Mariachi, but when she confirms that there is a guitar in his case and not weapons, she is on his side.
Okay, so I own’t recap everything, but this film is nicely constructed. Everything exists for a reason, setting up the film whether it’s a plot point or new information. There isn’t much in the way of character development but there doesn’t need to be. These are all character types. We don’t know much of anything about Azul’s relationship with Moco beyond a sentence or two explaining the reason Azul is so pissed off. And that’s all we need to know to buy into the story. There’s just enough information to move forward to the action.
What’s interesting is who the film is resolved. I wasn’t expecting Domino to be killed, but her death makes the entire film feel more consequential. If the Mariachi had saved her, then everything in this film would feel harmless, at least when compared to the violence we’re used to in modern films. While the gunshots and bullets worked visually, there was always the knowledge that they were props. The bullet hits are cartoonish, and the fake blood is bright red. When Domino is killed, everything feels more dramatic.
I guess that goes without saying, but it shows how familiar we probably are with film language. In most action films, the guy saves the girl (or some variation of this), and there’s a trust the audience places in the filmmaker to make this happen. In a romantic comedy, for example, you know that before the guy and the girl go off happily ever after, there will be a moment where it seems like they will split up. It can’t just be that they’re not as happy as they can be, but rather that things are at their lowest.
It’s the same here. When we see Moco pointing the gun at Azul and Domino, we recognize the danger they’re in, but we expect them to survive, at least Domino. Moco shoots Domino quickly and coldly, and it completely subverts our expectations. With a low budget film like this, there are a bunch of things you can’t do but one of the things you can do to make your film standout is to reconfigure the ending.
When the Mariachi is captured by Moco’s men, I expected him to have to fight his way out of the compound. Instead, the men show him to Moco who shakes his head, telling them it’s not him, and the Mariachi is left alone. It’s extremely anticlimactic given the fact that he’s killed several of Moco’s men (and it’s not like Moco forgot this, he brings it up later on), but for some reason I thought it worked. Rodriguez has said that he intended for there to be a shoot out, but he didn’t have the money for the extra film so he wrote it out of the script.
I kind of liked how unimportant the Mariachi turned out to be. This isn’t his conflict, and the men don’t really care about him. Moco only decides to harm the Mariachi when he realizes he’s developed a relationship with Domino.
So anyways, deciding to kill the female lead is bold, but it’s one of the few ways a low budget film can stand out (though this doesn’t mean a movie can be utterly terrible and save itself with a downer ending). It also makes some sense for the character of Moco to want to kill Domino considering how betrayed he feels. His answer (by extension of his men) for everything has been to shoot and kill, so why would it be any different here?
The story is simple but well-executed, and everything fits into the bigger puzzle of the film. The performances aren’t perfect, and neither are the effects, the sound, the cinematography or anything. But that lack of perfection is what makes the film so great. The fact that you can see some of the seams is a good reminder of how complicated it is to make a film. I felt very aware of every single camera movement and what went on to get that shot, and I felt more fond of the movie because of it.