Friday, 4 January 2013

Film Review | Death Proof (2007)

Quentin Tarantino's films have always had at least one foot in homage territory, paying tribute to the cinema that the self-confessed movie geek director loves and was raised on. Jackie Brown is, stylistically at least, a fairly straight homage to 1970s blaxploitation films; Kill Bill across both of its volumes demonstrates Tarantino's passion for old school kung fu flicks and spaghetti westerns. Death Proof was, and still is, arguably the director's most overt tribute to a specific subset of cinema, being as it was originally released (in a significantly shorter cut) alongside Robert Rodriguez's Planet Terror as a "double feature" entitled Grindhouse. Both Rodriguez's and Tarantino's films echoed the raw exploitation films screened in grindhouse cinemas in their style and genre, with both directors going the extra mile to make their films look authentically aged and roughly cut. But Death Proof is not only an homage to grindhouse movies, but also an homage to Tarantino as auteur. A chance for the director to enjoy all of his favourite cinematic tropes and give a nod to his own legacy: a meta-Tarantino film if you will.

The film follows Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell), an aging stunt driver who stalks young women before executing them using his "death proof" stunt car. However, Mike gets more than he bargains for when he targets a group of ladies working on a film, including stuntwoman Zoe Bell (playing herself).

Death Proof feels distinctly like a film of two halves, with the first hour focusing upon Stuntman Mike's pursuit of three women in Texas - Arlene (Vanessa Ferlito), Shanna (Jordan Ladd) and "Jungle" Julia (Sydney Poitier) - and the second set fourteen months later in Tennessee, with Mike stalking the girls from the film industry: Abernathy (Rosario Dawson), Kim (Tracie Thoms) and Lee (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), later joined by Zoe Bell visiting the other three from her native New Zealand. Stylistically, both halves feel different with the added aging effect, intentionally jarring cuts and missing scenes used a lot more in the first half of the film. Whilst a little distracting at first, these soon become part of the film's charm, and I found myself missing this added element when Tarantino chooses to tone it down a lot for the second hour.

This is arguably Tarantino's most self-indulgent film, with the references - some subtle, some glaring - to his own past films to be found throughout. Tarantino aficionados will relish spotting as many of the director's hallmarks as they can throughout the film's running time. Some of these work brilliantly, such as the ingenious references to in-car conversation scenes from both Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction in the opening sequence; others, such as Abernathy's choice of mobile phone ringtone, feel a little too blunt to be considered genuinely clever.

The biggest difference between the two halves of the film is one of quality: the first hour of Death Proof is superior to the second in terms of writing and performances. The first hour features Tarantino's supercool dialogue most reminiscent of that heard in Jackie Brown - not endlessly quotable but consistently captivating and with an expert balance between the menacing and the retro. The cinematography is vibrant in its throwback nature and gives the film a unique quality. Kurt Russell is the perfect choice for Stuntman Mike, introduced as an alluring yet threatening presence and put across superbly by the veteran actor. The young actresses here put in strong performances, with Ferlito and Poitier deserving specific mention for particularly memorable turns.

In comparison, the film's second half feels less successful. Russell's character, whilst still central, has much less dialogue here, reducing the impact the actor is able to have. The second female collective are much less compelling than the first, with the dialogue less inspired and the performances less convincing. Bell in particular feels out of her depth, her lack of acting experience coming through at several points. The car chase sequences in the finale are incredibly impressive with a hard-edged authenticity and palpable danger very rarely seen in modern cinema, but overall it feels as though Tarantino poured a lot more artistic flair into the first hour of the film than the second.

Death Proof therefore evens out as an average of its outstanding first half and enjoyable, but underwhelming, second half. This is Tarantino indulging his own cinematic whims without aiming to produce a film that's also an event. It may be the director's most uneven work, but even without firing on all cylinders Tarantino manages to create something truly individual, memorable and wildly entertaining.



  1. Did you see the shorter Grindhouse cut, and how did it compare to the longer one?

    I've only seen the shorter version, and definitely agree that the first act is the stronger (helped by being more threateningly lit, as I recall, rather than the direct daylight of the second half). I also felt the ending was a little weak. Didn't matter so much when part of a double-bill, but not sure how it would stack up as the finish to a single piece of work.

  2. I did see the Grindhouse version, and from what I remember I would say that the longer cut is the stronger of the two. There are some pleasing slower sequences cut from the second half which I felt helped flesh things out somewhat. As a double bill the shorter cut was necessary though. I'm toying with getting hold of Grindhouse (complete with "fake" trailers) as it's available on Blu-ray and I really enjoyed experiencing this along with Planet Terror back to back.

    As a standalone film, Death Proof works well even with its flaws. It's probably something of a guilty pleasure though.