Tarantino has always been a director given a rather large amount of free reign to do whatever the hell he feels like. Even as far back as Reservoir Dogs he was allowed to just get on with making the film he wanted to make. A few years back Quentin and Robert Rodriguez set about making a pair of pet project love letters to the Grindhouse cinemas of the 70s. While Rodriguez made the delightfully silly Planet Terror, Tarantino chose to do somewhat of a homage to the slasher movie genre. Soon, he realised how restrictive the slasher genre actually was and instead managed to get himself distracted by lengthy dialogue, a wafer thin premise and feet. I mean more so distracted by feet than usual. But is Death proof any good? Well, yes and no… read why after the jump. Or on any sites that have reviewed the film I suppose. They all have opinions too.
Death Proof’s main problem is this. It is the same film played out twice with slightly different endings. The first hour is spent following a radio DJ named Jungle Julia (Sydney Poitier… no, his daughter) and her group of friends as they hang out at a bar. Eventually a man named Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) makes an appearance enjoying himself some bar life and creeping out the majority of the girls in the bar. This all leads to him killing the group of girls we’ve come to know by crashing into their car in his “death proof” stunt car. One sheriff Earl McGraw (As always, Michael Parks) cameo later and we learn that he’ll get away with it due to a series of factors that make it appear an accident. 14 months later we join another group of young ladies who eventually, after a lot of talking, run into Stuntman Mike themselves.
It’s not uncommon for films such as this to get you used to a certain character, or group of characters, early on only to kill them off, for example, Hitchcock famously did that very piece of audience manipulation in Psycho with Janet Leigh. The trouble here is that whilst the first set of girls are all very charming and fun they are clearly not the stars. We know Rosario Dawson and Mary Elizabeth Winstead are in the film and so their lack of presence in the film’s first half just triggers our warning sensors to not get too attached to this initial line-up of long legged, bare footed ladies. We’re constantly aware that this is filler, and that is exactly what it feels like. Whilst Rose McGowen does play a sort of Janet Leigh role as the one truly recognisable girl in the first half she’s played as a side story and a character that is literally played as not being cool enough to be part of Jungle Julia’s gang. Not in a sympathetic way either. They just don’t like each other.
Some good things do happen in this first half though. The building of the scenario that Stuntman Mike creates to help himself get away with his vehicular form murder is subtly managed and all clicks into place for you during Earl McGraw’s exposition spouting cameo at the end of this overly extended first act. There’s a great moment where Mike is telling stories of his stuntman days to a group of blank faced girls who he realises don’t know any of the shows he’s mentioning. In a sense this is Tarantino lamenting how young people today don’t get the references any more because films are designed to be throwaway and anything made more than a few years ago is consider ancient. The moment Stuntman Mike reveals his evil intentions is also played well. All these moments are cool on their own but the lack of engagement with the cast of characters leads this first half to fall flat.
The second half manages t also be a mixed bag. We follow up and coming movie star Lee (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Hair and make-up artist Abernathy (Rosario Dawson), not real stunt-woman Kim (Tracie Thoms) and real life stunt-woman Zoe Bell as herself. Very meta Quentin. Here we have even more dialogue between the girls as they slowly move towards their goal of taking a 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T for a joyride and a chance for Zoe Bell to show off her stunt skills. Mike is kept largely in the background here. He never fully interacts with the girls until the final scenes. This could be down to us being aware of what sort of threat he poses but it also means that the girls are completely unaware of any danger posed to them. Now there’s moments in their discussions which inform of their capabilities and how they would cope with danger but because of the lack of interaction the drama is lost.
That said they’re a more interesting group of characters than we saw in the first half and the final car chase sequence may well be one of the best shot for films in years. The use of a 1970 Dodge Challenger isn’t just a overt reference to Vanishing Point, a fact that Tarantino makes sure you’re fully aware of multiple times. It’s also the next model along from the 1969 Challenger driven by Stuntman Mike in this half of the film. This helps make that final, and most excellent, car chase genuinely a close match in terms of horsepower and classic muscle car style. The sequence that leads up to the chase contains a great iconic image of Zoe Bell lying on the bonnet (not a hood) of the car holding onto two belts trapped in the window as Kim drives as fast as she can. It’s a game they call “Ship’s Mast”. This scene is great for depicting the fun Zoe and Kim can have living on the edge, when in control of the danger. Then Stuntman Mike turns up to give them a light ramming… with the cars… not like THAT. This switches the fun to danger as Kim has to try to keep the car stable whilst Zoe clings on for dear life on the cars bonnet. It’s a smartly managed switch from elation to terror. Also leads to the very funny sight of Zoe Bell leaping up from behind a bush shouting “I’m OK!” after being flung from the car. A brilliant little diffusion of tension moment that. Naturally the girls decide to take the fight to Mike and that’s how this half largely differs from the first structurally.
Overall the problem is that Tarantino is in love with his dialogue too much and for the first time he has allowed it to get in the way of a smoothly progressing story. It would have been wiser to have us introduced to the second set of girls from the start. Work them into the bar scenes early on. Have them be aware of what Stuntman Mike had done but unable to prove that he had killed the other girls. Instead the film’s structure leads to two disconnected tales that don’t flow well. 1 hour into a film the audience shouldn’t be being asked to start to get to know an entirely new cast, and even then, we shouldn’t have to go through a near identical set up to get to the pay off because we just sat through that. Death Proof has some great moments. It also feels like a lot of time wasted. Oh, and Tarantino should probably not be allowed to be a director of photography on his own films. Not that he does a bad job, as mentioned that car chase at the end is excellently shot, But he clearly decided that every other shot of the film needed to satisfy his foot fetish and man does it get distracting. Maybe an argument can be made for Death Proof being his most personal film with it’s fetishistic moments and awareness of the loss of relevancy of the films he loves. An equally strong argument can be made for just how much time it feels like it is wasting.