Death Proof (2007, Quentin Tarantino)

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Spoiler alert: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Groups of women are hunted by a serial-killing stuntman with a souped-up car…

What does QT do? He wrote the script, directed the film, played a secondary character, and for the first time acted as his own cinematographer. This film has a complex provenance – see Connections.

Notable characters:
* Jungle Julia Lucai (Sydney Poitier) is a local DJ in Austin, Texas, whose show is advertised on numerous billboards around town. She’s laid-back, cool and the leader of her gang of friends, which includes…
* Arlene (Vanessa Ferlito) is from New York and has a New York attitude. Her pals have played a trick on her, though. Julia announced on the radio that any man who calls Arlene ‘Butterfly’ and recites a certain poem can have a lap dance.
* Shanna (Jordan Ladd) is the third member of the group. She’s a Southerner who hates people who pronounce her name with a long A.
* Stuntman Mike McKay (Kurt Russell) is a veteran stuntman who’s worked mainly in TV. He wears a decaled jacket and hangs around in bars, observing and sometimes intimidating women. After coercing Arlene into giving him a lap dance, he offers to give a woman called Pam a lift home. Sadly for Pam, Mike is a serial killer who uses his stripped-down car to murder her. He then chases after and kills Julia, Arlene and Shanna, then 14 months later targets another group of female friends. Russell gives a creepy performance, which lapses into an unnerving John Wayne impression at one point.
* Dov (Eli Roth), Nate (Omar Doom) and Omar (Michael Bacall) are the male friends of Julia’s gang, who all hope for a bit of action.
* Warren (Quentin Tarantino) is a fun-loving barman who uses the phrase ‘tasty beverage’ (a reference to Pulp Fiction).
* Pam (Rose McGowan) is an old schoolmate of Julia’s, though they don’t get on. When Mike gives her a lift home, he deliberately races around and brakes hard so she’s mangled to death in the seatbelt-free, encaged passenger seat.
* Dr Dakota Block (Marley Shelton), Texas Ranger Earl McGraw (Michael Parks) and Ranger Edgar McGraw (James Parks) feature in one scene at a hospital after Mike’s killed Julia, Arlene and Shanna. Earl is mad because he can’t prove the incident was murder.
* Lee Montgomery (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is a nice but slightly dopey actress working on a cheerleader movie in Tennessee. (This is 14 months after the first group of women were killed.) She spends her day off with friends Kim and Abernathy, and wears her cheerleader’s costume… for some reason. Not that I’m complaining. In order to borrow a car from a decidedly dodgy redneck, Lee’s friends leave her with him as collateral… and that’s the last we see of her in the film!
* Kim Mathis (Tracie Thoms) is a brash and confident stuntwoman working on Lee’s film. When Mike attacks the friends, Kim shoots at him and the girls then chase after him, hunt him down and kill him.
* Abernathy Ross (Rosario Dawson) is a make-up artist, who has the day off because Lindsay Lohan does too.
* Zoe Bell (Zoe Bell) is a Kiwi stuntwoman who flies into Tennessee to hang out with pals Kim and Abernathy. As she’s in America, she wants to do ‘ship’s mast’ – a dangerous game that involves being strapped to the bonnet of the car from the movie Vanishing Point while it bombs down country lanes… Tarantino met Bell when she was Uma Thurman’s stuntwoman on Kill Bill, and he was so charmed that he wrote a part for her in this film. Not being an actress, Bell assumed it would be cameo, then read the script and realised that a) she was playing herself, and b) she had *reams* of dialogue. She’s actually pretty good – clearly not an experienced actress, she more than gets by thanks to natural charisma. And of course casting Bell means that the character can do some outrageous stunts and it’s demonstrably her doing them.
* Jasper (Jonathan Loughran) is a creepy local man who owns a muscle car. The girls want to borrow it for a test drive but have no intention of actually buying it.

Returning actors: Michael Parks (From Dusk Till Dawn, both Kill Bills), James Parks (Kill Bill Vol. 1) and Jonathan Loughran (Kill Bill Vol. 1) appear again – see Connections. Michael Bacall was in Tarantino’s CSI episode. Quentin plays a significant role in one of his own films for the first time since Pulp Fiction, 13 years earlier.

Music: The title music is stirring instrumental The Last Race by Jack Nitzsche. A cover of Baby It’s You by Smith (sic: sadly not The Smiths!) features in both halves of the story and subliminally connects the two groups of women – it’s played on a jukebox in the Austin bar, and Lee later sings along to it on her iPod. T. Rex’s Jeepster is also heard on the jukebox, as is Down in Mexico by the Coasters when Arlene does her lap dance. Later on, Julia phones her radio station and asks for Hold Tight by Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich to be played on the air. It’s unclear if this is a deliberate mistake or not, but self-proclaimed music expert Julia thinks the band was called Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, *Mitch* & Tich.

Time shifts and chapters: The car crash that kills Julia, Arlene, Shanna and their friend Lanna is shown four times in quick succession so we can focus on each of their horrifically violent deaths.

Connections: Here’s where it gets complicated… Death Proof began as part of a three-hour movie called Grindhouse, which was released in April 2007. Grindhouse consisted of two ‘features’ – Planet Terror, written and directed by Robert Rodriguez, and Death Proof, written and directed by Quentin Tarantino – as well as some trailers for fake films directed by the likes of Eli Roth and Edgar Wright. The idea was to recreate the mood and feel of a 1970s grindhouse cinema, which showed low-budget horror films on a loop. The movie, however, was a big old flop. So outside of North America, the two features were released separately in the autumn with some extras scenes added to punch up their running times (in Grindhouse, they’d both had scenes deliberately missing as an in-joke about bad prints). The standalone Planet Terror is a horror-comedy that, while shallow fun, weaves drunkenly from being too earnest to being too puerile. Co-producer Tarantino has an embarrassing cameo as a rapist. Additionally, some of Grindhouse’s fake trailers have since been expanded into full-length movies: Machete (2010), Hobo With a Shotgun (2011) and Machete Kills (2013). Death Proof, meanwhile, uses a few characters from existing fictions. Jasper is said by some to be the same rapist hillbilly the actor played in Kill Bill Vol. 1. Earl and Edgar McGraw crop up again, having appeared in both the From Dusk Till Dawn and Kill Bill series. They’re also in Planet Terror, as is Dr Dakota Block.

Review: Talking about his career in 2012, Tarantino said he knows he’ll be judged on a body of work. “I want to go out with a terrific filmography,” he claimed. “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?” This left-handed movie is a homage to a couple of exploitation genres Tarantino loved from an early age – slasher films such as Halloween (1978) and car movies like Vanishing Point (1971). And while set in the present day, Death Proof uses various techniques to make it seem like you’re watching a bad print that’s travelled round from cinema to cinema. The film stock looks cheap, there are scratches, jumps and audio mismatches, while one reel is even in black and white. All this tomfoolery does calm down after a while, thankfully, and the story takes focus. What’s most striking is the fact the movie is ruled by women. (Men in this story are losers, perverts, absent… or a serial killer.) We get to know the girls while they drive around in a car (a la Jules and Vincent in Pulp Fiction), and each scene gives us substantial chunks of witty dialogue and friends swapping in-jokes and teasing each other. It’s all very entertaining. In the second group’s case there’s also a *seven-minute* long take while the girls have a coffee. One of the bravura highlights of Tarantino’s career, it features four characters, fast-paced dialogue, a drifting camera tracking round the table, and glimpses of Stuntman Mike secretly watching them from afar. Check it out here:

The first half of the film – Julia, Arlene and Shanna’s story – acts as a primer for second. It gives us a blueprint for Mike’s plan, which of course goes wrong next time round. Kim, Abernathy and Zoe are tougher women and fight back. As they do so, the action scenes in the final quarter really are something – we get well-filmed muscle cars driving at high speeds, the rumble of engines and squeaks tof tyres, and of course Zoe Bell clinging to the hood for dear life. Yes, the film’s a bit on the flimsy side. It doesn’t especially *mean* anything. And Tarantino’s not the only person to consider Death Proof his worst film. At 67 per cent, it has the lowest score on Rotten Tomatoes for any QT-directed movie. But this is harsh. Death Proof is certainly Quentin’s least successful movie and probably his least loved – but that gives it an underdog quality. It’s ready to fight back.

Eight 1970 Dodge Challengers out of 10

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