Quentin Tarantino has always prided himself on keeping his audience off balance with the plots of his movies – or as he eloquently words it: “fucking with the audience”. Be it the use of a jumbled timeline to drip feed vital information to the viewer or just flat out doing the unexpected (chaning history in Inglorious Basterds for example), be delights in using his stories to successfully spring surprises and defy the conventions of traditional american filmmaking.
However, in 2007, he finally managed to outsmart himself with the release of Grindhouse, an audacious idea that saw the director, alongside partner in crime Robert Rodriguez, try to bring the grimy, sleezely delights of a 70’s Grindhouse double-bill experience to a modern audience. It was an impressive idea, but QT and RR seemed to forget one small thing – most modern audiences couldn’t give a single shit about the days where you could watch a couple of scratchy, juddery prints of bizarre exploitation movie in a rat-infested, sticky floored shithole of a cinema. Audiences stayed away in droves from this three hour plus love letter to trashy movies despite the movie going all out to replicate the experience, even featuring fake trailers from Rob Zombie, Edgar Wright and Eli Roth and in an effort to recoup their losses, Miramax decided to split the two movies into separate features for their overseas release. Thus we come to the second half of Grindhouse; Tarantino’s Death Proof.
We follow a group of young women as they plan a weekend away to temporarily dodge their man troubles and get nice and wasted on a girls trip away. The trio of girls we follow consist of sensible-ish Arlene, forthright radio DJ “Jungle” Julia and their buddy Shanna as they plan to meet up with the rest of the gang at the usual kind of bar you see in a Tarantino movie and it’s here that Arlene gets a sense something is a little off. Already annoyed that Julia has used her radio show to announce that Arlene will give a lap dance to the first guy to recite a certain poem to her, the young woman is unnerved by seeing the same car throughout their day – could it be… following them?
You’re darn tooting it’s following them because the man behind the wheel is the charismatic Stuntman Mike, an ex-stuntman (unsurprisingly) who has taken to thrill killing young women by flirting with them and then later driving headlong into their vehicle with his “death proof” car in order to get a sexual buzz. As Mike has obviously targeted Arlene and her friends to ultimately taste his grill, he hangs around the bar, flirting with a Pam, a random chick at the bar who needs a life home and attempting to claim that lap dance from Arlene, but when it’s time for last orders, he sets his violent plan in motion…
However, 14 months later, we join up with a quartet of women all working in the film business who have inspired Stuntman Mike to take up some old tricks. Hair stylist Abernethy, stunt women Kim and Zöe and aspiring movie star Lee have few days off from their shoot and are going to spend them whooping it up, but when Zöe comes forward with a weird request involving pulling an impromptu stunt with the same kind of Dodge Challenger seen in the movie Vanishing Point, the psycho stuntman sees his chance to kill again.
Despite the fact that a child of six would probably be aware that a mainstream audience wouldn’t give the slightest of craps about Tarantino’s love for exploitation movies, it’s still inevitable that he would eventually try something like this, after all, what was Kill Bill if not an exploitation movie? Hell, even the Tarantino scripted, Rodriguez directed From Dusk Till Dawn was technically two movies in one thanks to its vampiric, mid-movie twist, so something like Grindhouse was only a matter of time. While the double-bill in all it’s original glory has its faults (Rodriguez’s far more enjoyable Planet Terror should have been billed second for that big finish), watching Death Proof separately and out of context gives us QT’s least enjoyable film.
Essentially a car chase movie spliced with a psycho-sexual giallo where the serial killer uses a tricked-out car instead of a straight razor, Death Proof is an odd beast in that it’s a movie that’s relying on its deliberate faults to be a tongue-in-cheek reference to a film style many may not be familiar with. Beyond the intentional film jumps, negative scratches and poorly edited out title cards (eagle eyed viewers will spot the film was “originally” called Thunder Bolt as a nod to distributors changing movie titles for other territories), Death Proof tries to emulate the weird, off-beat storytelling techniques seen in trippy European horror-thrillers from that period. Take the movie’s big decision to have us follow a group of young women as they discuss dudes, relationships and various other stuff only to annihilate them halfway through and start again with another group of young women as they also discuss dudes, relationships and various stuff before they too have to deal with the turbo charged urges of Stuntman Mike. It may be a genuinely surprising twist and one that embodies the lurid excesses of Grindhouse cinema, but it’s one that sacrifices a lot of empathy for the characters as the audience is essentially expected to start the film again from scratch just because Tarantino thinks it’s a bit of a lark.
Still, just because his plot is somewhat ungainly, it doesn’t mean Quentin doesn’t bust out the odd exemplary moment during the film. Vanessa Ferlito is great as Mike’s initial target and as Mike himself, the immortal Kurt Russell does superlative work with a rare villain turn as he uses his powers of easy charisma for evil. On top of that, QT gets to flex his talent for dialogue in a very subtle way by having the two separate groups of girls having very similar discussions, but having them in noticably different ways. The first, younger, group are far more immature that the older, second, more likeable group who are more pragmatic about men and their peculiar quirks and seem to have their lives far more together than the earlier cast who are destined to become a crimson smear on the hard top. Ah yes, the car stuff… The casting of Zöe Bell (Uma Thurman’s impossibly perky stunt double from Kill Bill) means the scene where she’s actually dangling from the hood of a speeding car is 100% legit and the subsequent car chase is endearingly CGI-free. However, the jewel in Death Proof’s slightly wonky crown is the show stopping car crash that ends the first half that’s quite unlike anything that’s been seen before. With the tension built up to an unbearably degree thanks to the masterful use of Hold Tight! by Dave, Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich, Tarantino replays the apocalyptic smash over again from the point of view of everyone in the victimized car with the results being a severed leg twirling majestically through the air and a face being ground to mush by a passing wheel.
There’s too much talent involved for Death Proof to be a complete loss and the cast alone also contains Rosario Dawson, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Rose McGowan and Tracie Thoms, but ultimately separating Grindhouse proved to be just as much as a failed experiment (even Tarantino gives up on the fake, damaged film look just over halfway through) as releasing both movies together as this half-strength slice of QT just can’t pick up enough speed.