Thursday, June 19, 2014

Cult-Movie Review: Death Proof (2007)

Not long ago, director Quentin Tarantino called Death Proof (2007) -- originally on a Grindhouse double bill with Planet Terror -- his weakest film. 

This surprising claim drove me to watch the movie again for the first time in over five years.  I had rather liked Death Proof on original viewing, and felt, at least, that it was far superior to Planet Terror. 

But after a re-watch in 2014, I can detect more clearly why Tarantino himself seems so ambivalent about the picture.

There are actually two-ways to approach this film, I suppose, and each one yields different -- and even contradictory -- results.

If you go into Death Proof cold or unprepared it emerges as wildly self-indulgent. At nearly two-hours in duration, the film is bloated, repetitive, and ultimately somewhat baffling as a work of art. 

Furthermore, if the overriding idea here was simply to create a 70s-style exploitation film for the twenty first century, Death Proof is a bust.

And really, how many shots of female bare feet does a single movie need?

On the other hand, if you contextualize Death Proof as the master work of a talent who “lives and breathes” the movies and sets his films in a kind of movie-centric alternate “universe,” the film works much more successfully. 

In other words, Death Proof doesn’t seek to be realistic -- or set in the real world -- for even a second. It doesn’t even wish, honestly, to be judged as a coherent amalgamation of grindhouse style. 

Instead, Death Proof depicts a story set in a world wherein movie history and movie “laws” determine absolutely everything.  Thus it’s a movie about movie physics, not real-life physics.  Similarly, it’s a movie about movie villains, not realistic ones, and on and on.

Is this a far-fetched reading?

I would argue not, given the precedent we now have with Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009), a fantasy film which offered an alternate --and movie-centric -- ending for World War II that doesn’t conform to the historical record.

So if we approach the film with an understanding that it occurs in an alternate “movie”-centric universe, Death Proof is much more fun to reckon with, and much more coherent in terms of its artistry.

I’ve always admired and appreciated the intellectual gamesmanship of Tarantino’s films, and there’s definitely that cerebral aspect to his work here too, even if it seems more difficult to parse in Death Proof than is usually the case.

“Looking good, Cannonball Run…”

In Austin, Texas, a psychotic stuntman named Mike (Kurt Russell) stalks a group of young woman late one night. 

He befriends them at a local bar, even though he creeps them out. 

Later that night, Mike uses his tricked-out movie stunt car -- “death proofed” for his continued survival -- to murder them all on a dark road.

Fourteen months later, Mike is up to his old and murderous tricks, and he stalks another car full of lovely young women, including Zoe (Zoe Bell), and Abernathy (Rosario Dawson).  This time, however, Mike has selected the wrong targets. 

Two of the women in the car are experienced movie stunt-women, and can go toe-to-toe with his death car, as well as any vehicular damage Mike seeks to mete out.

“To get the benefit of it, honey, you really need to be sitting in my seat.”

If the game is to go after Death Proof for self-indulgence and artistic contradictions, one can indeed have a field day.  That’s not my game because I admire the film, but let me present that particular case first.

The Grindhouse experiment was designed to visually recreate an era in exploitation (and movie-going experiences), and so Death Proof features scratched and grainy prints, black-and-white and color reels jumbled together, and a number of shot-to-shot discontinuities, like characters holding drinking cups in one composition but not in the reverse angle shot. 

Even the title card is a mess, with Death Proof awkwardly replacing “Thunderbolt” as the title after a split second.

The problem here is that, given film technology as it exists today, movies -- even bad ones -- don’t look like this. And because the characters drive twenty-first century vehicles in some cases, and use cell-phones to send text/e-mail messages to one another, it is clear that Death Proof is set now

Why not actually set it in the 1970s, without these modern affectations, so the movie could seem like a legitimate “found” film from the disco era? 

Because taken together -- 1970s-style screen affectations with a 2000s world -- the movie just doesn’t come together in a way that it should.  Instead, the visual jokes about bad-filmmaking and damaged prints seem half-assed. 

This feeling is augmented by the fact that the last portions of the film -- an amazing car chase – are brilliantly choreographed, executed and edited. A low-budget regional filmmaker (like, say, the great William Girdler…) could not have pulled off something like that with his budgets.

So -- to its apparent detriment -- Death Proof doesn’t even stick with its opening “meme” about bad-filmmaking.  The “badness” of the print and of the editing recedes dramatically by the film’s climax, essentially abandoned as a leitmotif.

Structurally, Death Proof has a problem to consider as well.

The first hour, which features character such as Arlene and Julia, is really, really good.  Their smart dialogue -- while ultimately meaningless in terms of the narrative -- portrays them as fun, unique individuals. 

But then every character in this interlude dies horribly, and we get a second, less-interesting group of female characters who also talk at length about matters that ultimately don’t move the plot forward. 

In other words, the story repeats itself, and much of the energy coming out of the diabolical “vehicular homicide” scene just bleeds out of the picture.  Instead of ramping up, we cycle down.

Finally, Death Proof -- as a distillation of the Tarantino aesthetic -- seems to showcase his arrested development. 

We get women performing seductive lap-dances, women showcasing their bare feet (ad infinitum), and women in tight, revealing clothing.  Ultimately, such attractive-- nay, hot! -- women triumph over the evil man, Stuntman Mike, but they do so by being as brutal and monstrous as he has been. 

If you’re looking for a straight on message here, that’s it: revenge. 

Women are ogle-worthy, have great and gorgeous feet, and are just as violent and murderous as men are. 

This has been interpreted as a feminist message, and yet if so, it is a deeply juvenile one. 

More accurately, you can distill Death Proof to the idea that Tarantino loves hot women who can be just as bad ass as men. And by being bad ass, I mean as murderous.

So there’s that.

Now, I would like to argue about the merits of Death Proof from a different and more appreciative standpoint all together.

I admire Death Proof as the work of a man who inhales movies like they are oxygen.

Seen from this perspective, the inconsistent use of film scratches, grain, color, and editing discontinuities alongside modern technology like cell phones isn’t bothersome at all.  If this film is set in an “exploitation” universe, then all the budgetary, creative, and distribution problems of grindhouse movies could, conceivably have continued right up until now. 

In other words, Death Proof is an alternate universe story in the same way that Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) is.  It takes place in a realm where the universe -- not just movies -- is grindhouse.

And in this universe, every moment is a virtual replay or extension of other movie moments. 

For instance, Butterfly, or Arlene, spends the day leading up to her death seeing Stuntman Mike’s black car parked nearby.  It keeps re-appearing at different scenes, and so she experiences the sense that something is wrong, and that she is being stalked.  These moments very clearly reflect a slasher film ethos, but more than that, reflect, in particular, John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978). 

There, a final girl, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) kept seeing Michael Myers’ car during the course of a day, and so she too began to sense danger.

But this idea -- or cliché -- of the insightful final girl is overturned because Butterfly does not survive her encounter with her Boogeyman (who is also named Mike, by the way).

And furthermore, Butterfly’s death may come about because of her highly sexualized lap dance for him at the bar. To wit: Tarantino know his film history, and he knows his horror films.  The girls who act in a “sexualized” fashion in old fashioned horror movies typically don’t survive. 

So Arlene, or Butterly, in a sense, forsakes her final girl status with that lap dance (which Julia advises her not to proceed with…) and dies before the night is through.

Another scene, involving elaborate and extensive exposition delivered by two colorful Texas law-men similarly evokes the oeuvre of Brian De Palma, namely a scene in Raising Cain (1992), wherein two characters, a detective and a therapist, confer at length about the psychological nature of Carter Nix (John Lithgow). 

Here, the police discuss Stuntman Mike and the fact that he is getting away with murder, but that he better not do it again, at least not in Texas. 

The scene looks the way it does because there is no other “movie” way to do it, in a sense.  Death Proof takes place in the same world as a De Palma thriller would, and so the long, expository dialogue (told through long tracking shots) is a veritable necessity.  The meaning of this scene is pinpointed in its staging, and in its visual allusions.

The idea of Death Proof occurring in an alternate universe of “movie-ness,” essentially, also subtracts the criticism about the film’s repetitive structure.  We meet a group of loquacious women, spend some time with them, and then they meet Mike...who kills the women.

Then the film repeats, we spend time with some loquacious other women, and they too meet Mike. 

But, of course, what we have here isn’t so much a repeat as a remake. 

Abernathy, Zoe and Kim (the second group of protagonists) hail from the movie business -- like Stuntman Mike himself -- and are therefore able to defeat him and beat him at his own psychotic game. 

The second half of Death Proof is thus not a repeat of the first half, but a rewrite, a remake, but with characters capable of beating the film’s villain.  The old trope about sexually-active women dying because of their trespasses is re-written for a girl-power anthem.  Indeed, that is the note of triumph the movie ends on.

I’ve often written that people enjoy movies so much because movies can get right what life simply can’t.  We can get the happy or just ending in a movie that real life just can’t provide.  Set in the “movie-verse,” Death Proof sets up a scenario by which Stuntman Mike can be beat.

Generically, this is known as “poetic justice” because we expect to find such justice only in literature or drama, but not in reality.  In this case, Mike is conquered by fellow stunt-people, and superior ones at that.  

In real life, we would never expect him to meet up, by accident no less, with other stunt people on the road. This is a movie conceit, and intentionally so.

If you go down the line, almost every significant character in Death Proof is involved in the entertainment industry, whether as a dancer, a DJ, a stunt-person, or on some meta, post-modern level (with directors Tarantino and Eli Roth both appearing in cameos…).  This fact too is our key to unlocking the film’s true nature.  Death Proof is set not in the real world, but in the fake world of movies and movie tradition.

What Death Proof accomplishes, then, is the creation of a movie universe where every character is a type you know and recognize, where every scene is a scene that’s already been played in other films, and every new minute is but a variation on older stories, or even a deliberate rewrite of them. 

As I noted above, Tarantino even rewrites the first act of his film in his second act, down to the inconsequential expository talk.  This gamesmanship is quite an intellectual accomplishment, and it really goes beyond the Grindhousememe,” which is simply to make a bad but entertaining movie in the style of 1970s exploitation cinema. 

Death Proof doesn’t really accomplish that, because the dialogue is smart (and the dialogue in a lot of grindhouse movies usually isn’t…), the action is superb and expensively mounted (and grindhouse movies had no budgetary resources). 

Instead, Tarantino offers us something crazy and inspired: a veritable universe of grindhouse, grown-up thirty-to-forty years smarter, funnier, and more accomplished and savvy.

Stuntman Mike, at one point in the film, notes that to get the benefit of the death proof car, you need to be sitting where he sits. 

One could extend this metaphor to Tarantino and Death Proof itself.

To really get it, and really enjoy it, you need to sit where Tarantino sit:  at the head of a wonky film class, essentially.

Get inside Tarantino’s head -- or in his director’s chair if you will -- and Death Proof is an unrivaled cinematic experience, an experience both self-indulgent and brilliant at the same time.


  1. In the scope of things, I think you can say that "Deathproof" is Tarantino's weakest film. But it is still a very entertaining film. I think your final line is really the perfect description - it is both self indulgent and brilliant at the same time.

    I think I like the shorter edit a bit more, because it did cut away some of the redundant dialogue from the film, and helped the pacing a bit more. But the long version does have it's charms. And I always felt that long sequence with the Texas Sheriff was a call back to the long exposition scene at the end of "Psycho". And that DePalma was riffing on that in "Raising Cain". :)

  2. I think both Tarantino and Rodriguez failed in the Grindhouse experiment because neither film really gave me the feel of an old 70s exploitation film, but Tarantino's was slightly better because he was consciously creating a comparison between old and new. In the 70s, women were victims, period. In the 21st century, they can be heroes. If only Tarantino could develop a better self-editing mechanism. His films are just too talky. Yes, he has a flair for dialog, but not all of it is necessary. Less is more, as they say. Still, spot on review. It is probably his weakest film, but that's still pretty darn good.

  3. Anonymous1:53 PM

    I actually enjoyed reading your insightful, thought-provoking analysis/defense of the film more than I enjoyed watching the film itself.

    Personally, I'd never heard the term "grindhouse" until the film(s)' pre-release publicity kicked off. Tarantino and Rodriguez were producing homages/parodies of something with which I was simply unfamiliar. (Perhaps because I was in elementary school in the 1970s.)

    Nonetheless, I'd loved the original "Death Race 2000" as a kid, which I first saw on TV in the early 1980s. Before I saw "Death Proof," I remember reading somewhere that Tarantino had originally wanted Sylvester Stallone to star in "Death Proof" because of his (pre-"Rocky") supporting role in that 1975 Roger Corman film, but that Stallone had declined. That linkage raised my expectations for "Death Proof." And because "Escape From New York" was one of my favorite films as a teenager in the early 1980s, the casting of Kurt Russel in "Death Proof" kept my expectations for it high.

    I loved "EFNY" and "Death Race 2000" as a kid, as well as several of Tarantino's prior films as a young adult. I assume I would've been considered part of the target audience for "Death Proof." But because I found it lackluster (for some of the reasons you enumerated in your very readable post), and since I'd never even heard of "grindhouse" before, I thought it was unlikely "Death Proof" would find a big audience....