Quentin Tarantino has always been fascinated by the everyday talk of his characters. They don’t feel the need to give us exposition, nor are they comfortable discussing stuff that happens in the movie. They are us; they talk about things that have happened to them. Their past, their plans for the future, what they’re going to have for dinner, etc. It’s like we’re eavesdropping on their most intimate conversations, and we enjoy it.
Death Proof is an extension of this. Eighty percent of the movie is spent in dialogue. A bunch of girls gossip about drugs and men, and then they drink while gossiping about drugs and men. When they’re killed off in a super violent car crash, another group of chicks continue the conversation. “It’s just a bunch of girls sitting around and talking”, many of you complain. Is that such a problem? Are you bored by what they are saying? There is nothing of intelligence in their words, but the talking sidetracks us from the violence that ends each segment. And the genius of Death Proof is in how the events of the first segment prepare us for the events of the second.
Here’s what I mean. The movie opens with a group of girls (Sydney Poitier, Vanessa Ferlito, and Jordan Ladd) making their way to a couple of bars in Texas, before spending the night at a beach house. They have lengthy conversations at each location, meeting dates, missing dates, dancing to music, drinking shots. They’re all very happy. What they don’t know is that Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) has been tailing them for a while. Before they can get to the beach house, he rams his duck-mounted Chevy Nova into them at full speed, sending all sorts of body parts flying through the air (makes you think twice about sticking your leg out the car window). In the hospital, the sheriffs from Kill Bill (dad and Son Number One) suspect that Mike is a sex addict who gets off on killing multiple people at once, but they’ve got nothing to charge him with.
When the next batch of girls come face to face with him, the ante is upped because one of the girls, Zoe Bell (who doubled as Uma Thurman’s character in Kill Bill, and actually sliced a thrown baseball in half), is sprawled on their car’s bonnet. Oh, no, she doesn’t have safety gear either. She’s on the car, getting hit by Stuntman’s car, at full speed. All the while, what happened to the first group of girls is playing in our minds. We recall the leg flying, and now, we are expecting something much much worse. I remember being on edge the first time I watched this, because I had no idea what was going to happen. All I knew was that Zoe was in a lot of trouble.
And then Tarantino does something unexpectedly magical: He flips the tables and has the chicks chase the psycho killer. It’s actually pretty amazing. In most of his movies, QT respects the female gender. In Reservoir Dogs, his macho hitmen protect the rights of female waitresses in the opening breakfast scene; in Jackie Brown and Kill Bill, his heroes are women; in Inglourious Basterds, Shosanna blows up the cinema and succeeds in her mission, and in Death Proof, well, I needn’t say more. The third act of the movie is simply pure entertainment, reminiscent of the classic car shows of the ’60s and ’70s. Two cars zoom and roar as they chase after one another, banging into innocent drivers, sending motorcyclists crashing into cabins. It is a thrill ride with no moral, only the triumph of the woman.
But then again, none of QT’s movies have any real moral. They are products of ingenious style and very bold artistic choices. They are either very character driven, or they are wonderfully crafted genre pieces, heavily influenced by filmmakers and filming techniques of the past. Death Proof is a product of B-movie grindhouse pictures that populated the grungy movie scene of the ’70s and ’80s. It was once released together with Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror and a bunch of faux movie trailers under the name Grindhouse, a double-bill feature that eventually became too long and too tedious to make any money. So, they split the movies up and released them separately. It’s a good thing they did, because Death Proof is marvelous on its own.
Best Moment | The first car crash is pretty good. The one with the flying leg. But watching Kurt Russell getting his ass handed to him by a bunch of hardy girls is the icing on the cake.
Worst Moment | I’ll say again that the dialogue is never boring, but I feel that some of the characters are miscast. I didn’t quite like Sydney Poitier in her role, or Jordan Ladd. And I don’t know why I didn’t like the chick who plays Barry, with the Margaritas. Not really moments, but yeah.