"Death Proof" Film Review
By: Nathaniel Simpson
If you have been following Quentin Tarantino's filmography up until now, you can tell he takes a lot of inspiration and makes a lot of homages for the classic cinema he grew up watching. Whether it was old samurai films or classic musicals, Tarantino saw a lot growing up, according to the famous director himself. Coming off the success of his "Kill Bill" films, he decided to want to tackle a film that is based off the old Grindhouse films, which he titled "Death Proof". Under a double bill with Robert Rodriguez's "Planet Terror", the two successful directors wanted to transport viewers back to the old Grindhouse theaters, which featured graphic films that were usually shot for a very low budget. While I can genuinely appreciate what Tarantino was going for, and for him adding in some excellent sequences with Kurt Russell's Stuntman Mike, I don't think this movie really works as well as his previous movies in multiple aspects.
The movie opens on three young women: Arlene (Vanessa Ferlito), Shanna (Jordan Ladd), and Julia, who goes by her DJ name, Jungle Julia (Sydney Poitier, not to be confused for her father, Sidney Poitier). They planned a whole day to go drinking and eating Mexican food, then meet with some of the guys they have been hooking up with that night. When they arrive at the Mexican restaurant, Arlene notices that a creepy guy in a creepier car has been following them, always revving off when he sees that she notices him.
That man is Stuntman Mike, who introduces himself later that night at the bar they all go to. He is certainly an odd fellow, and people are scared of the gruesome scar that goes down the left side of his face. When he offers to take a young woman (Rose McGowan), who is clearly intoxicated, home, she accepts as everyone in the bar tells her of Stuntman Mike and the movies he has been in. However, what she and anybody else knows, is that he is actually a crazed serial killer, who preys on young girls. He loads them up in his "death proof" car (which we later find out is only applicable for the driver), and then crashes the car or swerves around violently until the girl dies in the passenger seat.
This movie is split into two halves in a way, and I would say this is definitely the weaker half of the two. Much of this segment focuses on the young women talking and complaining to each other about the things going on in their lives, and the gruesome murders that the Grindhouse films are known for don't really start until the last couple minutes of this half of the film. Because of how it is structured and the dialogue they are given, the three women are very unlikable characters. If Tarantino tried to make them into likable protagonists, in his vision of how women talk and interact with one another, then I think he failed at that as the viewer is finding themselves rooting for Stuntman Mike in a way.
Now, this is not to say the audience condones what Mike is doing, but in a way, it feels like the women and their posse of men are the true bad guys here. Consider the scene where two of the guys, played by Eli Roth and Michael Bacall, are at the bar next to Mike to grab more shots for the ladies, hoping to get them drunk enough to end up in their bed for the night. They see Mike and the nasty scar that goes down his face, and instantly criticize and mock him for how he looks. Why would we, as the viewer, like characters like this?
However, when we get to the part where Mike finally commits his gruesome murders, it is very well shot and acted out by Russell. When he crashes his car into the girl's vehicle, it causes a gruesome mess that will forever be burned into the brain of the viewer. From Jungle Julia's leg being grotesquely detached to the tire running over Arlene's face and taking her skin with it, it is both terrifying and sickening, and shot in a way only Tarantino can achieve.
After the murders of the three main girls, we then flash forward fourteen months later, where we meet a new slew of girls, who are, by far, way more likable than the previous three: Zoë (Zoë Bell, in a possible performance as herself), Lee (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Abernathy (Rosario Dawson), and Kim (Tracie Thoms). They are on a roadtrip to pick up Zoë from the airport as they are all shooting Hollywood films in the middle of Tennessee. What they don't know is that Mike is back, and is preying on these young girls to attack next.
This half of the film seems like a completely different movie than the first part, and in a very good way. The characters are more likable and fun, and in my opinion, are just better actors in this movie than those in the first half. This is nothing against the women who played the original characters, but I honestly enjoy this half of the film much more than the previous one.
The ending scene of this movie makes the entire experience for me. Everything about the final sequence where Mike is trying to run the women off the road while Zoë is hanging from the hood is excellently shot and sequenced, and I applaud everyone who was involved for this scene. It is perhaps one of Tarantino's best action sequences in his filmography, and the shining moment throughout the whole rest of this mediocre film.
One thing I can say for the entire film is that both halves genuinely contain too much dialogue and filler. In any other Tarantino movie, I wouldn't complain. His dialogue is usually spot on and so much fun to watch. However, with this one, it seems like he is off his game in a way, delivering amateurish dialogue that is simply a bore sometimes to listen to. There is one scene in the second half where Zoë and Kim are talking, with the former trying to convince the latter to do a stunt where she will hang off the front of the vehicle. It wastes about three minutes of the film, where it could have easily been a thirty-second conversation. That's how a lot of conversations work in this film, and it seems like Tarantino was sort of grasping at straws to keep the movie moving forward.
I do appreciate him taking on the role of Director of Photography, serving as the first movie Tarantino was ever in charge of cinematography. I personally think he did a wonderful job, and this is perhaps the best thing about this film. From the beautiful shots to the scratches and disfigurement of the film reel to get the Grindhouse effect, I think this movie is really made by the cinematography, which sort of forgives the film for its bad dialogue and too long movie.
This is an art form that Tarantino tried to recreate, but I don't think it worked in many different aspects. Like I said, I applaud him for trying and I think he should be proud for bringing back an art form like this, but I think he needs to stick to the films in the genre he has originally dabbled in, with smart and quick-witted characters and a fast-moving and fun plot. Looking through all of Tarantino's filmography, I would say this is his only dud, and even then, it is still a good film. I wouldn't classify it as bad at all. So, when looking at his films compared to other directors, it is very impressive to have such a success in filmmaking as Tarantino has.