Death Proof: Tarantino’s Grindhouse Tribute Still Has Plenty Of Mileage

Across Quentin Tarantino’s impressive filmography, most critics and fans consider Death Proof to be his most inconsequential work. Even Tarantino himself ranks it at the bottom of his directorial efforts. Originally, Dimension Films released Death Proof as part of a double-bill alongside Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror under the moniker, Grindhouse. As far as gimmicks go, producing and marketing them as actual old-fashioned exploitation movies was clever. And the fake trailers were so good that Machete got its own movie. I’m still waiting for a Thanksgiving movie, Eli Roth. Unfortunately, Grindhouse seriously underperformed at the box office. For all the praise heaped onto Tarantino, Death Proof is his one effort that takes flak. But is it really all that bad?

Death Proof Offers More Than Grindhouse Fare Under the Hood

If Death Proof has less weight compared to his other projects, it still poses interesting ideas, intended or not. Whether Death Proof qualifies as ‘progressive’ is debatable. On one hand, Tarantino subverts our expectations about the relationship between predator and prey. We spend nearly an hour with ‘Jungle Julia’ and friends, immersed in their conversations, before Tarantino pulls the rug out from under us. Even if audiences know what’s coming, it’s no less shocking. But then Rosario Dawson and company turn the tables on Kurt Russell’s ‘Stuntman Mike’; they expose him as a misogynistic coward. That Death Proof gives its characters the cathartic experience of killing their predator feels a little ahead of its time. That it happens in an exploitation movie makes it all the more interesting.

That Death Proof gives its characters the cathartic experience of killer their predator feels a little ahead of its time. That it happens in an exploitation movie makes it all the more interesting.

Nevertheless, Tarantino’s fetishization of his characters poses problems for the idea that Death Proof is a vehicle for female empowerment. Following Death Proof’s finale, it’s easy to forget that Dawson et al left Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s ‘Lee’ behind as collateral with a redneck. What happens to Lee is left unresolved. But Tarantino fans have pointed out that actor Jonathan Loughran (Jasper) plays a similar role in Kill Bill Vol I. Some fans theories have suggested that Loughran plays the same character in both movies, which has chilling implications. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Tarantino movie without extreme close-ups of his actresses’ feet. Aside from issues around the male gaze, the lingering camera on Sydney Tamiia Poitier’s ‘Jungle Julia’s’ feet takes on a different meaning when her body is mangled later in the movie.

Death Proof Sags in a Bloated Middle Act

Where Death Proof runs low on fuel is its sagging middle act. Yes, Tarantino cleverly flips the script on his movie’s villain. And there’s no arguing that Rosario Dawson, Zoe Bell, and Tracie Thoms make for much more compelling characters. Both the dialogue and performances remain crisp. In fact, Dawson et al burst with an enthusiasm that borders on infectious. You’d gladly spend more time with these characters. Still Death Proof feels like it slams on the emergency break after its shocking car death scene. Tarantino just slows things down too much and for too long. If the premise is a thin one, it’s painfully obvious as we sit through another round of often aimless banter. Despite Death Proof clocking in at under two hours – which makes it a short movie by QT standards – it’s still a long movie.

Kurt Russell’s absence for most of the latter half also hurts. Though he doesn’t have much screen time in Death Proof’s first act, QT still establishes Stuntman Mike’s presence very early. Even when he’s not on screen, Russell always hovers in the background as a threat. And Stuntman Mike is instantly iconic, making those barroom scenes bridle with a tension that’s later absent. While it’s true that a little goes a long way, Death Proof feels aimless a stretch before Tarantino delivers one of the best action stunts in the last 20 years or so.

Death Proof Still Has Enough Vintage Tarantino For Fans

Like every Tarantino movie, Death Proof lives in a world filled with eclectic characters, sharp banter, and a killer soundtrack. Few filmmakers can pick such obscure tracks and use them as effectively as Tarantino. If you’re lucky enough to get the full version, you’ll see a lap dance to The Coasters’ Down in Mexico. Even if you’ve never heard of Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mich and Tich, you won’t forget the song, Hold Tight, after Death Proof. April March’s Chick Habit makes for about as boisterous and triumphant an anthem as you’re likely to find.

Grimy picture quality, scratched film, choppy edits, missing reels – it’s all here.

Anyone who appreciates the Grindhouse aesthetics of the 1970s will also find lots to appreciate. Tarantino’s attention to the ‘on-the-cheap’ approach to moviemaking is precise. Grimy picture quality, scratched film, choppy edits, missing reels – it’s all here. And there’s plenty of references to great car chase movies, particularly The Vanishing Point. Not surprisingly then, Tarantino includes not one, but two, killer car sequences. Though a serial killer using a car as a weapon may sound silly, the concept of a ‘death proof’ car sounds pretty cool when it comes out of Kurt Russell’s mouth. Tarantino’s mastery of his craft is on full display in Death Proof’s grisly car death scene. Until Mad Max: Fury Road was released, there hasn’t been a better car chase then what you’ll see in the last 20 minutes.

Death Proof Still High-Octane Fun For Exploitation Movie Lovers

If there’s a common theme across retrospectives of Tarantino’s work it’s that Death Proof is a fun – and mostly good – movie. It just doesn’t carry the same gravitas of his other work. And that’s just fine. Despite stretching its premise thin, Death Proof delivers as advertised. This is cool, slick exploitation fare that’s slightly quotable than other Tarantino movies. But if it’s not as noteworthy, Death Proof compensates with some of the best car chase scenes put on film.  Regardless, the Grindhouse double-bill deserved a better fate.

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I am a Criminology professor in Canada but I've always had a passion for horror films. Over the years I've slowly begun incorporating my interest in the horror genre into my research. After years of saying I wanted to write more about horror I have finally decided to create my own blog where I can share some of my passion and insights into the films I love.

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