Thursday, September 9, 2010

Problems I Have With Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof (2007)

“The most offensive thing about [Straw Dogs] is its hypocrisy; it is totally committed to the pornography of violence, but lays on the moral outrage with a shovel. The perfect criticism of Straw Dogs has already been made. It is The Wild Bunch.”

-from Roger Ebert’s 1971 review of Straw Dogs

Those words of film criticism have stayed with me for a very long time. I’ve spent years and years trying to figure out where I stand on Hollywood violence: I’ve never been against pure cinematic violence as a whole, but even I cannot deny that I have some squeamishes of my own. And while I don’t agree with Roger Ebert’s overall assessment of Straw Dogs, I can certainly understand where he was coming from in his blistering review. For Ebert, it must have been truly bizarre at the time to see a filmmaker like Sam Peckinpah, who had just fashioned an antiviolence masterpiece out of The Wild Bunch, to be following up on his artistic triumph with a film that was suddenly asking Peckinpah’s audiences to take a step back again and empathize with a protagonist who was using ferocious means of violence to defend his home. To me, that is precisely what made Straw Dogs such a powerful film; it was “a fascist work of art”, as Pauline Kael so eloquently dubbed it—but to Ebert, it was as though Peckinpah’s theories about violence had “regressed to a sort of 19th-Century mixture of Kipling and machismo.” It was no longer a pleasant time to feel good about blood and guts at the movies.

Quentin Tarantino is a filmmaker whose love of violence in the cinema seems to know no bounds. On his fansite, he’s even made a list of his favorite killing scenes in some of the bloodiest films of recent years (including a scene from Jason X). Fans of Tarantino point out that it’s ridiculous to go to his films and expect lessons to be learned, morals to be taken into account or politics to be debated—he is a filmmaker who makes movies about movies, and for any cinephile, that should be quite enough.

Anybody who knows me well knows that I’ve struggled with Tarantino’s work. That I’ve long been unable to place the source of my reservations towards his style has bothered me year after year, but after about five years of resisting his latest output and attempting to come up with explanations, I think I’ve finally figured out why I've been struggling: Tarantino’s recent choice of genres has disabled me from being fully prepared for the tricks he’s had up his sleeve. I suppose I’ve always had affection for his first two films because they were scripted from genres and filmmaker influences I know for a fact I have always been enamored with. Reservoir Dogs (1992) resurrected the heist picture as Tarantino brought with him the influence of a host of classic filmmakers, among them Samuel Fuller, Stanley Kubrick and possibly even John Huston (QT is reportedly a fan of The Asphalt Jungle); and Pulp Fiction (1994) put a new spin on the gangster pictures of Scorsese and Leone while at the same time spicing it all up with a pinch of Godard. These two films, in my opinion, were the work of a cinephile’s filmmaker for sure.

But ever since then, Tarantino has been making films that pay tribute to a lesser kind of cinema, a kind of cinema that cinephiles do not get as much worked up over: exploitation. Some of them have worked and some of them have not, and the key to whether or not each of them has succeeded depends entirely on whether or not Tarantino has been able to transcend exploitation with each new film. Jackie Brown (1996) was an homage to the crude blaxploitation flicks of Jack Hill and Gordon Parks, and although it was a rather conventional movie it nevertheless succeeded because it had likable characters and never succumbed to the filmmaker’s occasional self-indulgences. Inglourious Basterds (2009) repulsed me at first and is still a film I struggle somewhat with because of my inability to decide whether it celebrated the gross macho violence of World War II action flicks; but, in the end, I am able to recommend the film because of Tarantino’s own pointed observations (as stated on Rachel Maddow’s MSNBC show) about the film’s social relevance to questions about terrorism and criminal torture raised by today’s generation. Of the Kill Bill saga, I had a completely split reaction: I found the pointless violence of the 2003 installment deplorable, and the depth of the 2004 sequel simply irresistible.

To reiterate again the point I’m attempting to make with this piece, here’s why I believe that Jackie Brown, Kill Bill Vol. 2 and Inglorious Basterds were all successful films: they transcended their exploitative genres. The thing about me is, I hate exploitation. I think it’s a crass, ugly form of cinema—the kind of filmmaking that gives weight to the high-profile moralist’s complaint that movies can somehow influence people to be violent. Exploitation is not like a great horror or action film that can bring out the raw energy of cinematic violence as a way to exorcise our demons; it’s made primarily for the kind of audience that arrogantly chants out, “Kill! Kill!” and happily applauds when the bad guys are finally eliminated. It’s a one-dimensional artistic outlook and it does nothing to further the progress of the medium. We could debate about Kill Bill Vol. 1 and whether it was such a film, but I know for certain that Jackie Brown, Kill Bill Vol. 2 and Inglourious Basterds were not. As much as I wish Tarantino would go back to choosing more tasteful genres from which to make his movies, I can lay any quibbles I have with his current choice of filmmaking to rest—as long as he keeps on transcending it.

Death Proof (2007) is a problematic film for me. I do not believe it is a film that transcends exploitation; it’s a movie that feels a lot like a product of the trashy cinema from which it came. There’s nothing in this movie for cinephiles, and Tarantino seems to have made Death Proof for two purposes: a) to cater to the “Kill! Kill!” crowd, and b) to nostalgically evoke memories from audience members who constantly devoured movies like this back in the 1970’s. Of course, it is also perhaps true that Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez never intended for their Grindhouse project to “transcend” exploitation in the first place. I’m sure their intention was to bring back exploitation for modern audiences in hopes that it would revive enough interest in the genre to lead to more and more movies of the same kind—which may be the case, but I don’t think this sort of filmmaking makes for intriguing cinema in the least.

It isn’t just the vile way Death Proof goes about its business as an exploitive action flick that bothers me, either; it’s the lack of a real heart in the story. Not just in the narrative, either, but in Tarantino’s mixed bag of heroes and villains. The most purely Tarantinian character in all of Death Proof is the antagonist: Stuntman Mike, whose long speeches and B-movie punchlines, I must admit, are a true delight. The performance by Kurt Russell as Stuntman Mike is a great one—one of the most enjoyable in all of Tarantino’s films—and like David Carradine’s Bill in the Kill Bill pictures or Cristoph Waltz’s Colonel Landa in Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino again confirms his talent for making likable figures out of characters who are, in their nature, despicable human beings. Bill wasted a whole audience of churchgoers, Colonel Landa executed Holocaust refugees, and in Death Proof, Stuntman Mike sadistically murders innocent women in horrifying car crashes. Logically, we should be able to hate Stuntman Mike with a passion and hope to see him killed off in no time, but, like I said, Stuntman Mike is such a living, breathing Tarantinian character that for the audience to look with disgust upon the character entirely is something of a difficult exercise.

Disappointingly, Tarantino fails to balance the villainy of Stuntman Mike with a heroine who can be just as charismatic. The first half of Death Proof is dominated by wild, voluptuous teenage girls (played by Vanessa Ferlito, Sydney Tamiia Poitier and Jordan Ladd) who are going to spend the evening at a father’s lake house—no boys allowed. But we don’t ever really get to know any of these three girls very well, in the short screen time that they have. As characters, they are not very interesting, and their lengthy scenes of dialogue add up to nothing more than dull, superfluous exposition leading up to the moment when they will all be wiped out by one of Stuntman Mike’s gory car crashes. Tarantino does craft a sexy sequence in which the girls, unaware of Stuntman Mike’s sadistic nature, treat him to a lapdance to the jukebox tune of “Down in Mexico”, and one must commend Tarantino for his inspired decision to use one of The Coasters’ more underrated songs on his soundtrack. But of all the heroines who appear in the first half of Death Proof, the only one who arouses all that much interest is the lone Pam (Rose McGowan), who sadly becomes Stuntman Mike’s first victim—although when he explains to her that his car is “100% death proof” and that “to get the benefit of it, honey, you REALLY need to be sitting in my seat!” it gives one a visual picture of Tarantino putting his tongue in his cheek when writing such absurd lines of dialogue for his colorful serial killer.

The Tennessee heroines who dominate the second half of Death Proof are, unfortunately, just as boring and wooden as the deceased Texas heroines who precede them. Again, Tarantino fails to make any of these women (played by Rosario Dawson, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Tracie Thomas) as charismatic as Stuntman Mike; the only difference between these women and the last is that these women share Tarantino’s encyclopedic knowledge of 1970’s exploitation pictures that most cinephiles have probably never seen (or ever cared to see), such as Vanishing Point and the original Gone in 60 Seconds. I can see no purpose for the long scenes of dialogue that these women spend talking about these films except to fill the undernourished running time of Death Proof and to get Tarantino’s audience members to check out the films his characters are recommending to each other. And why does Tarantino write up an incomprehensible scene in which Stuntman Mike creepily molests one of the women while she is sleeping in the parking lot of a general store? Or the scene where another one of the women is dropped off as collateral for the sexual advantages of a perverted mechanic? These awkward scenes don’t feel like they’re progressing the plot at all—they just feel intentionally awkward.

The only remotely interesting heroine in the second half of Death Proof is Zoe Bell, who plays herself. She’s a feisty stuntwoman from New Zealand whose character does indeed have some of Stuntman Mike’s charisma, and her character so well stands out above the rest of her inferior counterparts that it feels like a missed opportunity for Tarantino not to have her and Stuntman Mike duking it out, one-on-one, at the end of the film; it would have served as an excellent foil for the Bride’s showdown with Bill. But Zoe Bell, as we will later see, spends most of Death Proof on top of a speeding car playing a game of Ship’s Mast. Although we fear for Zoe's safety, and although we are impressed with Tarantino’s relentless direction of the lengthy car chase between Stuntman Mike and the heroines that follows, there is one concrete problem with this sequence: Tarantino doesn't give us anybody to root for. We can't root for Stuntman Mike because he is the murderous villain, and yet we can't much root for the heroines, either, because they are hardly any more likable. Worse, it is only a matter of time before we realize that this car chase is all that the movie has going for it. At this moment, Tarantino throws his story out the window, and we realize that the whole movie has been nothing but a bunch of wasteful meandering in preparation for this big action climax. Was it worth all of those overblown, overwritten scenes that went absolutely nowhere?

I also take objection to the way Tarantino concludes his film. Since exploitation cinema usually calls for the death of the murderous villain, obviously Stuntman Mike has to die at some point—but I’m not satisfied with the way he exits the picture. It’s a tradition for audiences at the multiplex to enjoy the deaths of cinematic villains, but I don’t remember the last time it was pleasurable to see a villain who was sobbing and wailing in extreme pain upon the moment of death. That is exactly how the screenplay of Death Proof dispatches of Stuntman Mike: defeated by the heroines, his car wrecked and his health under serious threat, Stuntman Mike cries out for help. The heroines run up to his car, take him out, and beat him to death. While Tarantino is not entirely to blame for the ultimate circumstances of Stuntman Mike's death (it was Kurt Russell's idea to have the character feel vulnerable and scared at the last minute), I resent how the filmmakers mean for us to cheer at having just seen something that is about as enjoyable as a rabid dog getting strangled for its sins.

We need to ask ourselves this question: what if Bill had died this way? Did any of us want to see Kill Bill Vol. 2 end with the Bride cutting up a screaming Bill, torturing him to death while she departs, her daughter over her shoulder, with a big grin on her face? Is that what we were hoping for? Of course not. The reason I like Kill Bill Vol. 2 so much is because Tarantino did not conform to the stupid limits of exploitation; he cut short the Bride’s greedy mission for revenge by confronting her with the dilemmas surrounding her desires to eliminate Bill, and finally allowed Bill to die honorably. Kill Bill Vol. 2 ended so well because Tarantino made us believe that we had sat through the course of two films for a true purpose—for a climax that we could feel good about, the kind of climax that could leave us, and the Bride, at peace with our thirsts for blood. Death Proof, unfortunately, asks us to take a step backwards from the nirvana of Kill Bill Vol. 2 and celebrate the kind of reactionary violence that the earlier film so eloquently deconstructed. I’ve been told that Death Proof is a critique of the misogyny that plagues exploitation; Tarantino has essentially turned the tables and given power to the women, allowing them to get back at the sick men who have menaced them in so many other movies. But this is nothing new or profound. What Tarantino wants us to gain from Death Proof is no different from what we were meant to gain from garbage like I Spit on Your Grave.

I am reminded of one of my favorite films, James William Guercio’s Electra Glide in Blue (1973). In that film, Robert Blake played John Wintergreen, a motorcycle cop who tries to capitalize on the carnage of the highways he patrols in order to get a gold star and be promoted as a detective who can be safe from all the trouble and filth he has to deal with every single day. Wintergreen then soon finds out that the high life is not what it’s cut out to be and is demoted back to his dangerous, low-paying job. Back on the roads, he harasses a couple of drug-carrying hippies, is shot through the stomach, and is left to die on the highway in one of the most beautiful endings ever slapped onto the tail-end of any American film. What was so wonderful about Electra Glide in Blue was that Guercio had made a film that threatened to be a product of the trashy vigilante cop genre it came from, and yet it wasn’t. To use that dreaded word again, it transcended the material. It was not exploitation. We felt just as devastated as John Wintergreen must have—when he saw that shotgun barrel come out at him, reminding him in a fleeting moment of the highway dangers he should have seen unblinkingly.

Death Proof is what it is: a feminist revenge picture. It is anything more? I have tried to search throughout the movie and find any sort of concrete detail that can help me appreciate it better than I do, and yet I see so little there: the film is cynical, mean-spirited and not a whole lot of fun. No one can deny Tarantino’s wisdom of empowering his heroines, but from that point he should have found a way to rise above the silly boundaries of exploitation cinema—not lower himself to its level, which a talented filmmaker such as he ought to know better. The perfect criticism of Death Proof has already been made. It is Kill Bill Vol. 2.


  1. Okay, a couple factual errors to correct:

    1) Zoe Bell (herself and her character) are from New Zealand, not Australia. The dialogue scene in the diner makes this perfectly clear.

    2) The women in the second half of the film are not lesbians. Where are you getting this? Their dialogue scenes in the car make this perfectly clear. They date--and fuck--men. Perhaps you are unaccustomed to close female friendships being depicted on screen?

    That you don't find the women likable is certainly a matter of preference but one I could not disagree with more strongly. Zoe Bell's prowess as a stuntwoman, and the fact that Tarantino shot the chase scene in such a way as to convey that it is really her doing all her own stunts and the cars are really going that fast--is compelling enough in itself for me (and the entire theater of people I saw this film with) to cheer her and the other girls on.

  2. Regarding the orientation of the heroines, Ebert writes of Death Proof:

    Tarantino's "Death Proof," which I liked better [than Planet Terror], splits into two halves involving quartets of women, most of them lesbians, who are targeted by Stunt Man Mike (Kurt Russell) who uses his "death proof" car as a murder weapon.

    I wouldn't be able to provide any more concrete evidence because it's been awhile since I've seen the film. I'm taking Ebert's word for it, although if my review is wrong, so is his.

    I do agree with you that Zoe Bell has charisma in the film; she's certainly the most likable of the heroines in the second half. I'd be hard-pressed to go so far as to say Tarantino gives her as much charisma as he gives to Stuntman Mike, though. Zoe Bell's character in Death Proof seems to be modeled mostly off of Zoe Bell's own real-life career as a stuntwoman... but the question is, can she be defined in this film as a Tarantinian character? I'm not sure. Stuntman Mike is certainly the more Tarantinian of the two--that's why I wish QT had made his heroines more interesting than they are. You can't really play heroes and villains when the bad guy is constantly stealing the show.

    Thanks for the correction on Bell's nativity; I'll be sure to correct that in my piece.

  3. That's unfortunate about Ebert's review, but his pieces are often littered with factual errors.

  4. Yeah, all the girls, so far as I remember, talk about men.

    Anyway, this is a good piece, though I think some of your criticisms of the film are unfair, though your complaints are fairly common amongst the film's detractors. On one hand, you deride the film as 'heartless', yet you write off the lengthy dialogue scenes between the two casts of female characters as pointless. But that is the heart of the film that you accuse it of lacking! It's one thing not to like it, or to be bored by it, but the film is trying to make the first cast of girls flesh and blood human beings before they get killed, so that their death has a legitimate sting to it. Tarantino even shows each of their gruesome ends individually - and I don't think it's supposed to be fun, or cool, I think it's supposed to hurt.

    And as for the ending with Russell, I think you have to take that a little more metaphorically; he's basically emasculated by this group of girls. That's probably more important to the sequence than the fact that he dies, which, this being a slasher movie, he pretty much has to. I just think Tarantino is taking the misogyny of slasher films and turning it on its head with Death Proof.

  5. Ryan, is the heart of the film supposed to be conversations about other exploitation movies? If I'm clear on what you're suggesting, the conversations on the B movies is QT's way of laying down the rules of previous exploitation films and then attempting to tear them down (as Wes Craven did with Scream). But the way Death Proof tries to deviate from casual exploitation is hardly a revelation. I Spit On Your Grave is a popular movie among exploitation fans for doing almost the exact same thing: the audience is required to sit through a wretched first half of the heroine being disgustingly raped and brutalized by hillbillies, and the second half is just as pornographic when she preceeds to kill each of them one by one in the sickest ways possible. And some people think I Spit on Your Grave is a feminist movie!

    Believe me, I like that QT is empowering his heroines and is deliberately going against traditional misogynistic themes, but what he doesn't really succeed in is rising above this trashy material. Having the movie triumphantly end with a "The End" title after Stuntman Mike is whacked, and then for QT to continue the assault in the ending credits with Mike's head being squashed in even after he's already dead... that's not art. It may not be mysoginistic, but it's still exploitive.

    Simz, the problem with electing not to read much into Death Proof is that this would be an admission that the film is exploitation. If the only thing we're supposed to do when watching the movie is to be stoked by the violence, I sort of take issue with that. I don't see why Tarantino has to be so crass. Kill Bill Vol. 2 and Inglourious Basterds both evidence a filmmaker who's wiser.

    I'll go ahead and edit the lesbians part out of the piece. It's causing too much trouble.

  6. I didn't care for Death Proof at all, but not really for any moral reasons. The "banter" that worked in a film like Reservoir Dogs is terrible here, filling time instead of establishing the characters. Also, it strikes me as a lunkheaded attempt to satirize the "women as victim" paradigm in exploitation films (and the viewer's complicity therein). However, I don't think it remotely achieves any such thing. Conversely, I don't think it really works as a retread of an exploitation film either. I could see what he was going for while watching it, just as equally as I was bored by him failing to achieve as such.

    As far as Tarantino and violence, I think he squarely works in the arena of cinematic violence, separate from any real violence. You could also say that he only works in the context of a cinematic world, and not in the context of reality.

  7. Nice piece, Adam. I think the chief problem with QT is that he just refuses to grow up (though part of him clearly has) and holds on to exploitation genre like a stubborn child as if it was his badge of authenticity. That also accounts for his lack of moral intelligence in many cases. Even the link to terrorism/suicide bombers that he mentioned on Rachel Maddow is kind of a shallow and unexamined one. What exactly is he saying on the subject by having the Basterds act like terrorists? I'm not sure there's any genuine moral inquiry going on in his films. It's what keeps his films shallow despite the obvious ingenuity/virtuoisity at work. I'm never bored and often amazed by the verbal/narrative skill at work (and also admire his touch with actors & increasingly enjoying his visual style as well). But I'm also frustrated like you.

    I think I liked the dialogue and female characters (at least in the first half) in Death Proof more than you. In fact, I was impressed at how QT was able to convincingly evoke female sensibilities among women in their late 20s/early 30s. I think if he removed the genre elements, he could have made a pretty good Eric Rohmer/Linklater type talk film about young women and their relationships in Austin. Instead, he basically sets them up to get killed in a gory car crash as if that's all we really want to see. Yes, Stunt Man Mike is a great genre character - but I think I would have liked a different film. Even the elaborate car stunts which QT seems so proud of aren't as impressive as thinks since kinetics aren't exactly his strong suit. The best thing about them is the fact that there's no CGI and Zoe Bell did the stunts. But compared to car chases by George Miller or Steven Spielberg in the Road Warrior or Raiders of the Lost Ark, Death Proof's is kind of pedestrian.
    He's picking up new skills with each film, and I always see evidence that he's interested in more than your typical exploitation fare - but I think he's insecure about leaving it behind. I wouldn't mind if he sticks to genre, but he has yet to make a genre movie that resonates the way a Sam Fuller film for example always does with moral and emotional intelligence.

  8. Thomas, I basically hold the market on taking moral offenses to exploitation flicks, lol.

    Chris, you've read my mind there. Tarantino is always entertaining as well as visually impressive, but if he's going to keep making exploitation films he DEFINITELY should keep figuring out how to make them resonate the way Fuller's films did. I do think Inglourious Basterds has some of that raw power of The Steel Helmet and Run of the Arrow; if I hesitate to go all the way and say the film is just as great as those classics were, it's because I have problems with the Basterds themselves, who are flat-out annoying in my opinion (wish the movie had been all about Shoshanna and her theater-burning plans). And yeah, although QT talked on Maddow about the movie's Al-Quaeda connections, at the same time he went out and said that he didn't want the movie to be a big political allegory (he said he wanted it to be more like what Penn did with Bonnie and Clyde, if I remember correctly). But I'm not sure if that really went anywhere in the finished film.

    There were bits and pieces of dialogue in the first half of Death Proof that I chuckled at, like when Arlene tells her boyfriend that it's "unattractive" for him to whine about wanting to make out; or when Eli Roth quips of Stuntman Mike that "BJ brought the bear with him" (which I didn't really understand, but hey--it sounded cool). But I agree with you that all of those scenes ultimately feel like cheap set-ups for the big crash. I like your suggestion that QT would have done better making a movie solely about the girls and their relationships in Austin.

    I've said this to people before, but if I hesitate to say that QT by this point has become just as much of a cinema legend as the Movie Brats (Scorsese, De Palma, Spielberg, Coppola) who preceded him, it's because he really hasn't done anything new for much of his career. Is he even going to make something as exquisite as, say, The Age of Innocence--which Scorsese has called his most violent film? Again, I don't mind QT continuing his exploitation flicks as long as he keeps transcending such a lame genre, but I'd be even more intrigued if he did take the time to explore more radical horizons. I'm not sure how we're supposed to feel about a third Kill Bill installment being next on his list. What is there left to tell with the story?

  9. First off, great article, Adam! I recently watched "Death Proof" and was a little puzzled by it, so I looked up various comments about it and am happy I landed here!

    I was surprised (and felt bad) to feel bored by a QT movie, and although "Jackie Brown" was a bit too talky for me, the conversations worked as they revealed and built upon the respective characters.

    I do understand where QT is coming from here, trying to put the genre on its head and by creating strong female characters to kick Stuntman Mike's ass. Technically, it was an interesting experiment, but the lack of narrative mixed with aimless conversation were simply not of interest. I would have loved to see Stuntman Mike as its main character, perhaps with Zoe as his counterpoint, kind of "Kill Bill"-style. Yet overall it felt like a film Rohmer would make if he were on acid.

    As to violence though, I do disagree slightly. The violence - along with the lap dance! - was the best part and I did not find it gratuitous because it set up a more serious subtext and a stronger dislike for its killer. So, no, I did not feel bad about his demise (whimpering or not), but fully cheered for Zoe and her gang.

    As to "Straw Dogs," I also found the violence to be appropriate. Sometimes violence would be necessary to defend one's house. The movie may seem fascist and show an ugly side of human nature and society, but that is all part of reality anyhow.

  10. Thanks for the comment, Arashmania. I should probably mention that I do agree with you about Straw Dogs, it's just that at the time I wrote this review, I did think Ebert saw that particular movie much in the same way I see this one. Just as Ebert believed Peckinpah more successfully attacked the pornography of vengeance/violence in The Wild Bunch, so would I argue QT turned the exploitation genre on its head so much more successfully in Kill Bill Vol. 2.

    Most Death Proof fans I've talked to like the movie for its feminist aspects. And, okay. I can understand the appreciation for that. But I see so little else beyond it -- no real emotional investment in the characters, and barely any meaningful dialogue. It's not that I dislike Stuntman Mike being dispatched at the end of the movie, it's *how* he's dispatched that rubs me the wrong way. The girls essentially beat him to death (in cold blood) while he screams for mercy. What's fun about that? It's as thuggish as what he does to the other girls earlier in the film.

    Villains' deaths in movies aren't always a problem for me, but QT does it so cynically in this film, assuming that all we wants at the end is the bad guy's head crushed into the highway blacktop, and nothing more. And all from the same man who made Bill's demise from the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique so eloquent and beautiful.


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