Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Death Proof’ (2007)

03Feb09

When I first read about Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s grindhouse movies, I was pretty sure that I wouldn’t like them, that I wasn’t part of the audience for them. I mean, violence, gore, and objectified women? Hardly sounds like my cup of tea. I shouldn’t like Death Proof. I know that I shouldn’t like Death Proof. 'Death Proof' posterAnd yet there is something extremely gratifying about watching three women beat the crap out of a misogynistic, mass-murdering psychopath.

But again, Tarantino disappoints with his inability to create effective pacing. He seems to have embraced the double feature element of his Grindhouse project with Rodriguez in his own film because Death Proof feels like two movies stuck together. One of those movies is fun and the other is almost coma-inducing. As is, Death Proof is an uneven two-hour movie, but with some generous editing it could be a very entertaining 80- or 90-minute movie.

The initial half with the first set of “girls” (Sydney Poitier, Vanessa Ferlito, Jordan Ladd) should and easily could be almost cut completely. If I understand the concept of grindhouse movies, they are supposed to be full of sex, action, violence, and gore, not aimless, lifeless conversation. Granted, Arlene does a little lap dance, which I suppose is intended to be sexy, but I’m of the opinion that lap dances are only interesting if you’re on the receiving end. Death Proof is not a film about character development. It sounds crass, but it doesn’t really matter if we “know” Stuntman Mike’s first victims because they are merely the set up for the real meat of the film. And booty dances aside, Arlene, Julia, and Shanna just aren’t entertaining enough to merit the amount of screen time that they receive, especially in comparison to the women who populate the second hour of the film. I find that I enjoy the film more, and don’t feel like I’m really missing anything, if I start the movie with Stuntman Mike giving Pam a ride home.

Tracie Thoms, Rosario Dawson, and “newcomer” Zoë Bell bring Death Proof to life. Admittedly, I think they have better material to work with, but their chemistry sparkles, finally kicking the film into gear after nearly half its running length. Bell first worked with Tarantino on the Kill Bill films as a stunt double for The Bride, and Death Proof is her acting debut as a lead. While she is playing a version of herself, Bell proves to be energetic, likable, and funny, which is more than many actors with resumés twice the length of hers can say. And she does all her own stunts, which are pretty bad ass. Thoms fills the Samuel L. Jackson slot with plenty of attitude and profanity – but no blaspheming – and Dawson gamely goes along for the ride as the good girl who goes a little bad.

As Stuntman Mike, Kurt Russell effectively fills the villain role, returning to a more bad-ass persona that propelled him to A-list status in the 1980s with films like John Carpenter’s Escape from New York. He doesn’t particularly stand out here, but I cannot fault him any misstep either. He seems to understand the material and he delivers.

Kurt Russell and Kurt Russell in 'Death Proof'

Tarantino has provided plenty of filmic evidence of his fetishes, using shots of bare feet and rear ends to sexualize (and objectify) his female characters. His use of these shots in Death Proof interests me because their context differs greatly in the two halves of the movie. In the first half, the first shot of Jungle Julia tilts up from her bare feet to her backside, clad only in underwear, as she pulls a t-shirt over her head to cover her bare back. A subsequent shot starts behind Julia and dollies in and up over her head as she leans out her window to call down to her friends outside, her rear end pushed out toward the camera, making her body more accessible to the audience. Similarly, the introductory shot of Arlene is a close up of her cupping her crotch in effort to keep from peeing herself, I guess, and Arlene later performs the above-mentioned lap dance. The first half just has more of this kind of stuff – bare feet, bare legs, physical affection between two beautiful women – all of which serves to make these women’s bodies objects, accessible to the audience and to the male gaze.

In comparison, the second half really doesn’t have much. In the ostensible first scene, Stuntman Mike touches and licks via proxy Abernathy’s bare feet as they hang out the window of Kim’s car. After that initial encounter no shots of similar quality happen until almost the very last one, and that shot defines the difference between Tarantino’s treatment of his first set of “girls” from his second. (I suppose one could consider the footage of Stuntman Mike photographing the women in the airport parking lot to be similar, but I think it serves a different purpose. And it’s not body part specific nor as sexualized as other shots.) After Kim has plowed into Stuntman Mike, sending his car rolling off the road, the Challenger pulls to a stop and Zoë emerges from the car. The camera follows her, pushing in on her rear end, and Kim and Abernathy soon join her in the frame so that the camera can follow these three women’s backsides as they advance toward Stuntman Mike, bloody and howling in pain in the wreckage of his car. This shot is not about sex – it’s about these women’s power, the culmination of their transformation of their earlier victimization by Stuntman Mike into predatory instinct.

The stark contrast between Tarantino’s treatment of Jungle Julia’s crowd and Zoë’s film industry cohorts reminds me of that “rule” from horror films about the girls who have sex in the movie are always killed. Jungle Julia et al. don’t have sex with anyone, but their bodies are far more sexualized than Zoë et al. The first group dies and the second group lives. But with the exception of Arlene’s lap dance, which Stuntman Mike goads her into doing, their sexualization seems so much more involuntary than if they had just chosen to have sex with someone. Tarantino’s objectification of this group seems to offer them up for slaughter, and yet only the fact that they are slaughtered seems to justify their objectification. So what is the difference between Jungle Julia and Zoë? Even though they ride the white horse to Stuntman Mike’s dark one, Kim, Zoë, and Abernathy fall much more in a moral gray area than Jungle Julia and her companions. They leave their friend to be possibly molested by the Challenger’s owner so that they can go for a joy ride, and they pursue Stuntman Mike so mercilessly that they cause the injury of a motorcyclist and probably other motorists as well. To put it plainly, these women survive because they can kick Stuntman Mike’s ass. They can out bad ass the bad ass, and Tarantino’s shot of their backsides celebrates that display of, for lack of a better term, female machismo. It’s as if Tarantino really can’t sexualize these women in the same way that he objectifies Jungle Julia because they are too masculine, maybe not in appearance but in attitude, and yet they are still too feminine to sexualize them for their power. Their sexuality is tied too closely to their female machismo that it cannot be fully expressed until they have offered a legitimate display.

Rosario Dawson, Tracie Thoms, Zoe Bell, Mary Elizabeth Winstead in 'Death Proof'
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