note: article contains spoilers
“Which way you going, left or right?”
“Death Proof” was originally released as the second part of “Grindhouse”; a double feature presentation from Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, inspired by the grindhouse cinema of the 70’s. And although Mr. Rodriguez seemed to miss the point of this exercise with his segment, Quentin managed to pull off one of him most interesting, and indeed most over indulgent films. But the cinema of Quentin Tarantino was always the cinema of indulgence, and that’s where a lot of its draw lies. And these indulgences are always grounded not only in Tarantino’s film obsessions and personal fetishes but are also structured in to his films, and are very based in his narratives and characters. Except for “Death Proof”, that is.
The film itself is a meeting of a revisionist slasher and a classic chase film, both of which were very popular genres during the grindhouse era. So the film is segmented in to two halves with a little in-between that precisely illuminates the nature of our killer, Stuntman Mike.
In the structure of the film Tarantino takes absolute liberties in the sense that he only focuses on the interesting parts of a slasher film, the setup and the first kill. He sets up a complete film however; introducing a pose of attractive girls that could be taken out one at a time, a lake-house destination for the second act, and even a group of horny boys. But this is all a distraction and a setup for one of the most gruesome killing scenes in the genre. This is because the mentioned killer, Stuntman Mike, doesn’t use a hatchet or a knife as his tool of choice. No, he uses his car. And in a single gruesome and awesome crash scene he takes out all his targets, and the mentioned set-up with them. Here Quentin gently tips his hat to David Cronenberg and takes probably one of the most bizarre fetishes in modern cinema straight from “Crash”, and infuses it in to his killer. And what would be more perfect for a stuntman killer anyway?
But for me personally the most intriguing aspect of this first segment is the role Quentin Tarantino plays himself. On paper he’s practically a background character, Warren the bartender, but with it Tarantino does probably the best gag of the entire film. He is directing his film from within the scene. The first sign of this is just after he appears, the shot of drink he takes in celebration he follows with the line “Post time!” openly celebrating the editing stage of the film. Then further on he orders the waitress to switch the parking light on, which reveals Stuntman Mike’s car to Butterfly; one of the girls Mike is stalking. And the most obvious one is the exchange between Pam and Warren where she asks him who Stuntman Mike is. The dialogue between them feels more like an exchange between a confused actress and her avoidant director than between two characters.
Is it indulgent? You bet! But it’s also utterly original and to my knowledge quite unprecedented, and only a director of Tarantino’s bravado could be able to pull this off.
In the second half of the film we meet a new set of girls that Stuntman Mike is stalking. And just like he was only focusing on the interesting parts of the slasher in the first half of the movie, here he’s only focused on the interesting parts of a chase film. The set-up and the chase itself. But in this case Tarantino avoids any distractions and invest all his time in to developing these characters for the grand finale of the film, which is one of the best chase sequences in recent memory.
With “Death Proof” Tarantino really walks a fine line because he fetishizes practically every aspect of his film, all in the name of this grindhouse emulation and his personal whims. Usually his style and his self-gratifying urges are the slaves of his narrative and the characters that inhabit his films, but in “Death Proof” these preferences seem to be reversed. I am certain that this is why a lot of people dismiss “Death Proof” as a lesser Tarantino film and see it just as a stepping stone between his two great epics, “Kill Bill” and “Inglourious Basterds”. But to dismiss the film for something this marginal means to dismiss this master-filmmaker when he’s at his most liberated.
Kurt Russell - Stuntman Mike
Sydney Poitier - Jungle Julia
Vanessa Ferlito - Arlene
Rosario Dawson - Abernathy
Zoe Bell - herself
Death Proof on IMDb