Before we get down to brass tacks, I need to issue a quick disclaimer to cut the potential Gordian knot of this Death Proof (2007) review. I am not reviewing Grindhouse (2007) which, for the few who actually saw it in theaters, was constructed out of abridged versions of Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror (2007) and Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof (hereafter DP) and included previews for other coming attractions in the exploitation genre. My reason for doing so is pragmatic, as Grindhouse has not been released on video in the United States. The two films were elongated and separated for DVD release, making DP the only version of Tarantino’s film widely accessible to the contemporary viewer (I believe Japan is the only country where Grindhouse was released in its theatrical form on DVD). Thus, in this review, you will not find an assessment of DP with relation to the double-bill program. Tarantino and the Weinstein Brothers released a stand-alone text to the ancillary market and it will be treated as such.
DP, in both its 90 minute and 114 minute versions, never worked for me. This sad fact should come as no surprise for those of you treading through this retrospective with me, possibly holding the same hope that Inglorious Basterds (2009) will somehow redeem the mess known as DP. I wrote in my Jackie Brown (1997) review that I felt Tarantino had skidded off into producing films only capable of satisfying spectators with the same eclectic taste in films as himself. While I felt shades of that reaction during Kill Bill: Vols. 1-2 (2003-2004), my worst fears were realized after emerging from a screening of DP the other night. I voiced my displeasure to a friend, who responded, “Well, Tarantino was making an homage to a D-level exploitation film, so I guess in order for it to succeed, it had to fail. That’s its Catch-22.”
True words indeed: the Catch-22 of DP is exactly what produces my pure hatred, my undiluted loathing and contempt for the film. The fact is that Tarantino has deliberately produced a bad film that the spectator must watch ironically. We’re not supposed to drawn into this world; we’re not made to sympathize with the characters. No, we are held back by the sheer insanity of Tarantino’s noxious cocktail from feeling the slightest connection to this film and its diegesis. Allow me to be more specific, by offering up a spoiler riddled plot summary before, to paraphrase Jules in Pulp Fiction (1994), going structural on DP’s ass. The film’s first half involves two girls (Vanessa Ferlito and Jordan Ladd) taking their friend (Sydney Tamiia Poitier) out for her birthday. They get drunk, smoke weed, and discuss their desire to fool around with boys without getting too serious. Later that night, the grizzled Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) comes along with his death proof car, which allows him to engage in vehicular manslaughter without any medical consequence, and kills the three of them. During the film’s second half, Mike stalks four more women (Zoe Bell, Rosario Dawson, Tracie Thoms, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead) but ultimately finds that the tables have turned.
While my summary is undoubtedly facetious, it also remains a solid description. Concisely, DP is a film structured around 90 minutes of dull conversation from superficial characters we’re not supposed to empathize with in the slightest with a 30-minute car chase providing the viewer with a well-deserved reprieve. While I will concede the points that the car chase is indeed jaw-droppingly executed and that watching Kurt Russell’s Stuntman Mike get his comeuppance is extremely entertaining, the rest of the film is so incredibly weak that the final thirty minutes couldn’t help but get better. Without a doubt, the biggest weakness of the film is that it actually has potential. Tarantino makes some very intriguing moves, yet he quickly undermines and underlines them. Take, for instance, the killing off the film’s three main protagonists in the first hour of the movie. That’s a refreshing move (even if I’m playing naive by ignoring Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho). Yet, Tarantino undermines the power of it by using annoying characters as the fodder. Sure, you could argue that by using such characters Tarantino is aligning us with Mike in a Cronenbergesque move to make us relish the violence, ultimately manufacturing a startling critique of spectatorship. Yet, unlike Hitchcock or Cronenberg, Tarantino never follows through, undermining the promise of his original maneuver; it is purely a topical flourish.
As for a promising aspect of DP that ultimately becomes tired due to Tarantino’s heavy-handedness, look no further than the sexual subtext of Stuntman Mike and his actions. Even a viewer untrained in the theories of Sigmund Freud would have a hard time missing the sexual violence that stands at the center of Mike. For starters, Mike comes off as awkward amongst members of the opposite sex, particularly in the scene in which the girls offer him a toke of their joint. Then, there’s the hood ornament on his car, undeniably phallic, standing as the only way Mike is capable of physically engaging with members of the opposite sex (when he isn’t trying to fondle their feet when reaching for his dropped keys). Now, this subtext would make for some intellectually engaging celluloid if it weren’t underlined repeatedly. Sadly, Tarantino doesn’t stop with Mike’s social bumbling and the dick…sorry, I mean duck…car accessory. Instead, he supplies Sheriff Earl McGraw (Michael Parks) with nail on the head dialogue in which he speculates as to Stuntman Mike’s sexual sadism (“I’d guesstimate it’s a sex thing….Probably the only way that diabolical degenerate can shoot his goo.”). As if that weren’t enough, the sexual implications of the film’s climactic (pun intended) car chase, in which the girls rape the rapist, is also underlined with dialogue (“Oh you know I can’t let you go without tapping that ass one More TIME”) and a hood ornament. The subtext has become the text, all of the film’s subtleties have been blown out of proportion like Gallagher with his mallet and watermelon.
When all is said and done, DP is a barren, badly crafted film, which sadly appears to have been Tarantino’s objective. Undoubtedly, as many of the defenders of the film argue, many of film’s quirks are experimental. Despite the film’s feeble attempts at experimentation, what we ultimately are given is a piece of self-proclaimed trash that does its job too well. As I said before, we’re made to watch the film ironically. Well, personally, I’ve never been a huge practitioner of ironic spectatorship. Sure, I enjoy “Mystery Science Theater 3000” (1988-1999) from time to time or even a screening of Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2 (1987). Yet, DP isn’t like the bulk of bad films we watch sarcastically because, unlike Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959) or Troll 2 (1990), DP wasn’t produced with the slightest hint of sincerity. The failure of DP wouldn’t be such a travesty if Tarantino hadn’t begun his career with the three films that embodied cinematic enlightenment. In the end, the only enlightening aspect an optimist can walk away from Death Proof with is that they can now tell a bad film from a good one. Quentin, I hope you decide not to follow some of your colleagues in the American independent film movement (particularly Wes Anderson and Kevin Smith) by continuing to take the path of idiosyncratic self-indulgence. We’ll find out on Friday with Inglorious Basterds, for better or for worse, if the snarky shark has been completely jumped.
Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. He has previously written for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and UWM Post and is the 2008 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.