The Case for ‘Death Proof’ as Essential Tarantino

Tarantino has promises to keep and miles to go before he sleeps.

Rip it, drop the title card, call it Death Proof, re-release it!

“‘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. But I do think one of those out-of-touch, old, limp, flaccid-dick movies costs you three good movies as far as your rating is concerned.” – Quentin Tarantino, 2012 (THR Round Table Interview)

It’s the ten year anniversary of the release of Death Proof, a gonzo experiment in meta-cinematic storytelling that puts all of Tarantino’s subtle nods and fetishes into the spotlight. It’s great. I’m not going to hear anybody trash-talking this joint. Okay, so Tarantino goes on to acknowledge in the interview he’s talking bullshit on himself to make a point. But, folks were real quick to agree that the flick is “just alright” and “certainly at the bottom” of his filmography. I can’t rank his films. Most of his characters may be smart-talking and groove-loving with the more-than-occasional foot fetish, but his films all feel so different when it comes to what makes them great and why.

Tarantino went on to share that he fantasizes that after his death some kid will stumble onto his work and start watching his stuff at random. He’s terrified of leaving a legacy marred by a lackluster over-the-hill movie for this kid to discover. He, of course, relates this in the most Tarantino way possible saying he just really wants all his films to keep that kid’s dick hard. Despite all the bombastic rhetorical choices, it’s obvious that he feels he has promises to keep to the cinema’s audience. His respect for cinema itself edges on fanaticism, where the unrealized potential of a dull film is a nightmarish demon waiting to destroy the director he wants you to see him as.

I saw Death Proof for the first time last year. It was one of those films where I got it in my head that I had already seen it and that I hadn’t cared for it. If it’s that easy to get a so-so opinion of a piece of work into the zeitgeist, maybe there’s something to the idea of always hyping your own work? I’m an easy mark, though, so maybe that’s just me. Any road, I decided to give it another go and figured out real quick I hadn’t actually seen it before. Here’s the thing. I’m not a kid. Tarantino is still kicking around. This movie ain’t flaccid. From the gravelly coarseness of Stuntman Mike, rendered impotent by a world indifferent to him, to the literally inimitable Zoe Bell performance in the second half, this movie is all eggplant emoji. Or, really, it’s all Tarantino id in the foreground. Death Proof is exactly what it’s like to watch and think about a movie in Tarantino’s head.

Frame damage, wall damage, beautiful posters. Tarantino in a frame.

Death Proof was originally released as a single bill, double feature with Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror, under the name Grindhouse. So, it’s no big leap to think of it as Tarantino’s full-fledged embrace of grindhouse cinema, with all it’s flaws and meanness and exploitative nature on display. My goodness though, he’s in there doing a lot with the set up. The first half of the movie is him playing around with all the presentation, chop-shop nature of grindhouse. It has damaged frames, burn marks, mixed up title cards, missing footage, dorked up audio, and more. Anything you could think of that distinguishes those films as low-budget, mean cinema, he did it.

Despite all the deliberate degrading, there are so many perfect shots.

It’s a weird, meta-cinematic space. I’m watching this story about a disgusting serial killer but I’m also watching this movie as though it were created in a long gone era. Presumably by some alternate timeline version of Tarantino where he came into his own back in the days of exploitation cinema. What if this Grindhouse Timeline Tarantino stumbled onto some forgotten, little seen movie about a murderer featuring the gnarliest car-as-a-murder-weapon murder scene he’d ever seen? How would he add onto that? Well, he’d get his new potential victims and prepare to shoot an irresponsibly dangerous series of stunts. But, that isn’t a whole movie.

This is grindhouse, though. So, first off, he’d rip that original movie right off. Literally. He’d run down the best 35mm copies of the original he could find and chop it up. Is the actor who played the original Stuntman Mike available for a long shoot? No? Cut out all of his back story. Focus on the first group of women, their foibles, and their ultimate gruesome murder. Gotta keep that murder. In fact, chop it up so you see that impact over and over and over because that shit is money. Hey, now he’s got half a movie full of salacious moments, nasty ends, and a madcap series of stunts planned to put butts in chairs. What can you do to add something to that? Revenge of the victims. Fuck the man. But, Grindhouse Timeline Tarantino never makes the film.

Waiting to be noticed.

So, we’ve got one half of a movie made by Grindhouse Timeline Tarantino. After the interlude to the second half of the film, Tarantino switches to black and white for the opening scene. It connects Stuntman Mike to the new story, but also acts like a transition to modern Tarantino engaging with the material. Look, I don’t want to get all wonky with this, but we’re getting to Russian Matryoshka nesting doll level of meta-cinematic space. Our Tarantino “discovers” Grindhouse Timeline Tarantino’s work and builds upon it. It’s like he’s saying, hey everybody. This is what I’m about. This is what I do. I want to stand on the shoulders of the nastiest, meanest most unrecognized filmmaking giants out there.

He wants to be classic. And cool. The transition complete, the story pops to color. No more damaged frames. No more bungled audio or missing footage. We get a straight up forty-five minute short film where Zoe Bell comes to Tennessee to test drive a Dodge Challenger from Vanishing Point. And, along the way, to play an insane game called Ship’s Mast where she rides on the hood of the car at an insane pace. Stuntman Mike comes crashing into the party and nearly kills them all. After their first duel ends with the parties crashing off the road, Mike gets out of car and clearly feels alive for the first time in a long time.

What separates this Tarantino from Grindhouse Tarantino? Stuntman Mike is the victim this go round. Grindhouse Tarantino is a mean bastard. This group, deliberately similar to the first group, meets Stuntman Mike on his turf. And, while the ride is terrifying, their first encounter ends with Stuntman Mike catching one in the arm from Kim’s roscoe. He speeds off, weeping like a child. The climactic moment of their story is Zoe Bell leaping out of the grass, as playfully as a child, delighted to discover she’s alright. The final arc of the movie isn’t an arc at all. It’s a straight line to the revenge of the victims. They chase him down, out-drive him, wreck his car, and beat his ass to death in the middle of the road.

The film has great characters, an insanely daring performance from Zoe Bell, a terrifically gross Kurt Russell performance, and some really gorgeous shots. It’s meta-cinema nature appeals to me. But, you know. That leaves the movie feeling as though it’s a bit all over the place. In every other film, Tarantino is about pastiche and homage. And maybe turgidity? His work constantly points to the filmmakers he considers great. In Death Proof, we get to see Tarantino create a full-on maybe-see-a-doctor turgid pastiche of grindhouse cinema. It’s gnarly, but makes for what feels like a unique story construction. He’s operating so deeply and unrestrained inside his own wheelhouse that it feels like he’s operating outside of his comfort zone. It verges on out of control. But, my goodness it’s fun. I do know this. If Tarantino is genuinely worried about the lasting ability of his filmography to cause priapism, Death Proof ain’t gonna let ’em down.

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