Presented as a double feature along side Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror simply known as Grindhouse, Death Proof is the talented Quentin Tarantino’s 5th feature if you count Kill Bill Volume 1 & 2 as a single story (which it should be). Here, Tarantino showcases his biggest strength as a screenwriter – dialogue. 95% of Death Proof consists of dialogue with very little character exploration or development. Broken up into 2 halves essentially, Tarantino delivers double the story in one shot – possibly learning from his mistake and breaking the story up from Kill Bill. The usual aesthetic is present throughout – vintage Hollywood is the clear influence mixed well with the B movie atmosphere.
The remaining 5% of Death Proof is an eruption of chaos and violence that only Tarantino’s twisted mind can create. At least the first story of the two lasts mere seconds than the second that takes up a good 15 minutes to fully play out. More like Jackie Brown than his other 3 films, there’s a slow burn effect built over each half until the final climatic moments of visceral gore and exploding human flesh playing out in a triumphant manner.
Opening Death Proof which is written, directed, and shot by Tarantino, the focus is on a pair of women’s feet – relaxed on a dashboard. Something every one of Tarantino’s films has (minus his debut Reservoir Dogs) is a shot of bare feet – not adding much to the narrative but placed in there because it’s the director’s choice. He doesn’t hide from the fetish, why should he? Tarantino accepts the use and never once feels the need of acceptance from anyone who watches his films. It’s become a game – figuring out where the steady shot of feet will come and which actress it will be.
The constant in Death Proof is a seasoned stuntman who drives his Hollywood stunt car rigged as a subtle death trap for anyone who isn’t behind the wheel. His name is Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) who frequents bars for the Grande nachos, virgin Piña Colada’s, and overheard conversation from other drunk patrons. For unsuspecting victims, Stuntman Mike is the last person they want to come across – his scarred face tells more about him than he lets on. But don’t let the scar fool you, Stuntman Mike is charming and sweet, it’s how he ropes you in.
Once you’re in, death is certain, for the car nicknamed “Death Proof” will rev its engine, stalking its unsuspecting prey like a lioness stalks a gazelle.
Caught in between Stuntman Mike’s headlights are two groups of young women. All just minding their business, trying to get the most out of life. Story 1 involves Jungle Julia (Sydney Poitier) a radio DJ and record label owner who places a bet to all male listeners – buy Arlene (Vanessa Ferlito) a drink but call her “Butterfly” and recite a poem word for word and the winner gets a lap dance. Mike claims the lap dance after promising to drive home Pam (Rose McGowan) completely sober rescuing a damsel in distress.
Story 2 takes place fourteen months later in Lebanon Tennessee. More unsuspecting women targeted by Stuntman Mike but this time his Death Proof plan doesn’t live up to the legend. Using his bag of tricks, Tarantino starts story 2 like the first but tells it in black and white. Stripped of color Mike picks his targets that are also in the entertainment industry, in town on a job. The famous foot fetish makes its way to Abernathy’s (Rosario Dawson) feet where Mike becomes bold in his pursuit.
Tarantino exploits a familiar technique used previously as the film’s cinematographer. Using a circle shot that was used in the opening of Reservoir Dogs – Tarantino moves the camera, so the focus is always on the person with the dialogue. Zoë Bell, a stunt woman is in town looking to buy a 1970 Dodge Charger. Fellow stunt woman Kim (Tracie Thoms), Abernathy, and Lee (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) convince the owner to test drive the car unsupervised in the promise that Lee is a porn actress.
Using a vintage aesthetic to beef up the story, Tarantino showcases his passion for film throughout. It’s a love letter to old Hollywood, shooting on film rather than shooting digitally. The look and feel of each story stands out the most besides the script.
One thing Tarantino understands the most when crafting his films is the audiences desire to be front row at a tragedy. Its why we all slow down on a highway to get a glimpse of an accident (besides the flow of traffic changing). 1 reason is to see the person or people are safe and not harmed and the second is to how the carnage that is left in the wake of destruction. We can’t look away from it – like a moth drawn to the light, wrecks suck us inward. Once Pam gets in the roll cage, the audience is let on to the secret that the unsuspecting passenger doesn’t realize. The same goes for Jungle Julia’s leg. Sticking out of the window on their drive to a lake house (women only) Tarantino foreshadows what will happen. That leg is coming off.
Highly skilled at building the anticipation of violence and then carrying it out – we as the audience know that leg is coming off. Knowing that, you want to look away, but you can’t, the director does it again at stealing your attention and not wanting to move your gaze. All it takes a quick shot repeated to show what happens to the other 3; one getting ejected from the char, 1 getting sliced from the broken windshield and 1 getting her face torn off from the rubber of tire. I wasn’t keeping track of the time but its 30 seconds of glorious gore that took its time to make an appearance. After the bar scene with Butterfly showing off her wings it was well worth the slow sometimes excruciating burn.
Story 2’s climax lasts much longer than story 1. The women decide to play a game called “Ships Mast” where both seatbelts are involved, and the player is on the roof of the car holding on while the driver floors it. Easy prey for Mike. What he isn’t aware of is built up in the exposition – Tracie carries. After Mike runs the car off the road in an adrenaline pumping sequence, Tarantino flips the script making the predator into the prey.
Making up for the lack of character development, Russell, as good a performance as he gives is dwarfed by his costars. Each lady is given nuance to form an emotional attachment to them. While one may be given more attention and emphasis than the other – equally, the women shine. They’re sexy, seductive, and strong. No matter how much stalking Mike did – he shouldn’t mess with a woman who is capable of fighting back. Another of Tarantino’s favorite story tropes. For the car named “Death Proof” the metaphor behind the name proves that no one is safe from death. not even Stuntman Mike.
Written By: Quentin Tarantino
Directed By: Quentin Tarantino
Cinematography: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Kurt Russell, Rosario Dawson, Vanessa Ferlito, Jordan Ladd, Rose McGowan, Sydney Poitier, Tracie Thoms, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Zoë Bell
Release Date: April 6, 2007
Running Time: 1 Hour 27 Minutes
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 64%
My Score: 2.5 out of 5