Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on laptop.
Anyone who has read this blog for any length of time will know that I think Quentin Tarantino is a vastly overrated director. I’ll admit that some of his films have a certain style to them, and when he first showed up in the film industry, there was an unmistakable sense of brashness to his work. But then he seems to do the same thing over and over again. So much of Tarantino’s work, despite being touted as so wonderfully original, is completely derivative. Everything he does seems to be a reference to something else, and the more obscure the reference, the happier it makes him. Tarantino’s movies are less about the movie and less about the story than they are demonstrating that Quentin Tarantino is smarter than you and I are. He wants to make sure that you know he can reference more obscure movies than you and that he knows more about weird bands from the past than you do. And nowhere are these qualities more in evidence than in Death Proof, the back half of Grindhouse, his project with Robert Rodriguez.
I can’t pretend that I was looking forward to this rewatch even with the promise of the “scene missing” scenes from Grindhouse being “restored” in this version. I went into this knowing that I disliked it and I didn’t expect there to be anything here that would change this fact. And you know what? There wasn’t.
Here’s the entire plot of Death Proof: a group of young women are killed by a psychotic stuntman who gets away with the crime. Later, another group of women completely unrelated to the first group tangle with the same psychotic stuntman and manage to turn the tables on him. That’s it. Essentially, there’s a build-up to the middle of the film where Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) slaughters a passel of women. Then, with an entirely new crop of characters, we have to again go through character development so that we can have a giant car chase to conclude the film.
Because Death Proof is almost literally a movie of two halves, I’m going to discuss the two halves individually. Seriously, the only connection is the character of Stuntman Mike and his car, as well as his desire to slaughter young women. In many respects, it’s almost two different movies, or at least two different episodes of the same television show.
The first half spends a great deal of its time setting up a group relationship. This group consists of DJ “Jungle” Julia (Sydney Tamiia Poitier) and her friends Shanna (Jordan Ladd) and Arlene (Vanessa Ferlito). The entire first section revolves around the fact that it is Arlene’s birthday. On her show, Julia has announced to Austin, Texas, that her friend “Butterfly” (and that’s Arlene) is in town for her birthday. Anyone who identifies her as Butterfly, buys her a drink, and recites a bit of Robert Frost to her will be graced with a lap dance. So, naturally, it’s our boy Stuntman Mike who earns himself a lap dance. Following this, Mike offers a ride home to Pam (Rose McGowan), abandoned by her date. Rather than getting her home, he uses his car—beefed up as it is on the driver’s side—to batter her to death in the passenger’s seat. And then he hunts down the other women, with fourth friend Lanna (Monica Staggs) added in to fill out the ranks and smashes into them with his car, killing all four in increasingly awful and slow-motion enhanced ways.
Part two is similar. This time, our trio of women—Abernathy (Rosario Dawson), Lee (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and Kim (Tracie Thoms)—are joined by stuntperson Zoe Bell (Zoe Bell—not “as herself,” and this is important). Zoe, in America for her first time, wants desperately to drive the car used in Vanishing Point, and specifically wants to do this splayed on the hood of the car. It just so happens that a local has that very car for sale, so off the quartet goes to test drive the car, a feat only accomplished by telling the car’s owner that Lee is a porn actress and will more or less have sex with him while they are gone. Of course Stuntman Mike shows up and there’s a long car chase and lots of Grrl Power to close things out.
So what’s to object to? Well, in my case, quite a bit. What follows is going to be a series of messy paragraphs. I’ll do my best to stay as close to on track as I can, but I promise nothing.
To start with, everyone in this film is just Quentin Tarantino. Tarantino is frequently touted as being capable of writing such good, realistic dialogue, but Death Proof demonstrates the lie of that assertion. What Tarantino can do is write dialogue that makes everyone sound like him, be they male or female, black, white, Hispanic, or Asian. When Tarantino wants to show his audience how smart he is, he has one of his characters make an oblique reference to something. See how smart?
Second, and this is the big one for me, is that Death Proof reads as being little more than what Quentin Tarantino puts in his DVD player when he wants to jerk off. I’m often a crude speaker in real life, but I don’t drop a lot of profanity on this blog. I’m about to, though, because it’s the only way this can be described. Tarantino’s foot fetish is long attested to by his movies, but nowhere in his filmography has he include so many shots dedicated to almost literally fucking one of his actresses’ feet with his camera.
Third is his shameless pandering. There’s a huge section of the second half of the film dedicated to talking about how awesome Zoe Bell is. I said above that it was important that it’s not “Zoe Bell as herself” but “Zoe Bell as Zoe Bell,” because she’s playing an idealized version of herself here. That idealized version of herself is more or less to make her superhuman and to have the other characters tell her to her face how awesome she is. It’s smarmy.
Last, and this is also a big one, is that Death Proof has no point. There are perhaps two “money” scenes in this (the end of the first half and the chase) and the rest is filler designed to have Tarantino write dialogue that shows how smart he is. The full version of this runs just under two hours when it would be a lot more appropriate for it to be about 75 minutes. But, ego being what it is, we had to be subjected to the great man’s genius for an extra 40 minutes.
Yeah…I won’t be watching this one again.
Why to watch Death Proof: You buy the Tarantino hype.
Why not to watch: How much time do you really want to spend watching Quentin Tarantino’s masturbation material?