2019 Film Essays

Once Upon a Time in Tarantinoland: ‘Death Proof’ Is a Fun Grindhouse Detour But a Lesser Tarantino Film

Welcome to John Brhel’s “Once Upon a Time in Tarantinoland” a look back at all eight of Quentin Tarantino’s feature films, in anticipation of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’s July 26 release. The fifth installment examines Tarantino’s 2007 Grindhouse segment, Death Proof.

With Kill Bill, Quentin Tarantino blended his favorite grindhouse/exploitation genres to tell an original, high-octane tale of revenge, but it wasn’t a direct aping of 70s samurai or kung fu flicks — it was a postmodern mash-up, told through his unique lens. But apparently that didn’t scratch the director’s grindhouse itch. With Death Proof, one half of the double feature Grindhouse, Tarantino went all in and made an actual grindhouse film. Well, a grindhouse film that looks a hell of a lot better than most grindhouse films, and one that still possesses Tarantino’s wit and visual panache. In sticking so slavishly to formula, it’s not as inventive as his other films, but it does tap into some feminist themes that make it particularly relevant for the #MeToo era.

Gritty But Pretty

As soon as Death Proof begins, things are a tad askew. The film looks grainy and deteriorated, as if it’d been stored in someone’s damp basement for years. An editing “error” appears showing the original title of the film: Quentin Tarantino’s Thunderbolt. And it’s all intentional. Grindhouse flicks were notoriously cheap and filthy-looking, and Tarantino captures the aesthetic, taking viewers back to the seedy, low-rent theaters where these types of films used to play. Fake “cigarette burns,” scratches and an oversaturated color palette give the film a look that is unmistakably 1970s (it doesn’t hurt that the cars and half the clothes look like they’re straight out of Dazed and Confused). It’s almost cartoonish, akin to someone taking a photo and using one of Instagram’s vintage photo filters, but it creates just the vibe he’s going for.

Where Death Proof differs from actual grindhouse flicks, however, is in the cinematography. This is a well-shot film — not incredible, nothing you’d hang on your wall or make your computer’s wallpaper, but competent and purposeful. Take the conversation at the diner with Abernathy, Kim and Lee. Tarantino repeats his slow pan around the table seen in the diner scene from the beginning of Reservoir Dogs, and it’s revealed that Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) is actually seated at the bar. There’s art to the sequence — purpose — and that can be attributed to Tarantino, who actually served as director of photography for the first time around.

Seeing that this is a movie about a crazed stunt car driver, it’s a good thing that the car chase scenes are so impressive. Tarantino had learned a thing or two about how to shoot action in Kill Bill, and it shows. When stuntwoman Zoë Bell clings to the hood of a 1970 Dodge Challenger, which is whipping this way and that way across the road, it’s nuts. I mean, she’s really on the hood of that car, speeding down the road. It’s dangerous stuff. Tarantino didn’t want to shoot any of the car scenes in CGI, and thank god he didn’t. Death Proof lives and dies on its stunts, and they pack a punch.

A Threadbare Story

Think about Death Proof’s plot. A crazed stuntman uses his car to murder four women. He attempts to murder three more, but they fight back and kill him. There’s really not much to the story, and it’s in keeping with the grindhouse genre. It’s all thrills and chills. It’s not an intellectual exercise or a high-minded drama — there’s a slo-mo scene of a young woman’s leg getting sawed off in a car wreck, for crying out loud.

Tarantino avoided doing a straight slasher movie because he believed that the formula was too rigid. Veer too far off and you’re being unfaithful to the genre. But Tarantino was beholden to the tropes found in slasher and muscle car films of the 70s, and that might be a sour point for those expecting another Pulp Fiction or Reservoir Dogs. Your enjoyment of the film will depend on whether you’re willing to buy in on the concept. There’s none of Tarantino’s non-linear trickery here, nor are there too many pop culture references or all-timer amazing monologues from badass gangsters.

But even as a cheap exploitation flick, Death Proof’s script is pretty weak. The first group of women are murdered in a first act that seems to go on forever, with tons of mostly inconsequential dialogue that doesn’t pertain to the storyline (more about that below) — side stories that never pay off. It’s really an overextended opening kill that only sets up the second half. And again, there are conversations that drag on that don’t drive the story along in any way, no pun intended. Why have long conversations if they’re not going to pay off, especially in a movie that’s supposed to be visceral trash? It’s strange to see Tarantino drop the ball in this way. At least Pulp Fiction’s “Royale with Cheese” conversation is funny.

A Timely Revenge Tale

Death Proof should have come out today. Why? It’s a film about a man who preys on women, who sees them as objects whom he can treat as he desires, and who is utterly owned by those women at the end. That this film was executive produced by Harvey Weinstein is sadly ironic. Stuntman Mike leers over women, and has candid photos of them clipped to his car mirrors. The camera echoes his gaze: there are long shots of women’s feet (Oh, Quentin), butts, crotches, etc. It’s in keeping with grindhouse films — the women were objectified and often scantily clad, if at all.

The best part about Death Proof’s second half is how Tarantino flips the script. When Stuntman Mike pushes the women’s borrowed car off the road, it seems as if he’s going to kill all but one, leaving Rosario Dawson as the cliched “final girl.” But Kim suddenly shoots Stuntman Mike and he speeds off in his car. It’s here where the character’s true nature is revealed. Stuntman Mike is a panicked, weak man, crying because things didn’t work out his way. The stuntwomen exact their revenge, and it’s over the top, but hell, this is grindhouse, and it’s empowering to see women, who have been objectified and underestimated the entire film, win in the end.

Tarantino had explored the revenge fantasy in Kill Bill, and if you look and listen closely, you can see that he is acknowledging the similarities in Death Proof. The car that the stuntwomen initially drive is yellow and black, like The Bride’s jumpsuit. Abernathy’s ringtone is the same tune (Bernard Herrmann’s “Twisted Nerve”) whistled by Daryl Hannah’s Elle Driver in Kill Bill. And there’s even a direct crossover: the sheriff and deputy from Kill Bill make an appearance at the midway point of the movie.

Death Proof doesn’t have the depth, nor the iconic moments, of films like Pulp Fiction or Reservoir Dogs. Tarantino is at his best when he mashes genres together but does his own thing. Death Proof is too singularly grindhouse, but it works as a fun, trashy flick, and a cool female empowerment story. This would end the director’s deep dive into grindhouse — period pieces would be next — but the tropes and concepts featured in these types of films would continue to run throughout his work.

John Brhel (@johnbrhel) is an author and pop culture writer from upstate New York. He is the co-author of several books of horror/paranormal fiction, including Corpse Cold: New American Folklore and Resurrection High, and the co-founder of independent book publisher Cemetery Gates Media. He enjoys burritos and has seen Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom way too many times.

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