In Praise of 'Death Proof,' One of Quentin Tarantino's Best Movies

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by Matt Singer
December 28, 2012 3:13 PM
14 Comments
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"Death Proof."

The following post contains SPOILERS for "Death Proof."

Quentin Tarantino knows how to get people's attention. Out on the interview circuit promoting "Django Unchained," he's already: 

-Announced a possible retirement.

-Slammed legendary Hollywood director John Ford.

-Discussed a possible third installment in a revenge trilogy that includes his latest film and "Inglourious Basterds."

-Declared 2007's "Death Proof" the worst movie he's ever made

In the midst of all this, "Django" just opened to the best grosses of Tarantino's career. So the guy's doing something right.

He might not be right about "Death Proof," though -- on a few counts. Discussing his career and his Hollywood exit strategy with The Hollywood Reporter, Tarantino said that:

"To me, it's all about my filmography, and I want to go out with a terrific filmography. 'Death Proof' has got to be the worst movie I ever make. And for a left-handed movie, that wasn't so bad, all right? -- so if that's the worst I ever get, I'm good."

Even more important than his own work, Tarantino says, is the way that work is screened. He hates digital projection and digital filmmaking, and he wants no part of it:

"Part of the reason I'm feeling this way is I can't stand all this digital stuff. This is not what I signed on for... it's just television in public."

Tarantino's not saying "Death Proof" is bad, just that he likes it the least of all the movies he's made. But I think he's got it wrong. "Death Proof"'s not the worst movie of his career by a long shot. And if he's really quitting the movies because he hates "television in public" then "Death Proof" is not only a good film, it's also the most important and most personal of his entire career.

It premiered as part of an unusual theatrical experiment called "Grindhouse." Tarantino and his frequent collaborator Robert Rodriguez each made an exploitation film, and then packaged them together as a double feature. For one ticket, you got to see Tarantino's "Death Proof" and Rodriguez's "Planet Terror," plus a bunch of fake trailers and vintage house ads. The idea was to recreate the experience of going to see sleazy movies at one of the so-called "grindhouses" that populated New York's 42nd Street in the 1970s.

In an era when some filmmakers cut a single story into three films to maximize their profits, Tarantino and Rodriguez actually gave viewers two complete stories for the price of one. It was an interesting idea -- and a complete flop. "Grindhouse" earned just $25.0 million at the U.S. box office; adjusted for inflation, it's Tarantino's second lowest grossing film of his career after the tiny, independent "Reservoir Dogs" (in comparison, "Django Unchained" has already grossed $25.5 million -- in less than a single week of release). In light of that alone, I'm not surprised it's his least favorite film.

As part of the hook of "Grindhouse" and its throwback aesthetic, both films were artificially aged to look like they could have been lost movies from the drive-in days. Their images were weathered, discolored, and scratched; jagged jump cuts were made to mimic the wear-and-tear on an old film print that was damaged and repaired. Even the title card, jarringly superimposed over the opening credits, looks like a last-minute replacement for an original title ("Thunderbolt") that was changed by, say, a flighty distributor who got sued by someone who had a prior claim on that name.

At the time of "Grindhouse"'s release, most of these overt nods to the bygone era of exploitation cinema were seen as little more than gimmicks. Just five years later, "Death Proof"'s aged look feels far more poignant. With digital projection the new industry standard, it's now a farewell not just to an obscure footnote in the history of cinematic exhibition, but to an entire century of celluloid filmmaking technology. All of Quentin Tarantino's movies are stuffed with the love of movies, but "Death Proof" is the one most stuffed with the love of film, the tactile, physical medium that became the dominant art form of the twentieth century but was still anything but death-proof.

The nuances of its story, designed to ape the look and feel of old trash, are easily missed. It follows two sets of women as they are stalked by psychotic "Stuntman" Mike McKay (Kurt Russell), who owns a "death-proof" car: strapped into its heavily fortified driver's seat, he can't be killed in a traffic accident no matter how gruesome or violent. So he prowls the South, killing beautiful women in brutal car collisions, walking away time and again with a clean bill of health and a cleaner criminal record.

Mike's first targets -- Jungle Julia (Sydney Poitier), Arlene (Vanessa Ferlito), and Shanna (Jordan Ladd) -- are out for a night on the town in Austin, Texas when they catch Mike's eye. After dinner at a taco hut, they decamp to a local bar, where Mike charms the women and scores a lap dance from Arlene. When they leave, Mike pursues and kills them. Fourteen months later in Lebanon, Tennessee, he finds another batch of potential victims: Abernathy (Rosario Dawson), Kim (Tracie Thoms), Lee (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Zoe Bell (as herself), on a day off from a Hollywood movie shooting in the area. Zoe is a stuntwoman herself, and a fairly badass one at that, and after Mike pursues them, they turn the tables, and pursue and kill him instead.

The fact that Mike McKay is a stuntman is important; it's another ode on Tarantino's part to the days of practical movie magic. Most modern movies involving car chases and crashes are performed digitally by computers -- a fact that is brought up, and scoffed at, by Stuntman Mike in a conversation with his first victim, Pam (Rose McGowan). Mike says he belongs to that great old tradition where "anyone fool enough to throw himself down a flight of stairs" could "usually find someone to pay him for it." And Tarantino is clearly in awe of that old brotherhood, and he elevates Mike to the status of a near-immortal. In that death-proof car of his, Mike is literally untouchable. 

In fact, the only person tough enough and cool enough to kill Stuntman Mike is another stuntman -- or stuntwoman, in this case. Bell doubled for Uma Thurman in Tarantino's "Kill Bill" and here he gives her a showcase all her own. The remarkable final car chase includes a lengthy sequence, shot practically, where Bell hangs on to the hood of a speeding car as Stuntman Mike crashes into it in his own death-proof vehicle. 

Rather than continue to use someone like Bell behind the scenes, Tarantino demystifies the stuntman profession to reveal the difficulty and importance of its work. The sequence above is suspenseful and frightening specifically because it impresses upon the viewer the tangible power of old school stunts. It could be accomplished far more easily and at much less expense on one of Robert Rodriguez's green screen stages at Troublemaker Studios; just throw Bell on the hood of a car, add a few wind machines, and voila. But sticking her onto a real car that's really driving at high speed and really getting slammed by another real car on a real dirt road heightens every bit of the danger. In digital, it's just another scene. With stuntwork, it's one of the most memorable car chases ever recorded on film.

"Death Proof"'s whole scenario is recycled from stock horror and thriller materials, but it's also littered with Tarantino's personal touches. Stuntman Mike seems to select his victims by looking for women who stick their bare feet (a notorious QT fetish) out their car windows. In fact, most of the first half of the film right up until the big car crash feels like some kind of distilled Tarantino fantasy of the perfect night out. He cast himself as the bartender at a watering hole where all the woman are gorgeous and ready to do shots with him. The jukebox -- which was apparently Tarantino's personal jukebox, shipped down to Austin for the shoot -- is stocked with a Tarantinoian array of eclectic funk, soul, and rock songs.

Tarantino shot "Death Proof" himself -- the only time in his career he's served as his own cinematographer. He did a superb job, too; a fact I think gets overlooked because the weathering of the film's image masks the quality of his photography. Still, there's no disguising how well he shot that final battle between Mike and Zoe, Kim, and Abernathy. And there are iconic images throughout: Arlene walking onto the bar's rainy porch and spying Mike's car for the first time; Mike chowing his nachos grande platter; Abernathy howling in terror as we see Mike approach through the passenger side window and slam repeatedly into their car; the opening shot of feet bobbing on a dashboard in time to Jack Nitzsche's pounding theme song. All of those are the work of a great director and a great cinematographer.

As previously mentioned, Tarantino says he's strongly considering following "Django Unchained" with a project called "Killer Crow" that would complete his trilogy of revenge films. It would follow a group of aggrieved African-American soldiers in World War II who seek vengeance against the white troops who wronged them. Sounds cool -- but Tarantino already made his trilogy of revenge films, and "Death Proof" is the first and best part. Its abused minority seeking bloody justice are women, who are defiled and objectified -- not just by Stuntman Mike, but also by the horndog douchebags at the Austin bar and the redneck who lends the ladies his 1970 Dodge Challenger -- but reign triumphant in the end.

All the movies in this trilogy have moments where the oppressed seize power from the oppressors: the Jewish Basterds get Hitler; Django returns to Candyland; Kim shoots Stuntman Mike in the arm. Maybe someday "Death Proof" will get its own reversal, and this glorious gesture in defiance of the end of celluloid, this tribute to the unkillable greatness of classic stunt work, will get the credit it so richly deserves. That would be sweet revenge indeed.

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14 Comments

  • ND | January 26, 2014 7:06 AMReply

    Superb movie without a doubt. May well be his weakest film, (even his screenplays he didn't direct like True Romance and From Dusk Till Dawn are better) but 100% QT. As Roger Ebert wrote - "From a technical and craft point of view it is first-rate; from its standing in the canon of the directors, it is minor."

  • Dillon | December 7, 2013 2:52 AMReply

    Death Proof is easily one of my favorite films, not only in his filmography. His olympian titles: Pulp Fiction, Django Unchained coming a close second, Unglorious Bastards then Kill Bill exhibit a "master technician", I could name all of them. Then we have the "imperfect" Death Proof, which actually proves Tarantino's ability in it's own right, a testament cult films aren't made by luck. But by filmmakers who explore their medium a bit too intimately. DP will remain the first and last grindhouse film I can ever like.

  • Tina | October 10, 2013 4:16 PMReply

    I wouldn't put a "worst" title to any of his movies, they are all special. Deathproof was a lot of fun and very thrilling. I loved the characters. Yes I do think it was rushed a bit and they could have made the ending better but it was still something special. Loved it, it was done right badass and there should be more films like one. Honestly I only have seen Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill 1&2, Deathproof and DJANGO. DJANGO is the most forgettable one out of the 4, don't get me wrong it's still one of my favourite film and it beats like 95% of the films out that came out within the last year or so. Even though I watched the film about 3 times now, I don't find anything standout about it.

  • Nia | May 26, 2013 12:30 PMReply

    Death Proof is actually my favorite Tarantino movie. It's on my list of top 20 movies. I have watched it dozens of times. I usually watch it by myself but sometimes with one of my sisters. I even got my mom and aunt to watch it and they hate films with violence. I was surprised that they squealed and then laughed during the mid-movie car crash. It was the part of the movie I thought they were going to stop watching and I was ready to try to talk them into continuing to get to the second group of women. I'm glad they kept watching because my mom's favorite part of the movie is when Kim rams her car into Mike's and is all "I can't let you leave without tapping that ass" and "I'm the horniest mother fucker alive!"

    I love everything about the movie. I can't count the number of times I've listened to Chick Habit (tried singing the whole song in French) and Down in Mexico. I watched Man of the House because of that lap dance (I knew Vanessa Ferlito was in it).

    My only fault with Death Proof is that it ended. I love the ending I just didn't want it to ever come. I wanted the movie to just keep going. I would have been fine if it was an hour longer. To be honest, I would've campaigned for a tv series! I loved the characters so much I would've loved entire seasons with them. The way I feel about the movie ending is the way I feel about the sci-fi series Firefly. You recognize the brilliance and perfection (perfect cast, perfect characters, perfect dialogue, perfect everything) and will never get over the fact that Dancing with the Stars/Two and a half men just go on and on and are watched by countless people (why???) while we have only a few hours of Firefly and Death Proof and they still only have cult followings.

    I was going to add a bunch of quotes from the movie but I like every single line in it. I would end up writing out the whole script! I've memorized most lines and can't pick a favorite.

  • Paul Carter | January 26, 2013 5:29 AMReply

    When I first heard of the Grinhouse project I was very excited as I missed the days of dodgy exploitation movies, horror films that should never have been made but thankfully were, and post apocolyptic gems such as Bronx Warriors and the like.

    Unfortunately for us in the UK we were unable to see Grindhouse in its entirety as it flopped in the US and so both movies were released separately. Since then I have seen Planet Terror several times and absolutely love it. I held off from watching Death Proof as I wanted to watch Grindhouse as the whole project so waited for the Blu Ray release and didn't watch it until a month ago...I was not disappointed in the least. I have watched it again as a single entity and it is a great film, the humour, the violence, everything. I think the problem is it's a hard film to sell. After viewing it I enthused so much about it but if you try selling it to a friend it is difficult to describe without saying 'Well, it's a Tarantino film.'

    So what is Tarantino's worst film?

  • http://houseofxen.wordpress.com/ | January 3, 2013 11:17 AMReply

    I just saw "Grindhouse" for the first time and I loved it. I don't think I've had an experience like that, cinematically, for a long time. The whole presentation was beautiful and I was so glad the film was 'grainy' and distorted. Did you notice when Bruce Willis started bubbling up, the film started to as well? It was fantastic.

    This article pointed out many things I loved about Grindhouse in addition to letting me in on the fact that the car chase was REAL -- wow! Additionally, I thought about how glad I was the distortion was permanent in the film, on the master reel, because there's no way that BluRayin'/Digitizin' it up will ruin it!

  • http://houseofxen.wordpress.com/ | January 3, 2013 11:16 AMReply

    I just saw "Grindhouse" for the first time and I loved it. I don't think I've had an experience like that, cinematically, for a long time. The whole presentation was beautiful and I was so glad the film was 'grainy' and distorted. Did you notice when Bruce Willis started bubbling up, the film started to as well? It was fantastic.

    This article pointed out many things I loved about Grindhouse in addition to letting me in on the fact that the car chase was REAL -- wow! Additionally, I thought about how glad I was the distortion was permanent in the film, on the master reel, because there's no way that BluRayin'/Digitizin' it up will ruin it!

  • Arch | January 3, 2013 8:52 AMReply

    It's interesting that while reading comments on your recent article about The Master I found people were expressing the opinion I have about this one here. Much like the (american) expression "we agree to disagree"; i-e all the points you make are more or less valid (you forgot the sadly important/meaningful Eli Roth cameo), but in my opinion they are reasons why Death Proof indeed is Tarantino's worst movie (granted not that terrible but still technically his "worst"). Each point really hit the nail if you want to describe how after Kill Bil 1/2 - which I still consider his magnum opus (latin is cool) and something like an epic cinematographic essay on popular cinema and exploitation cinema, way beyond the meta hype - Tarantino fell into a common trap which was "doing Tarantino stuff". Even worst than playing in his comfort zone he did a parody of himself and eventually did everything he was wrongfully accused to do a few years back. Now he seems to be a "classic" director more than ever and the disappointing (IMO) Inglorious Basterd is even considered his best movie by many (see recent criticwire poll). Another reason why I'll always consider Death proof a bad step in his career. (Wont expand on this but hell yeah From Dusk till dawn was better, even directed by superpal/terrible influence R. Rodriguez).

  • Alonso Duralde | December 31, 2012 1:23 PMReply

    Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. This is Tarantino doing that thing he does better than he's ever done it.

  • Pierre | December 28, 2012 8:22 PMReply

    I absolutely hate directors putting down their own work. Death Proof instantly became one of my favourite Tarantinos, and hearing him so casually dismiss it is a concession to detractors that almost devalues my own enjoyment of it.

  • jeremi szaniawski | December 28, 2012 7:52 PMReply

    Very well put! Couldn't agree more! I myself published a chapter for a book on this remarkable film, entitled 'Laisse tomber les filles' (in 'Situating the Feminist Gaze in Post-Word War II cinema', Marcelline Block, ed.), mostly to honor a film I consider to rank among Tarantino's finest and most jubilant--and, as Matt points out, his most poignant ode to cinema and its modes of production. The stunts at the end of 'Death Proof' are, alone, more powerful and exhilarating than anything else done in Hollywood since Howard Hawks's rhino race in the opening 'Hatari!'. Pure poetry!

  • Matt M | December 28, 2012 7:51 PMReply

    Why "Grindhouse" wasn't a smash hit, I'll never know. It exalted the "low brow" while still managing to be "high". Rodriguez's "Planet Terror" was far inferior in my opinion but showed the future of the medium whether you like it or not. The future is green screen and digital. Tarantino's "Death Proof" was, as the article eloquently stated, an homage to the past. It embraced the practical stunts and graininess of the film, where I felt Rodriguez's did just the opposite. It felt like he was constrained by the medium. "Death Proof" is definitely one of my favorites of Tarantino's. As this article confirmed, I am not alone.

  • Adam Scott Thompson | December 28, 2012 7:41 PMReply

    A slasher film where the slasher kills women with his car!? GENIUS!!! I can understand why he's disenchanted with the film, but... he's dead-ass wrong.

  • sneakypeete | December 28, 2012 7:20 PMReply

    Hey Matt, I think you may have just provided the answer to vague question that I'd been asking myself for the past decade: why haven't we grown tired of Tarantino's schtick by now (superb slick schtick but schtick none the less). I mean, did anyone ever think that it would last this far into the 20th century. And like the great masters of pop-packaging: Bowie, Madonna, Michael Jackson…Tarantino has recycled and repackaged his old B movie Schtick to suit a prestige film format, with all pretentiously provocative premises, A list casts, bloated budgets, inflated running times, cracker jack crafts-people…I also agree that Deathproof is one of his best films, tighter, less freighted with film references, this time the are woven seamlessly into the narrative. Though it is the first time that his normally mellifluous dialogue has been found to be off key. Actors chew up the surprisingly sugar-free dialogue long after it goes stale.

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