Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino’s 2007 homage to the low-budget 1970s slasher films that used to be shown in American ‘grindhouse’ theatres, was originally released in the US as one half of the double bill Grindhouse, screened alongside Robert Rodriguez’s sci-fi zombie flick Planet Terror. Due to some audience confusion both movies were re-cut, extended and released separately in most other countries, although that decision was made partly because the tradition of the grindhouse theatre, and of double bills generally, is specific to the US. (Lots of people walked out after the first picture, according to reports, and didn’t stick around for the second (Death Proof). Seriously, are there people that don’t bother to read up about movies beforehand these days, considering the cost of admission into a cinema? It really isn’t difficult to grasp the concept behind the phrase ‘a double bill’, is it?) It’s a shame this split happened, as it ruined the package as a whole and also meant that Tarantino’s movie appeared in an unnecessarily flabby state, but at least fans are able to watch these fun exercises in nostalgia back to back at home. Which I did earlier this week; a review of Planet Terror will follow.
To help achieve the look and feel of classic grindhouse cinema the acting in Death Proof is deliberately bad, though not terrible, and Tarantino digitally added a variety of visual effects. There are lots of scratches and dust, for example, in order to recall the days when film prints were passed from one theatre to another and would accumulate damage and defects over time. Additionally, an old title card reveals that the film was originally called Thunder Bolt, a nod to the fact that movies would often get re-titled to hide the fact they had been on the receiving end of terrible reviews. The editing is jumpy, the soundtrack occasionally doesn’t sync properly, the colours are often washed out and – all told – it looks sufficiently cheap and nasty. Despite never having been to a grindhouse theatre in my life, I still buy vinyl over mp3s because of all those crackles and hisses, and as a confirmed Luddite I love the retro style adopted here.
In keeping with the grindhouse vibe, the plot is simple. Three friends – Arlene (Vanessa Ferlito), Shanna (Jordan Ladd) and radio DJ ‘Jungle’ Julia (Sydney Tamiia Poitier) – go on a bar crawl in Austin, Texas to celebrate Julia’s birthday. They get drunk in a few different dives, play songs on the jukebox and knock back shots, and along the way they meet stalker and psychopath Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell), who drives a black 1971 Chevy Nova rigged with a ‘death proof’ safety cage in the interior. Another bar patron named Pam (Rose McGowan) accepts a lift from Stuntman Mike, who promptly uses his car to kill her before setting off after the other girls, terrorizing them on the open road.
Fast forward fourteen months and the sadistic Mike is at it again, showing up in Lebanon, Tennessee in a 1969 Dodge Charger. His targets this time are Abernathy (Rosario Dawson), Kim (Tracie Thoms), Lee (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and stuntwoman Zoë (Zoë Bell playing herself). Mike tries to kill with his car once again, but this time the tables are turned, and Tarantino delights in telling a tale of revenge once more.
With two clear parts it’s obvious where the original version of Death Proof, the one intended for use in Grindhouse, ends. Both parts of the international release sit well next to each other, although annoyingly all those scratches, crackles, jump cuts, dialogue issues and so forth are not continued in the second half. There is a bizarre ten minute period filmed in black and white, a witty suggestion that the director ran out of colour film stock and had to use whatever was available, but aside from that the second half of Death Proof only captures the grindhouse in tone and spirit, and fails to fully capture the look (although the skimpy costumes, car chase and cars still recall the era and the genre).
As an avowed champion and connoisseur of exploitation flicks, Tarantino is well-versed in the various themes and typical flourishes required for such an homage. Thus in his film the girls are all young and sexy, the violence is schlocky and the action is pretty exhilarating; the car chases here are excellent and the movie’s famous crash scene really is startling. (Tarantino felt that there hadn’t been any good car chases on screen since Terminator 2: Judgement Day and, amazingly, Final Destination 2. There’s no way I’d tell him he’s wrong to his face, but I can’t let this pass without mentioning Ronin, which features several excellent car chases. Still, the chase scene in the second half of his film is excellent.) And yet, above all else, it’s clearly a Tarantino film. Typically cool, typically enjoyable, and typically throwaway (not meant as an insult; Tarantino movies are like the very best pop records). Sadly – despite his continuing capacity to surprise – it feels at times as if the director is on the verge of self-parody. There are interminably long dialogue scenes during which the characters shoot the shit about nothing in particular, but they lack the spark of similar scenes in his other films, and I wonder whether the director actually cares for any of these characters much (with the exception of Stuntman Mike). The geeky references to long-forgotten and largely unloved pop culture of yore seems to be nothing more than an exercise in box ticking and I began to wish for just one character in a Tarantino film that doesn’t talk like they’re a character in a Tarantino film.
That’s not to say Death Proof isn’t deliriously fun. The first half is Tarantino at his loosest, not giving a fuck, and he packs in a succession of sassy and snippy lines interspersed with fetishistic shots of women’s feet, backsides and needles hitting records (which are superbly chosen once more). He references his earlier films – the diner scene of Reservoir Dogs, a mention for Big Kahuna Burger, etc. etc. – playing up to geekery and fandom in a fun and conspiratorial way. The plot – such as it is – is patently ridiculous, and the director makes absolutely no attempt to cover this up; instead he lets the threat of Mike simmer away in the background while the camera fixes on the drinking, the jukebox, the hot pants and the lapdancing.
It is misogynistic at times. While it’s hard to watch the treatment of the female characters in the first half of this film, it must be remembered that a certain ‘way of the grindhouse’ is being adhered to, and the director would presumably answer any allegations with the counter-point that the movie ends with four women beating the living crap out of the male antagonist. When greeted by protesting feminists in the UK upon the film’s release, Tarantino maintained that he had received praise elsewhere for writing strong female roles, but truthfully it’s false empowerment in Death Proof. You have to be suspicious of any director who extolls the virtues and champions the strengths of his leading female characters – and there have been a few – on the one hand, but on the other resorts to filling the movie with lingering shots of their legs and backsides. More than anything else the extreme sexualisation of the women in Death Proof makes me pity Tarantino.
I haven’t seen many movies – grindhouse or otherwise – that manage to objectify women quite as much as Death Proof. The seven or eight main female characters here are all variations on a theme; they’re the embodiment of Tarantino’s childish notion of a perfect girlfriend. They wear cheerleader outfits, smoke pot and pound shots. They have the kind of jobs the teenage QT would probably have wanted: DJ, actor, stunt driver. They claim Dave, Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich are better than The Who and they know which car was used in Vanishing Point. It’s a shame the writer-director appears to be stuck creating this type of character as he approaches the middle of his career, because he got it right the first time when he penned True Romance. I know it’s pointless to expect great characterization and fair treatment of young women in a modern take on a 1970s slasher film, but it’s frustrating to see the man who created Jackie Brown revert to a film full of Alabama Worley-lites, regardless of the genre.
The thing I enjoy about Tarantino more than anything else, though, is that I can sit there thinking ‘it’s wrong it’s wrong it’s wrong’ while still remaining utterly transfixed, waiting to see what the next abrupt turn or surprise brings. Feminists: I’m sorry. Although I’ve pointed out various recurring themes and clichés above that we now expect from every single one of his movies, his willingness to take risks and his ultra-cine literacy ensures that he still retains a power to surprise that no other mainstream director can match, and I can certainly put up with the moments of self-parody as a result. (I’ve thought long and hard about that statement, and the phrase ‘no other mainstream director’, and I’m sticking with it. Few would think to end a film like Tarantino does here, and even fewer would dare to actually do it.) When Tarantino cuts loose – as with much of the first half and the car chase in the second half here – it’s difficult to resist. It keeps me coming back over and over again, and despite the problems I do have with one or two of his movies, I remain an avowed fan. (The cameos have surely got to stop, though – he plays a bartender here and it really is a dismal performance.)
Tarantino has admitted that Death Proof is his weakest film to date, and I think that’s both true and honest. The conversations are often too long, the second part is slow and ponderous (at least until we get to the car chase), there’s too much padding and it’s a shame he didn’t apply the same visual effects to both halves for consistency. But it still has enough lines and moments to make it wildly enjoyable, the soundtrack is one of his best, and Kurt Russell is great fun as the vicious, vindictive Johnny Cash-alike Mike. Everything that’s bad and everything that’s great about the director is here in fairly equal measure, and the exercise works: you get a real sense of Tarantino’s love for this kind of cinema.
Directed by: Quentin Tarantino
Written by: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Kurt Russell, Rosario Dawson, Vanessa Ferlito, Jordan Ladd, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Tracey Thoms, Sydney Poitier, Zoe Bell, Rose McGowan
Running Time: 114 minutes