In a way, I’m slightly surprised Tarantino didn’t take the opportunity to disown Death Proof, to claim that, as part of Grindhouse, it was no more one of his ten-official-films-and-out than his Four Rooms segment. But that would be to spurn the exploitation genre affectation that has informed everything he’s put his name to since Kill Bill, to a greater or lesser extent, and also require him to admit that he was wrong, and you won’t find him doing that for anything bar My Best Friend’s Birthday.
My recollection of the movie was one of, as the phrase goes, hot garbage. Hotter even than Robert Rodriquez’s companion piece Planet Terror (which, like it or not, seemed more invested in its messy tapestry; it also helps that he’s a slipshod director of slipshod movies intentionally making a slipshod movie, so there aren’t any real joins to see). This revisit confirmed that assessment, although in fairness, I had written off the opening hour – kind of Tarantino’s equivalent of a Psycho misdirection, whereby, Janet Leigh style, the heroes you meet at the start aren’t the ones you end up with, but devoid of any accompanying quality – as a series of mind-numbingly banal conversations only truncated when Kurt Russell’s Stuntman Mike fashions a grisly demise for them all.
That part is accurate, and whether or not Tarantino might argue the banality is intentional, crap is no less crap for wanting it to be crap. But they’re really appreciably no worse than the second half’s quartet’s interactions. In tandem with this, our auteur has a whale of a time fetishising his stars’ bodies, be it Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s and Vanessa Ferlito’s bottoms or Sydney Poitier’s legs (not the Best Actor Oscar winner’s, obviously). Or Rosario Dawson’s toes. But he can do that, okay, because it’s self-aware… Yes… But then, Tarantino’s take suggests he’s not that self-conscious about the movie (“let me take the structure of a slasher film and just do what I do”).
Indeed, I’d say that, despite the presence of three more recognisable actors – Winstead, Dawson and Tracie Thoms – in the second half, they fare less well due to the encumbrance of Tarantino’s attempt to turn Zoë Bell into an actor and failing in a manner that, by comparison, makes his own acting career suddenly appear wholly viable. Bell is shockingly bad, and no heavy lifting by her supporting cast is going to remedy that. I suppose you could use the get out that Zoë Bell is playing Zoë Bell, so this is her. But what, is Tarantino going to claim his intention was for Bell to be really bad at being herself?
Even the ostensible reason for having her there crashes and burns in the face of Tarantino shooting the chase material in the most tedious and long-winded manner; the picture revolves around a “death proof” stunt car, of the type Stuntman Mike drives, one that protects its driver’s seat no matter what, and thus Quentin figures, he can justify an actual stuntperson playing an actual stuntperson going up against another stuntperson, or some such suspect reasoning . The reason he films the chase this way? Because he wants it to be authentic, okay, with Bell flailing about all over a bonnet while pulling a “ship’s mast” stunt.
The first half consists of a protracted sequence showing Mike up to his insidious agenda. Which may be entirely creepy, and Mike is easily the least engaging role Russell has taken – which doesn’t mean he’s unengaging in it, just that you wish it had been worthy of him – but it’s about the only time the picture really holds the attention.
The reveal that Mike had the evening’s gory pile up planned out in advance, spurning alcohol and covering his tracks, as offhandedly theorised by Michael Parks’ Earl McGraw, is the one point in the proceedings where Tarantino’s actually come up with something worthy of past talents, rather than draping himself in the flag of mutton dressed as mutton while hoping his audience comes along for the ride. You know, the way he previously hoodwinked them with his previous exploitation riff, Kill Bill. But this is much closer to the earlier From Dusk till Dawn. Notably, all three feature McGraw, affiliating them in a scuzzy, seedy backwater of Tarantino fare that he’d probably engage with even more actively if he thought he could bring the viewers along in sufficient numbers.
From Dusk till Dawn was exactly as crappy as most Rodriguez movies (the only reason I can figure James Cameron wanted him for Alita: Battle Angel was that he didn’t want anyone on board – such as a Kathryn Bigelow – who might make a better movie than he could, the same for Terminator: Dark Fate). Kill Billshowed off Quentin’s express intent – proving he could do action – but had little else really going for it. It did allow him to shoehorn a lot of self-conscious movie trickery into the mix, though, and he clearly thought that had given him enough rope to go forward with his Grindhouse concept (film jumps and assorted damage, including hairs, scratches etc). Which absolutely no one bought into. When even the Tarantino faithful – and there are a either lot of them or they’re just very vocal – don’t want to know, that’s saying something.
Kill Bill isn’t a particularly good movie, but it isn’t a boring one (although, I’d argue the succession of fights does get tedious, particularly viewing the parts back to back). Death Proof commits the capital crime that, luckily, he has steered clear of since (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood tests the patience, but it at least does so in an interesting way). It’s dull. It’s dull, it’s ugly, and it has no interesting characters. You might argue this is all intentional homage, but what then are you left with, precisely?
There are various links here, however, that definitely make Death Proof of a piece with subsequent fare. In particular, you can hang this with Django Unchained, Inglourious Basterds and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood in its focus on a “rousing” revenge fantasy climax. Those are all revisionist histories to some degree (Django Unchained in terms of period permissibility rather than actual events), but they connect by dint of their crude – and being aware of the crudity doesn’t, per the general issue of quality, somehow make it meritorious in a post-modern sense – righting of wrongs committed by racists/ Nazis/ murderous cults/ misogynists.
Taken collectively, they suggest a filmmaker gripped by permanent adolescence in the way he responds to such issues. Which tend to reveal that he has no real way of responding to such issues, as he responds to them in a movie way. The misogynist, in the form of Stuntman Mike, comes in for beating here. But rather than rousing, it’s simply irritating, as Tarantino – again, in the name of exploitation cinema – goes for the most obvious.
So Mike is revealed as a coward beneath it all, blubbering when he gets shot, and proceeding to reveal what an inadequate man he is when the trio of Bell, Dawson and Thoms give chase. Because I guess they’re actually insane psychos themselves deep down, in a movie-movie with no connection to the real world, suddenly reveal how, with no prior indication, they’re happy as punch to beat a man to death. And stomp his head in (Tarantino will probably point to this at some point and say Brad Pitt’s actions in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood are no different, to counter misogyny charges there).
I mean sure, if that’s your bag. I just don’t have an “in” here. For this kind of ultra-violence to be cathartic, you need to be invested in the first place. At very least, when movies riff or offer homages (Joe Dante or John Landis, say), they’re usually done with a modicum of wit, but there’s none of that in Death Proof.
I’ll warrant though, that Tarantino has continued to nurse the scars of Grindhouse’s reception, which is why Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has proven a stealth reheat of many of Death Proof’s elements (some were bafflingly conjecturing that Kurt would again be playing Mike – what, when he’s ten years older and the movie’s set forty years earlier?)
Both have a stuntman in a central role again, with a shady possibly murderous past. There’s a flourish of references to old TV shows no one remembers (here The High Chaparral, The Virginian, Vegas, The Men of Shiloh, Gavilan, as well as namechecking unknown stuntman Lee Majors). Half of each picture is set in the world of movies (obviously, all Tarantino’s movies revolve around movies to some degree). Both end in the protagonists slaughtering the antagonist(s) with impunity. So yeah, Quentin spruced up his grindhouse with big name actors, gave it a polish and an air of respectability, and passed it off as non-defective goods.
Inevitably, Quentin shows up here, as the first half’s bar owner (Warren). He appears to have effected a peculiarly gargoyle-like transformation of himself at this stage of his career, resembling a Bob Hope as Elvis Halloween mask. For an embarrassment of displeasures, he’s joined in the same scene by Eli Roth. So I guess there’s a degree of authenticity here; the idea that the pair of them would show up acting in dodgy grindhouse fare isn’t beyond the ken.
Hilariously, a 127-minute version of Death Proof was screened in competition at Cannes that year. I mean, maybe it was great… If Cahiers du Cinéma put it at number two for the year, it clearly tickled those French critics. Just not enough to persuade anyone else. Tarantino said of it that it “has got to be the worst movie I ever make. And for a left-handed movie, that wasn’t so bad, all right?” No, Quentin. It was.