Review: Death Proof

Death Proof feature lots of talking. Lots and lots and lots of talking. But once the conversations are over, and three badass chicks set out for revenge, there’s plenty of fun to be had.

Directed by: Quentin Tarantino
Written by: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Kurt Russell, Rosario Dawson, Zoë Bell, Vanessa Ferlito, Jordan Ladd, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Rose McGowan
Released: 2007 / Genre: Action/Thriller/Horror / Country: USA / IMDB
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The flawless last twenty minutes of Death Proof – with all its high-octane, peddle to the metal glory – almost makes up for the film’s obvious problems. Originally made as part of the Grindhouse double feature, Death Proof was supposed to be shown alongside Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror with a total runtime of around three hours for both films. When the decision was made to release Grindhouse separately in Europe, both directors added additional, previously omitted footage to their respective films. The result for Death Proof is a film that is drastically short on depth, and that’s saying something for an exploitation movie supposed to be lacking in that department. It isn’t that Death Proof needs anymore back story for its characters or motivation for its chief antagonist. It is simply that it is between twenty and forty minutes too long. What we get in that time is lots of talking. Lots and lots and lots of talking.

And instead of fleshing out the story with a more considered approach to the characters, or an additional plot element, or a memorably amusing scene, Tarantino has his female victims chatting endlessly about smoking pot and avoiding the amorous attentions of various men while the Pulp Fiction writer-director, and self-confessed foot fetishist, frames their feet front and centre. It is like a crude soap opera with no direction. When psychotic Stuntman Mike tells Rose McGowan’s ditzy blonde that she better start getting scared at the forty-five minute mark the film takes a dramatic upsurge in entertainment value. This should have occurred after fifteen minutes, not after three quarters of an hour’s worth of meaningless conversation, lacking Tarantino’s usual sprightly dialogue despite a few notable flourishes.

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What the first part of the film does do – eventually – is to introduce us to Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) who has an unhealthy obsession with a group of girls he follows to a bar. When Rose McGowan requests a lift home, the scarred stuntman obliges only after conveniently waiting for his victims to leave the bar at the same time. McGowan’s Pam quickly realises this isn’t going to be a ride home she will survive. The stuntman’s car, he tells her, is death proof thanks to various structural reinforcements enabling the car to perform dangerous action sequences on film. However, he explains with a glint in his eye, the only way to survive crashes in the death proof vehicle is if you are buckled into the driver’s seat. Unfortunately for Pam, she’s in the passenger seat…and there’s no seatbelt.

Mike systematically tortures Pam through his crazy driving, knocking her unconscious with a sudden stop which forces her face into one of the metal roll bars. He then proceeds to track the group of girls who are in a car further down the road. He manages to catch up with their vehicle and overtakes. Once sufficiently ahead, he turns around. Switching off his headlights he sends the car roaring down the road at high speed. Just before the moment of impact he flicks on his lights. The girls realise their fate far too late. The cars crash into each other with crushing ferocity. Tarantino rubs salt into the wounds by replaying the crash four times to show how each victim dies in graphic glory.

In all fairness it is this moment of carnage that we bought the ticket for and yet Tarantino makes us wait an agonisingly long time to witness it. He scores points for building the anticipation level and certainly wets the appetite for what is to come but it is a painstaking dialogue-heavy journey the audience has to take for a second viewing. Yet, when Death Proof hits the high gears it is some of the most exhilarating work of the auteur director’s career. That makes the film’s flaws all the more infuriating.

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Admittedly, the film has charm. Its self-consciousness is magnified all the more with Tarantino’s self-referential indulgence such as the various references to his own Kill Bill films. While the context of Grindhouse (that being cheap, low-budget exploitation genre films made very quickly and often accompanied by amateurish production value) is seen through the damaged master print and the mistakes in editing, sound and camera movement. These necessary errors and artificial aging of the master print could be misconstrued as pretentious but this is simply a filmmaker whose love of cinema is seen through a film which is ultimately a love letter to the genre’s he adores so deeply. If any criticism is levelled at the indulgence of Tarantino in Death Proof it has to be targeted at his unwillingness to cut his beloved dialogue and the fact he seemingly forgets to scratch the print during the film’s second half. Note how the grainy, contrast heavy print in the first half looks like it was spat out of the 1970s while the clean, crisp-looking second half could easily pass for a film of its actual age.

But Death Proof is interesting in that despite its flaws it is still a hugely enjoyable film. Putting the sizzling soundtrack, great automobiles and post-modern in-jokes aside, Death Proof is, at times, a shining example of why Quentin Tarantino is one of the greatest living filmmakers. The self-conscious concept of the film is less a hindrance, more a route to the film’s underlying entertainment. He also coaxes a coolly maniacal performance from the ever-dependable Kurt Russell who clearly has a lot of fun playing the bad guy.

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But most pleasing is the director’s use of live photography that utilises the skills of stunt men and women rather than computer nerds twiddling their fingers over keyboards. In Tarantino’s most glowing tribute to early cinema he shoots all the action sequences live and in-camera. He also casts stuntwoman Zoe Bell in one of the leading roles enabling him to shoot close-ups during the action sequences. Bell, who was Uma Thurman’s stunt double in the Kill Bill films, delivers a commendable performance as one of the girls who set out on a mission of vengeance against Stuntman Mike. But it is her performance on top of a speeding Dodge Challenger that really gets the blood pumping. Tarantino concocts a breathtaking car chase that, although borrowing heavily from the films that inspire it such as Vanishing Point, is a sensational example of live, in-camera action cinema at its very finest. Bell’s skill is shown in all its glory as Tarantino marvels at her abilities with a flawless lesson in raw action cinema photography and editing technique.

It is unfortunate that Death Proof is held back by its various flaws, preventing it from becoming one of Tarantino’s better overall efforts. Largely its problems lie in the misjudged distribution of the film and the ultimate failure of the Grindhouse concept. Death Proof should be shorter and would have been had it been released in its original form. As a standalone entity, the added material causes the film to stall during the first half. It is something the film recovers from but cannot be ignored, especially since it hinders multiple viewing. Ultimately, Death Proof will never be known as one of Tarantino’s best films, but thankfully, with its infrequent glimpses of a mastermind filmmaker, it remains one of the director’s most memorable pieces of work.

Review by Daniel StephensSee all reviews

This review is part of 31 Days of Horror:

About the Author
Editor of Top 10 Films, Dan Stephens is usually found pondering his next list. An unhealthy love of 1980s Hollywood sees most of his top 10s involving a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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  1. Avatar
    Dan Heaton Reply

    Interesting review. I came out of the Grindhouse screening in the theaters raving about Death Proof. I think the visceral experience of the last act made me forget about the flaws in the opening. When I revisited the extended edition on DVD, I really noticed how slow the opening sections were. It’s still worth seeing but doesn’t hold up as well to repeated viewings like some of Tarantino’s other films.

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    Thomas Reply

    Nice review. I agree that there are some hints to the genius that Tarantino can be to be found somewhere in this film, but all in all I was disappointed, at least by the long version released on DVD. It should have been half as long and twice as mean… My take back then

  3. Avatar
    Dan Reply

    @Dan: I must check out Grindhouse as it was originally meant to be. But I can find no problems with Planet Terror which I thought was brilliant in its longer form. But I think Rodriguez had the extra material to play around with, Tarantino only had additional dialogue-heavy sequences and they just slow the film right down.

    @Thomas: Definitely agree that this film would benefit from being cut by at least 20 minutes. Not sure how much that would leave but it needs to get to the bit when Kurt Russell starts terrorising Rose McGowan quicker.

  4. Avatar
    Max Reply

    I have to agree with Dan H on this one. When I saw ‘Death Proof’ together in ‘Grindhouse’ it played a lot better than I think it would alone. I was so amped up from seeing ‘Planet Terror’ that even the slow awkward moments in ‘Death Proof’ felt tense.

  5. Avatar
    Dan Reply

    @Max: That settles it. I’m purchasing a copy of Grindhouse!

  6. Avatar
    Rodney Reply

    I did enjoy Death Proof, but I think you’re right about its inherent re-watch factor – its incredibly slow first act works to its detriment to the point of skipping over it to get to the real action.

    Planet Terror is definitely the better of the Grindhouse films; as an aside, I think Machete also works well within the style of the Grindhouse label.

  7. Avatar
    Dan Reply

    @Rodney: I still haven’t seen Machete, and I also need to check out Hobo With a Shotgun.

  8. Avatar
    Max Reply

    The trailers and bumpers in the ‘Grindhouse’ release really help set up the mood as well. If I could just watch a sequence of trailers like the ones seen here, I would probably stop by the theater and see them.

  9. Avatar
    Fitz Reply

    The trailer for Machete was better than the actual film if you ask me.

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    Adam from Reply

    I loved this film but then again I am sort of a Tarantino junkie. Now you have got me wanting to rewatch this again. Did I understand correctly that this has been made into a stand alone with extended scenes?

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    mark Reply

    We never got the initial release Grindhouse double down here in OZ (despite a poster display in one of our major cinema chains prior to the event) – obviously the Weinsteins had already intervened. Which meant I ended up watching the DVD. You are right – overlong, self indulgent terrible dialogue. The obvious conclusion – QT started believing his own press.

    The other thing I didn’t like was the fact Kurt immediately becomes such a slobbering cowardly mess when the second group of girls get the better of him. Even for a self conscious B grader it’s just a wee bit too unconvincing.

    Planet Terror, however, is a totally different story – even my 15 year old son chuckled at the “scene missing” moment when it goes from sex scene to blazing restaurant. A true jump cut by proxy – something even Bazin would have had to acknowledge as effective.

    Plus, and maybe it’s just me, but I thought PT was arguably one of the most violent/splatteriest films I’ve seen (he even outdid Fulci, although it didn’t have the Italian’s sense of viciousness).

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