2000s, 3/4, Action, Quentin Tarantino, Review

Death Proof

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#9 in my Ranking of Quentin Tarantino movies.

Instead of making a grindhouse movie, Tarantino made a Tarantino slasher movie. It mostly works.

The structure of the film is defined by its two halves. The first half, follows a group of four young women as they have an evening out in Austin, Texas. Because they are in a Tarantino movie, they talk about this and that, building up strong and defined characters for the audience to latch onto. There’s Jungle Julia, the DJ with dreams of owning her own record label, and Butterfly, her friend from out of town. There are a couple of others, but they mostly just don’t matter.

As the evening goes on, they’re getting close to getting picked up when a new figure enters the scene. He’s an older man in a leather jacket covered in ads named Stuntman Mike. He interacts with them, but there’s always this underlying threat about how he talks to them. He’s a dangerous man, and it becomes obvious when he approaches Butterfly and recites a promised poem to her that the danger has an appeal to these women. It’s a scene rife with sexual tension, but the secret is that Stuntman Mike isn’t getting off on it. It’s some sort of build up for him to get him to the place where he finds real gratification.

Taking a lone girl in his car that he describes as “death proof”, he ends up slamming her around the cab since it’s only his seat that’s proofed. The passenger seat is a recipe for danger. She dies, and then he goes on a search for the four other girls, slamming into them head first on a country road and killing all four.

The second half begins in much the same way as before. There are four women who talk about their lives and their problems with men. We see Stuntman Mike in the background, so there’s the hint of defined danger that we don’t feel in the first half. The girls are taking a day off from shooting a movie in the middle of Tennessee and are looking to test drive in a muscle car for sale nearby. Leaving one of the three girls behind as a sort of collateral, the other three take the car and begin to play dangerous games on top as a source of fun. That fun gets cut short when Stuntman Mike shows up and starts ramming it with one of them (the stuntwoman Zoe Bell) hanging onto the hood with nothing but belts secured to the doors. They give a good chase, scared for their lives the whole time, until Stuntman Mike has his fill. Both cars come to a stop and Mike pops out with a big smile calling it a good time. Just as he’s about to drive away, one of the girls shoots him in the arm before Mike cries in pain and, in a panic, peels off.

So, this is something that I have a problem with in the movie. From the perspective of these three girls, Stuntman Mike is a guy who tried to drive them off the road and nothing else. He was dangerous, and possibly tried to kill them, but that’s far from what they know for certain. When they shoot him (which I don’t have a problem with), he’s actually saying goodbye. He’s going to leave them alone after that point. It is at that point where the girls completely turn the tables and start to drive Mike off the road. It’s no longer self-protection, it’s pure revenge, but revenge for what? The self-righteousness of their actions and emotions can be shared by the audience since we know what happened to the first group of girls, but the second group doesn’t know that. There’s a disconnect between the characters, their actions, their motives, and the intended result on the audience that puts me off a bit. It’s not that Stuntman Mike didn’t deserve to get punched 37 times in 30 seconds before a roundhouse kick, it’s that the girls doing it arguably over-reacted considering the specific information and situation they were in.

One simple change would have kept me from feeling that, though. Instead of Stuntman Mike saying goodbye when he’s at his emotional high, he says, “Ready to go again?” Then I’m totally okay with the girls turning the tables so enthusiastically.

Anyway, past the reasons for the final leg of the great car chase, I love how Stuntman Mike gets so completely emasculated by the girls fighting back. It fits so perfectly with the choice of putting him in a death proof car. He wants to hurt other people without putting himself in danger, and the second that bubble of protection gets punctured, he doesn’t know what to do. He cries, he tries to manfully treat his bullet wound with bourbon but he writhes about like a child in response to the pain. It’s quite effective.

Overall, I like the dual structure of the film. It creates a sense of both foreboding and unpredictability around the resolution of the second half of the film. If Tarantino was willing to let the first group of girls die so horribly what is he willing to do with the second group? Their ultimate victory is done in a fantastic car chase and has some, limited, emotional impact. It’s probably his least movie, but it’s an entertaining ride, if a bit shaky.

Netflix Rating: 4/5

Quality Rating: 3/4

3 thoughts on “Death Proof”

  1. The phrase ‘Tarantino at his most self-indulgent’ gets tossed around a lot. Probably because a LOT of his content is self-indulgent rather than story for story’s sake or character’s sake. I don’t know if that applies here, but it feels like it could.

    Part of it is his fascination with stunt men and their culture. You know he digs into the totality of film making, paying attention to details most workmen and hacks don’t consider, be it character actors, stars, costumes, music and…the stuntmen. These are tough sons of bitches, athletes, who never get any time in the limelight. Here, Tarantino puts Zoe Bell who is both tough and a hot piece of ass, into the main protagonist role. Honestly, I applaud that.

    But it’s indulgent. It’s stuntman porn and car porn. And, again, it’s fine. I like porn. But it’s not wise to over-praise it, because porn isn’t about anything but fantasy and gratification. Worse, it’s wasteful.

    Because QT has the chance here to make a real Grindhouse movie, to make one of those dirty nastys and give modern audiences a taste of what film was like in the 60’s and 70’s away from the big tentpole films. But he squanders it.

    The hook is boring. A ‘death proof’ car. Yawn.
    Kurt Russel as bad guy. Wasted. Because when you cast Kurt Russell, you are casting Jack Burton, you’re casting Snake Plissken…all stuff that QT nails in Once Upon A Time in Hollywood. So we are seeing a male stuntman emasculated in this movie AND we’re seeing Kurt Russell emasculated.
    When you cast against type, it is an opportunity. Like getting Glen Ford to play the bad guy in Once Upon A Time in the West. It’s a golden moment and QT squanders it. Worse, it’s squandered in a cringe-inducing girl power ending montage.
    The survivor of a Grindhouse rampage should be like ‘Holy Shit…I’m still alive’ like at the end of Straw Dogs, The Duel or hell, even Deliverance. They shouldn’t be dancing around like millennial idiots.

    I don’t know what to make about Death Poof, apart from being disappointed in all of it.
    Though I do want to fuck Zoe Bell in the worst way.


    1. Yeah, it’s definitely his worst movie (even he agrees, apparently), but I think it still manages to work overall. I like the contrast of Kurt’s assured and confident self in the first half with his complete devolution in the second half. The stunts are definitely “extra” in a certain way for a time, but I think it gains a different character once the actual chase begins.

      And yeah, as I wrote, I think the actual turning of the tables could work better. He removes himself as a threat and then the girls go after him. It should have worked better.


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