Today's subject is a little of both. It's the 70s exploitation/slasher film throwback, Death Proof, aka Quentin Tarantino's Worst Movie. Originally released as half of the double-bill Grindhouse along with Robert Rodriguez's zombie pastiche Planet Terror (a bona fide ASM in its own right), Death Proof follows the slasher formula but with a crazed stunt driver committing vehicular homicide on groups of women. Oddly split into two halves, the story begins with an Austin, TX radio DJ and her friends going out to celebrate her birthday. Along the way they run afoul of Stuntman Mike, and it ends badly. In the second half Mike has relocated to Tennessee, stalking a new group of women, two of whom happen to be stunt drivers themselves, and it ends badly again, this time for Mike.
That's really all there is to the plot; like many horror films, particularly the slasher variety, it's all about style over substance. Fortunately Quentin Tarantino is the quintessential expert on imbuing a film with style and immersing the viewer in his detailed little worlds. There's a lot to like about this movie, and I find myself needing to rewatch it every few years to spend time with some interesting characters and see if there's more to this film than I remembered. There isn't really, but it's still a fun little romp and a lovingly created crappy 70s drive-in flick.
So let's look at the pros and cons of Death Proof...
Kurt Russell has to be one of my favorite actors who's done very few films I like. Sure there's The Thing, Backdraft, Tombstone, Guardians of the Galaxy 2, and three Tarantino outings, but he's also done a lotta crappy movies. Regardless though, Russell improves every film he's in. He oozes natural charisma and whether playing a hero or a villain you can't take your eyes off him. That's most certainly true in Death Proof, where he starts out charming everyone in the bar and making Tarantino's quirky dialogue jump off the page, and then morphs into a murderous maniac. Russell as Stuntman Mike is absolutely perfect casting.
|Careful, or in his book you'll be filed under Chickenshit...|
Speaking of "can't take your eyes off" someone, Sydney Tamiia Poiter as local DJ Jungle Julia absolutely commands the screen whenever she's on it. As Mike himself observes, "she is a striking-looking woman." Poiter is statuesque, effortlessly sexy, and bursting with sass. Why Tarantino never cast her in anything else after this is beyond me; I could watch her all day long.
One of the most fun things about Death Proof (the first half anyway), is the aged look of the film. Tarantino had his crew abuse the film stock so it would take on the damaged, grainy appearance of an authentic 70s grindhouse feature. Between the various spots and marks, high-contrast cinematography, poorly executed splices, "reel missing" notifications, and that comforting audio crackle, the first hour of this movie looks and sounds like it was made in 1972.
As with Tarantino's entire filmography, Death Proof boasts an eclectic, infectious soundtrack, including standouts like Smith's version of "Baby It's You," April March's "Chick Habit," and my personal favorite, The Coasters' "Down in Mexico." Just like Stanley Kubrick's music choices became forever tied to his movies, every Tarantino film offers obscure songs that take on new life thanks to their association with his films.
In spite of its slow pace and talkiness, I find the first half of Death Proof irresistibly fascinating. We're thrust into this story and feel like we're really spending the evening with Julia and her friends, we get to know Stuntman Mike and sense that something isn't right with him despite his natural charm, we experience the atmosphere of the Texas dive bar (I wanna hang out at this shithole), and by the time Mike reveals his true homicidal nature we care about the characters and what happens to them. I love the first half of this movie and wish the second had been a more worthy resolution to what's been set up.
|Now that is just rude...|
Alright, now for the stuff that doesn't hold up for me...
So after a stellar first half, which of course ends with Mike killing all the female characters but tricking the authorities into thinking it's an accident, while Sheriff Earl McGraw tells his son why he thinks otherwise, we're introduced to a new set of protagonists in a different state. Stuntman Mike's been asked to leave Texas and relocates to Tennessee, where he finds new would-be victims: stunt driver Kim, stuntwoman Zoe, movie star Lee and makeup specialist Abernathy, played by Tracie Thomas, Zoe Bell, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and Rosario Dawson, respectively. Now, all four of these actresses deliver solid performances; I especially like Thomas as the no-bullshit, tough-as-nails Kim, whose delivery reminds me of a female Samuel L. Jackson. But for some reason these characters don't land for me the same way their first-half counterparts do. Much of it probably has to do with the dialogue, which in the second half comes off as gratuitous and forced, like Tarantino ran out of interesting subjects for his characters to talk about. Much of it probably also has to do with the movie being over an hour old by this point and the audience not wanting to listen to more everyday chit-chat. But I didn't find these four nearly as much fun as Julia and her pals. Also the climax of this film consists of an extended car chase as Mike goes after Kim, Zoe and Abbie, but it goes on too long and the intensity quickly peters out, plus it feels out of place here, like the film changed from a slasher film to a Mad Max/Vanishing Point homage (the latter is of course directly referenced in this segment). The second half just doesn't hold my interest like the first, and the final payoff where the women beat Mike's ass to death doesn't feel as earned as it should.
|Eh, they're alright....|
No Grindhouse Style
Part of the issue is probably due to Tarantino inexplicably abandoning the scratchy, hacked-up style of the first half and presenting the second in his usual modern visual style. I can't for the life of me figure out why he did this; the theatrical presentation of Grindhouse was 75% scratched up. Why change that in the last 45 minutes? It makes the second half already visually less fun and takes you out of the 70s grindhouse experience.
As I mentioned, Kim, Zoe, Abbie and Lee's conversations were pretty flat and uninteresting to me, and come off as very engineered dialogue rather than natural conversations. They talk about who they're dating, why Kim carries a gun, the movie they're filming, etc., but unlike in the first half I never believed these were real people talking about this stuff. It feels like Tarantino dialogue for the sake of it.
Rosario Dawson's Delivery
I like Rosario Dawson as an actress. She's very talented and very likable. That said, I feel like her delivery of Tarantino's wordy dialogue feels rehearsed, in a different way than her delivery of Kevin Smith's wordy dialogue. Smith writes language no one would ever use, but it works in the context of a goofy slacker comedy. Tarantino's words need to sound natural and flow like a real conversation. Dawson has trouble doing that, and thus her performance feels stilted to me.
|I kinda liked her better in Clerks 2.|
-I know one of the tropes of slasher films is that the victims do stupid things that allow the killer to get them, but it seems lazy for a writer as gifted as Tarantino to have Pam get into a stranger's car with no seat belt and just that metal bucket for the camera operator to sit in. At that point wouldn't she just say "thanks but no thanks" and call a cab?
|You gotta either be an idiot or totally shitfaced to get in there.|
-While Kim runs into the convenience store to grab a coffee, Abby takes a nap in the backseat and Lee puts on her headphones and sings along with "Baby It's You." Unfortunately Mary Elizabeth Winstead changes keys during the chorus, forcing me to call bullshit on her actually listening to the tape as she sings. She was free-ballin' it, man! Either that or she's tone-deaf, but given the quality of her voice I don't believe that.
-There is zero chance, 1970 Dodge Challenger or no, that two women would leave their snoozing third friend, a famous actress no less, alone with some redneck weirdo after telling him that she's an adult film star and will bang him if he lets them take the car for a drive. Why didn't they just offer to leave Kim's car as collateral? Or, Abbie and Lee stay behind, with Kim's gun? The scenario as presented in the movie is both so far-fetched it takes us out of the movie and so douchey on the part of the protagonists it undermines our sympathy for them when Stuntman Mike attacks.
-During the elongated chase, while Zoe is clinging for dear life to the hood of the Challenger, why didn't Kim slow down and let Mike drive past, at least long enough for Zoe to get back in the car? Or shoot out his tires, or shoot at him so he backed off? There are multiple times where Mike's car starts to get ahead of her and she could've momentarily escaped the chase so Zoe didn't go flying off the hood.
|Seriously, he's ahead of you, slow down a little and let her get in!|
I like a lot about Death Proof. It's an exercise in a particular style that for a while really captures the mood and places us in a weird B-movie era in cult filmmaking, allows us to spend time with interesting people, and provides a charismatic but terrifying villain. But then halfway through it kinda tosses away everything that made the first hour fun. Compelling characters are replaced with less compelling characters, the grindhouse visual style goes away, and Stuntman Mike has almost no dialogue. It feels like Tarantino had a great idea but couldn't figure out how to complete it. Thus Death Proof never rises above the Guilty Pleasure category. I'll still watch it once in a while, as I said, but it's definitely his weakest effort. Still, as he himself admits, if Death Proof is your worst movie, that's pretty damn good.
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