Thursday, September 27, 2007


Death Proof may just be the 'ultimate' Quentin Tarantino film. I say this not because it is necessarily his best film (that would be 1997's Jackie Brown), but merely because it is the comfort zone that Q.T. seems to want to reside in artistically and cinematically. In the media's rush to label Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction as a breath of fresh air blowing from somewhere in between art house and genre subversion (a la the many of the early French New Wave directors films), they forgot to look at the script work for From Dusk Till Dawn and Natural Born Killers. Certainly the frenzy that was Kill Bill made it quite clear that playing on the trash side of cinema for the sake of being fun and nasty is his idiom.

The concept of the Grindhouse experiment reigned in the everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach taken with Kill Bill and let Tarantino focus on blending three types of films with Death Proof: The Women-Out-Of-Control style exploitation (Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!), the slasher flick (Halloween) and the muscle car potboiler (Vanishing Point, Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, both explicitly referenced in the dialogue here). As a side note, Robert Rodriguez who had the opening feature in the Grindhouse double bill went the pile on route with Planet Terror which has about 10 films vying to escape from his flasher parody of 80's style Golan Globus films - but the commercial failure of Grindhouse has split the two features into separate films (and Planet Terror is the weaker of the two).

Death Proof is really a 'hanging out' kind of movie. Barely interested in getting to its plot or even the big 'money shots' (of which there are several). The film is more interested in hanging out and listening two groups of girls talk (and talk, and talk). Fortunately, Q.T. has a gift for writing smooth flowing dialogue. If there isn't the showy one-liners of his other features on display here, the movies strength is how it flows smoothly along, utilizing a ripping soundtrack (usually contained in the film via car radios or jukeboxes around the Austin venues the first set of girls hang out. The other strength that the director is famous for is bringing out the best performances from actors which have been (more or less) cast in the dustbin. Here it is Kurt Russell, fabulously introduced in the unglamorous close-ups of him inhaling a plate of nachos and cheese, the camera lingering on greasy fingers and smacking lips, before tilting up to see Russell's weathered face sporting a wicked scar over his right eye. A bit of a power-junkie and a bit of a dork, Russell attempts to impress the locals with the shows he worked on before realizing that the young Austin crowd hasn't really heard any of these 70's action TV relics. Instead he flirts with the shyest of the girls before going into stalking mode (a transition Tarantino winks to the camera with the flourish of having Russell flash one of the most joy-filled grins right to the audience.

The second half promises to be a repeat of the first, yet the next group of girls is a little less slutty (certainly Q.T. is adhering to convention with this aspect of the movie) and a little more aggressive. Stuntman Mike is dealing with Stuntwoman Zoe and cohorts, who aren't going to take his shit and show him a little Girl-Power in a muscle car show down.

The key to enjoying Death Proof is an ear for texture and detail. It's not the broad strokes character building, plot, action where the film shines, but rather the small observations in the girls personalities - vanity, ego, or in the case of Rosario Dawson's Abby, discovering just what you are capable of if your friends are there to show you the way. As talented actresses go, Dawson makes the most with a fairly small role, she is a joy to watch. As is Uma Thurman's Stunt Double, Zoe Bell, here playing herself in front of the camera, and clearly loving every minute of it. Bell may not be the actress that Dawson is, but her enthusiasm is so winning that watching her character strut her stuff is one of the drawing pleasures of the film.

I don't know if I've sold the movie or not to anyone reading this, as I have been on the defending side of this film from a lot of folks who think all the time spent with these girls is wasted and this ramble may reflect that defensive posture. But like Wes Anderson's Bottle Rocket, Spike Lee's 25th Hour and The Coen Brothers The Big Lebowski (note all three of those have been past KBT screenings), Death Proof is a film that gets better with subsequent viewings that allow anyone willing to go along for the ride to feel the texture of what is really accomplished here. It may not be what the audience for Grindhouse actually thought they might be getting. The result is actually something better.


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