In Scott Frank’s surprisingly great “The Lookout”, we’re told at some point that accident victims who suffer frontal-lobe trauma sometimes lose their inhibitions. Far be it from me to suggest that Quentin Tarantino got clunked something fierce during the “Death Proof” shoot, but I’ve rarely seen a filmmaker, in current Hollywood at least, expose his sexual and sadistic kinks on screen with such shameless glee!
In this throwback to the days of seedy movie-houses and drive-ins that showed exploitation flicks, we basically get a female Reservoir Dogs (Reservoir Bitches, if you will), inasmuch as the near majority of the running time is devoted to showing the interaction and conversations of a group of people, who eventually find themselves in deadly circumstances. To a large degree, this is what QT himself calls a hanging out movie, and I loved every second of it. I’ve already heard of folks being bored by the long scenes of chicks driving around, having drinks and casually chatting all the while, but let’s leave those fools sucking on their Popsicles.
If you’re not only waiting for the gore, you’ll certainly enjoy spending time with Quentin’s girls, who are separated into two posses. First, there’s Jungle Julia (brazen Sydney Poitier), a “famous or something” Austin radio DJ who goes out on the town for a night of partying with “Butterfly” (lovely Vanessa Ferlito), an old friend from college who’s back in Texas for a few days. The two intend to get drunk, get high and maybe get laid, if worthy suitors show up. For the longest time, we’re simply having a good time at the Texas Chili Parlor along with them, talking it up, having a few laughs and feeding the jukebox. We really get a feel for the place and the people in this bar (literally tended by Tarantino), and the jukebox is an almost too perfect opportunity for QT to play a bunch of his favorite songs as diegetic music. Plus, this being an exploitation picture, Tarantino gets to forget all about political correctness and ogle every curve, line and indentation of his gorgeous actresses’ bodies with his camera – unsurprisingly, his foot fetish gets plenty of mileage! And that lapdance scene? It would give the corpse of Liberace a hard-on, for chrissakes!
And then Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell at his best) shows up. Actually, we’ve already had glimpses of him, or more precisely of his car, both of them ominous figures. But once the guy’s sitting at the bar, engulfing his nachos and talking up a honey (Rose McGowan), he seems like a rather charming, easygoing fellow. Tarantino’s placed almost all of his pieces now, we’re fully immersed in this universe and with these characters, we care about them, and then… Well, it gets damn brutal and in only a few minutes, we get more visceral thrills than through all of “Planet Terror”. Also, that editing trick that QT uses at the climax of this first road rage scene? Brilliant. Not that it’s “cool” or “funny”. In fact, it’s one of the saddest things I’ve seen in a long while — the tragedy of lives cut short.
As I mentioned above, another group of young women is introduced later on. We’re now in Tennessee, where a cheerleader movie starring Lindsay Lohan (!) is being shot. On a day off, a makeup girl (Rosario Dawson, adorable as ever) and a stuntwoman (Tracie Thoms, hilariously sassy and foul-mouthed) welcome an old friend from New Zealand (Zoë Bell, as herself!?), also a stuntwoman, and they hang out – told ya, it’s that kind of movie. But before too long we’re back on the road for an even more brutal action sequence, one of the best car chases I’ve ever seen. You got Stuntman Mike and his death-proof car trying to run over girls again (why? maybe he’s just watched Cronenberg’s “Crash” too many times, heh)… But these aren’t just any women, they’re stuntwomen, so Stuntman Mike’s got his work cut out for him. What happens from there is as exciting and fun as it gets, and it culminates in a note-perfect final shot.
“Death Proof” is a masterpiece, the best film of its kind I’ve seen since “A History of Violence”. Those two actually have something in common, in the way that they take a genre and turn it inside out, spending more time with the characters than you’d expect. And when violence erupts, it’s all the more powerful because the characters aren’t just one-note good or bad guys.
Some folks, women mostly, hated DP (how apt that those are the initials, as it’s pretty much all about penetration/ramming into?), and I have a theory why: either a) QT gets the girly talk right and, since women hear it all of the time already, it’s without interest, or b) his girly talk is purely a man-fantasy, which makes it dismissable to women. In any case, I myself was thoroughly fascinated by all the crazy sexy beautiful chicks and could have spent hours listening to them chat. Whether girls like this exist or not, I’d love to hang out with them.
Some also think there’s too much “pointless” talking, when there’s always a lot more going on. In the first half, as much as the girls talk, as important is their body language and what’s going on around them in the bar, plus Stuntman Mike’s progressive intrusion into their inner circle. Here’s a movie that might benefit from being shown with the sound off – there isn’t a throwaway shot in there. Then at the outset of the second half, it’s almost all set up for the action-packed climax. It’s almost Chekhov, for chrissakes – ***SPOILERS FROM HERE ON IN*** they talk about Kim carrying a gun, boom, it’s put to use later on. They tell that great story about Zoë surviving a fall into a ditch in the Philippines, whadyaknow, she pulls another “cats”-trick like that at the end (proving that SHE’s the one who’s really “Death Proof”, even more than Stuntman Mike’s car!), and so on.
In a more general vein, notice that the remainder of the dialogue, with both girl posses, is almost all about guys, love vs. lust, courtship, etc. Then Stuntman Mike shows up and, quite overtly I think, his actions are the almost purely action-driven punchlines to what was said before, especially at the end. It’s like he’s one of those stupid guys they talk about, ramming into them like an idiot then trying to bail, but these girls aren’t pushovers – they turn the tables around and show him who’s wearing the pants in this post-feminist world!
As you probably know, “Death Proof” was originally released in North America as part of a double feature with Robert Rodriguez’ “Planet Terror”, under the moniker “Grindhouse”. Furthermore, this here review of the standalone, extended cut of Tarantino’s contribution is in great part a reworked version of what I wrote about it in my Grindhouse review .