One of our favorite movies from the 1980s is undoubtedly Roadhouse. We got quizzo regular, Ursinus prof, and Shakespeare fiend Matt Minion to compare our favorite film to one of the greatest stories ever told: Hamlet. He ably and hilariously obliged. Enjoy.
To Be Nice, or To Not Be Nice: or, why the film Roadhouse, like pretty much everything else, is basically Hamlet retold
The split infinitive will no doubt rile the purists out there, but come on; this is Roadhouse we’re talking about, not Shakespeare. And anyway, “to not be nice” is verb in an of itself in Roadhouse. You either “be nice,” or you “not be nice,” and knowing which of the two is appropriate is the central question of the film. To be nice is to suffer the slings and arrows and various violent outbursts of drunken bar patrons and to offer, politely, to walk them to the door. To be nice is to buy a trunkful of spare tires along with the used car in anticipation of the crap that life will send your way as you do your job. It’s to smile and serve Jack Daniels to the bad guy at the bar. It’s to observe decorum and treat with decency the people you tolerate because you don’t really have anything else to do and because it helps lend you that ethos of unimpeachability when you finally crack and decide it’s time to not be nice.
At one point, someone actually asks Dalton how you’re supposed to know when it’s time to not be nice. “You won’t,” he says, “I’ll tell you,” but in a pretty general sense, the movie is all about Dalton arriving at the moment where he accepts that it’s time to not be nice. Hamlet eventually comes to terms with the “not to be” option, and he seems to have accepted it entirely when he says “the readiness is all” at the start of act 5. Dalton never really says much, but it’s clear that he crosses the line shortly after Wade is killed.
Hamlet is a revenge tragedy. Sometimes it’s difficult to remember that underneath all that abstract ratiocination and soliloquizing, Shakespeare was working with a formula: ghost of murdered man charges son with revenge; son uses antic madness as a kind of smokescreen while he plots intricate poetic revenge; everybody dies in the final scene. Shakespeare transformed the formula by having his revenger reflect on revenge–on the best way of getting it, but also on a whole series of ethical and philosophical and religious questions. Dalton doesn’t quite recreate the noble despair of Hamlet, but he comes pretty close. Roadhouse clearly wants to be more than Death Wish, and it is. As a revision of its genre, Roadhouse has Hamlet-like scope and imagination. No kidding.
But there are also plenty of specific parallels and analogues. First, Dalton has a only last name–or maybe a first name; it’s not entirely clear, but like Hamlet, he’s only got one name. “Who is that guy?” everyone keeps asking. “It is I, Dalton the Dane!” He’s also got a degree in philosophy from NYU, which might as well be Wittenberg, as far as the town of Jasper is concerned. He’s a thinking man among drinking men, preferring black coffee over alcohol at work, though given his life in the bar business, he’s certainly native there and to the manner born. Like Hamlet, he’s beloved of the distracted multitudes, especially the ladies. The ladies are gaga over him. He’s laconic and brooding and aloof. He does tai chi, or something like that, which turns out to be basically the equivalent of fencing and which comes in handy when he gets into his duel with Laertes, the king’s henchman, down by the river.
It’s fantastic that Dalton kills the henchman thug with the henchman thug’s own gun. It’s sort of difficult to make out exactly what happens, but after a really solid mixed-martial-arts fight in a sandpit by the river–complete with the film’s finest line, “I used to fuck guys like you in prison”–the thug pulls a gun out of a sock holster. How do you fit a gun next to your shin if it’s the late 1980s and you’re wearing pegged jeans? If you bothered to stop and ask, you probably should’ve gone to the Ritz East east to see something with subtitles. Just think of the thug as Laertes, determined to win a fair fight be being unfair. He fires the gun as Dalton turns a nice roundhouse kick to redirect the bullet. Dalton then grabs the gun and uses it to slice open the thug’s throat. I think. Again, it’s sort of difficult to tell, and though I watched it twice, I was pretty drunk. Anyway, Dalton’s trademark laconic reserve turns to animal fury as he screams across the river and launches the thug’s body in the direction of Brad Wesley’s estate.
I’ve forgotten Dalton’s girlfriend’s name, but we’ll just call her Opehlia. She lives at the end, because Dalton doesn’t actually kill Claudius / Polonius / Wesley. Had he done so, Ophelia would’ve drowned herself in the same river. She would’ve gone crazy, grieving the loss of her father-figure at the hands of her boyfriend. But that’s where Roadhouse departs from Hamlet-like nobility. Or not–Hamlet’s death is itself a function of the genre, and one of the most significant differences between Roadhouse and Hamlet is that Roadhouse isn’t a revenge tragedy. The rule, basically, is that when you start killing people indiscriminately, when you get into the business of casual slaughter, you’ve crossed a line that you can’t un-cross. You’ve hurt innocent people, and so you’re working so far outside the rule of law that the whole idea of the law has been compromised, and for order to be restored, you have to die. Hamlet does and says some pretty nasty things, so we’re not supposed to mind that he dies. Dalton, despite deciding to not be nice, never does irreparable damage to anybody who didn’t have it coming.