Shiny Shelf

Death Proof

By Jim Smith on 21 September 2007

WARNING! Contains spoilers!

As a long time admirer of (and author of a recently reprinted book about) Quentin Tarantino, I was recently moved to get down on my knees and thank a God I don’t believe in (doesn’t matter which one it was, I don’t believe in them all equally) at the announcement that the two features of ‘Grindhouse’ would be released separately in the UK. The unshackling of Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Death Proof’ from Robert Rodriguez’s ‘Planet Terror’ is a cause for jubilant, unbridled celebration.

While the two men are friends, and have a shared pool of likes and passions, they couldn’t really be more different in terms of their abilities. Tarantino has perhaps the widest filmic vocabulary of any living American director. Rodriguez is a monosyllabic grunt by comparison. Most of the movies he has made have been genuinely awful, probably because he insists on giving himself approximately 93 jobs – none of which he has the slightest aptitude for – on all of them. Tarantino seems to have mistaken Rodriguez for a kindred talent, when what he is is a kindred spirit – and one distinctly lacking in talent. He’s a guileless pasticheur of a filmmaker with a tendency towards unavoidably, but seemingly unintentionally, sinister voyeurism and a total inability to control tone.

So ‘Death Proof’ arrives unshackled from ‘Planet Terror’, with two hours of dead wood clopped from the front and some scenes dropped back into the compensate – and it’s a marvel of a picture; it’s slick and funny, sometimes mesmerisingly shot and features a car chase climax which actually rivals the legendary L-Ride/Pontiac pursuit from ‘The French Connection’ for sheer visceral excitement.

In plot terms there’s little here. The first half is about a misogynistic stuntman (Kurt Russell) hunting down and killing a group of girls, the second is about another group of girls who manage to turn the tables on him. In between there’s a comic vignette with Gordon and James Parks as Sheriff and Deputy McCraw and, er, that’s it for plot.

What we get instead though is some outstanding camerawork, beautiful editing and well-chosen music and a slow drip-drip of well-observed, well-written dialogue, delivered at a laid back pace by a skilfully assembled ensemble cast (Rose McGowan, Rosario Dawson, Sydney Poitier and instant star Zoe Bell) producing oodles of character moments. There’s also plenty of Tarantino’s own brand of mucky, ‘invasive reality’ and lots of charm. Tarantino once said that ‘Jackie Brown’ was a ‘hang out movie’ like ‘Rio Bravo’. He meant that in the sense that you watched it to ‘hang out’ with the characters and ‘Death Proof’ has much the same appeal. It might be crass and (deliberately) crude in its subject matter but there’s an underlying sweetness to the people we encounter in this movie that means you want to watche them chat – even Russell’s scarred and manic murderer has a gentle, contemplative, sadness to him at times. I know that sounds silly but it’s true.

What separates Tarantino from Rodriguez (and indeed his spins on items from their shared cultural past) is his sheer ability to transform that which he processes. Here he sweeps up the trash off of the grindhouse floor and turns it into an oddly meditative piece; themes such as differing male and female perceptions of the same event, the role of the car in American culture and the concept of ‘the frontier’ snake through the picture like seams of precious metal in rock, ever present, usually visible, increasing the value of what we’re seeing through the simple fact of their presence.

The first half of the film particularly seems to instinctively understand that most of the great American movies of the seventies (and many of the not-so-great ones too) are principally about disgust, and that’s a motif which is introduced visually and then slowly removed along with the affected ‘mistakes’ (focusing errors, film jumps, mislaid sound) both disappearing entirely after the ‘accidental’ monochrome reel, which also happens to be the point in the film where the (new) female protagonists take control of the narrative and their own fates.

Oddly reminiscent of underrated seventies films like Barbara Foden’s marvellous feminist road movie ‘Wanda’, ‘Death Proof’ is obviously going to reward repeat viewings and outlive just about every one of its critics, including me. And that’s as it should be.

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