In Praise of ‘Death Proof,’ One of Quentin Tarantino’s Best Movies

In Praise of 'Death Proof,' One of Quentin Tarantino's Best Movies
Praise of 'Death Proof,' One of Quentin Tarantino's Best Movies

The following post contains SPOILERS for “Death Proof.”

Quentin Tarantino knows how to get people’s attention. Out on the interview circuit promoting “Django Unchained,” he’s already: 

-Announced a possible retirement.

-Slammed legendary Hollywood director John Ford.

-Discussed a possible third installment in a revenge trilogy that includes his latest film and “Inglourious Basterds.”

-Declared 2007’s “Death Proof” the worst movie he’s ever made

In the midst of all this, “Django” just opened to the best grosses of Tarantino’s career. So the guy’s doing something right.

He might not be right about “Death Proof,” though — on a few counts. Discussing his career and his Hollywood exit strategy with The Hollywood Reporter, Tarantino said that:

“To me, it’s all about my filmography, and I want to go out with a terrific filmography. ‘Death Proof’ has got to be the worst movie I ever make. And for a left-handed movie, that wasn’t so bad, all right? — so if that’s the worst I ever get, I’m good.”

Even more important than his own work, Tarantino says, is the way that work is screened. He hates digital projection and digital filmmaking, and he wants no part of it:

“Part of the reason I’m feeling this way is I can’t stand all this digital stuff. This is not what I signed on for… it’s just television in public.”

Tarantino’s not saying “Death Proof” is bad, just that he likes it the least of all the movies he’s made. But I think he’s got it wrong. “Death Proof”‘s not the worst movie of his career by a long shot. And if he’s really quitting the movies because he hates “television in public” then “Death Proof” is not only a good film, it’s also the most important and most personal of his entire career.

It premiered as part of an unusual theatrical experiment called “Grindhouse.” Tarantino and his frequent collaborator Robert Rodriguez each made an exploitation film, and then packaged them together as a double feature. For one ticket, you got to see Tarantino’s “Death Proof” and Rodriguez’s “Planet Terror,” plus a bunch of fake trailers and vintage house ads. The idea was to recreate the experience of going to see sleazy movies at one of the so-called “grindhouses” that populated New York’s 42nd Street in the 1970s.

In an era when some filmmakers cut a single story into three films to maximize their profits, Tarantino and Rodriguez actually gave viewers two complete stories for the price of one. It was an interesting idea — and a complete flop. “Grindhouse” earned just $25.0 million at the U.S. box office; adjusted for inflation, it’s Tarantino’s second lowest grossing film of his career after the tiny, independent “Reservoir Dogs” (in comparison, “Django Unchained” has already grossed $25.5 million — in less than a single week of release). In light of that alone, I’m not surprised it’s his least favorite film.

As part of the hook of “Grindhouse” and its throwback aesthetic, both films were artificially aged to look like they could have been lost movies from the drive-in days. Their images were weathered, discolored, and scratched; jagged jump cuts were made to mimic the wear-and-tear on an old film print that was damaged and repaired. Even the title card, jarringly superimposed over the opening credits, looks like a last-minute replacement for an original title (“Thunderbolt”) that was changed by, say, a flighty distributor who got sued by someone who had a prior claim on that name.

At the time of “Grindhouse”‘s release, most of these overt nods to the bygone era of exploitation cinema were seen as little more than gimmicks. Just five years later, “Death Proof”‘s aged look feels far more poignant. With digital projection the new industry standard, it’s now a farewell not just to an obscure footnote in the history of cinematic exhibition, but to an entire century of celluloid filmmaking technology. All of Quentin Tarantino’s movies are stuffed with the love of movies, but “Death Proof” is the one most stuffed with the love of film, the tactile, physical medium that became the dominant art form of the twentieth century but was still anything but death-proof.

The nuances of its story, designed to ape the look and feel of old trash, are easily missed. It follows two sets of women as they are stalked by psychotic “Stuntman” Mike McKay (Kurt Russell), who owns a “death-proof” car: strapped into its heavily fortified driver’s seat, he can’t be killed in a traffic accident no matter how gruesome or violent. So he prowls the South, killing beautiful women in brutal car collisions, walking away time and again with a clean bill of health and a cleaner criminal record.

Mike’s first targets — Jungle Julia (Sydney Poitier), Arlene (Vanessa Ferlito), and Shanna (Jordan Ladd) — are out for a night on the town in Austin, Texas when they catch Mike’s eye. After dinner at a taco hut, they decamp to a local bar, where Mike charms the women and scores a lap dance from Arlene. When they leave, Mike pursues and kills them. Fourteen months later in Lebanon, Tennessee, he finds another batch of potential victims: Abernathy (Rosario Dawson), Kim (Tracie Thoms), Lee (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Zoe Bell (as herself), on a day off from a Hollywood movie shooting in the area. Zoe is a stuntwoman herself, and a fairly badass one at that, and after Mike pursues them, they turn the tables, and pursue and kill him instead.

The fact that Mike McKay is a stuntman is important; it’s another ode on Tarantino’s part to the days of practical movie magic. Most modern movies involving car chases and crashes are performed digitally by computers — a fact that is brought up, and scoffed at, by Stuntman Mike in a conversation with his first victim, Pam (Rose McGowan). Mike says he belongs to that great old tradition where “anyone fool enough to throw himself down a flight of stairs” could “usually find someone to pay him for it.” And Tarantino is clearly in awe of that old brotherhood, and he elevates Mike to the status of a near-immortal. In that death-proof car of his, Mike is literally untouchable. 

In fact, the only person tough enough and cool enough to kill Stuntman Mike is another stuntman — or stuntwoman, in this case. Bell doubled for Uma Thurman in Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” and here he gives her a showcase all her own. The remarkable final car chase includes a lengthy sequence, shot practically, where Bell hangs on to the hood of a speeding car as Stuntman Mike crashes into it in his own death-proof vehicle. 

Rather than continue to use someone like Bell behind the scenes, Tarantino demystifies the stuntman profession to reveal the difficulty and importance of its work. The sequence above is suspenseful and frightening specifically because it impresses upon the viewer the tangible power of old school stunts. It could be accomplished far more easily and at much less expense on one of Robert Rodriguez’s green screen stages at Troublemaker Studios; just throw Bell on the hood of a car, add a few wind machines, and voila. But sticking her onto a real car that’s really driving at high speed and really getting slammed by another real car on a real dirt road heightens every bit of the danger. In digital, it’s just another scene. With stuntwork, it’s one of the most memorable car chases ever recorded on film.

“Death Proof”‘s whole scenario is recycled from stock horror and thriller materials, but it’s also littered with Tarantino’s personal touches. Stuntman Mike seems to select his victims by looking for women who stick their bare feet (a notorious QT fetish) out their car windows. In fact, most of the first half of the film right up until the big car crash feels like some kind of distilled Tarantino fantasy of the perfect night out. He cast himself as the bartender at a watering hole where all the woman are gorgeous and ready to do shots with him. The jukebox — which was apparently Tarantino’s personal jukebox, shipped down to Austin for the shoot — is stocked with a Tarantinoian array of eclectic funk, soul, and rock songs.

Tarantino shot “Death Proof” himself — the only time in his career he’s served as his own cinematographer. He did a superb job, too; a fact I think gets overlooked because the weathering of the film’s image masks the quality of his photography. Still, there’s no disguising how well he shot that final battle between Mike and Zoe, Kim, and Abernathy. And there are iconic images throughout: Arlene walking onto the bar’s rainy porch and spying Mike’s car for the first time; Mike chowing his nachos grande platter; Abernathy howling in terror as we see Mike approach through the passenger side window and slam repeatedly into their car; the opening shot of feet bobbing on a dashboard in time to Jack Nitzsche’s pounding theme song. All of those are the work of a great director and a great cinematographer.

As previously mentioned, Tarantino says he’s strongly considering following “Django Unchained” with a project called “Killer Crow” that would complete his trilogy of revenge films. It would follow a group of aggrieved African-American soldiers in World War II who seek vengeance against the white troops who wronged them. Sounds cool — but Tarantino already made his trilogy of revenge films, and “Death Proof” is the first and best part. Its abused minority seeking bloody justice are women, who are defiled and objectified — not just by Stuntman Mike, but also by the horndog douchebags at the Austin bar and the redneck who lends the ladies his 1970 Dodge Challenger — but reign triumphant in the end.

All the movies in this trilogy have moments where the oppressed seize power from the oppressors: the Jewish Basterds get Hitler; Django returns to Candyland; Kim shoots Stuntman Mike in the arm. Maybe someday “Death Proof” will get its own reversal, and this glorious gesture in defiance of the end of celluloid, this tribute to the unkillable greatness of classic stunt work, will get the credit it so richly deserves. That would be sweet revenge indeed.

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