Friday, July 21, 2023

Death Proof / *** (2007)

“There are few things as fetching as a bruised ego on a beautiful angel.”

There’s little more that can be said of the Tarantino method that hasn’t already been analyzed by countless critics and film historians, but if one were to attempt and condense all his sensibilities into a single opus, “Death Proof” contains just about every trait worth mentioning. Made on a whim along with Robert Rodriguez’ “Planet Terror” as part of their 2007 Grindhouse throwback, the movie is a shameless clash of underground 1970s sensibilities, married by a plot that plays like a spaghetti western and dialogue that has all the sophisticated awareness of blaxploitation. Sometimes, particularly in the slower moments, we sense a twinkle of glee emulating from the material, as if its director has found content that exists just for his sake as opposed to one that he must mold and refine. If the likes of “Kill Bill” or “Django Unchained” are imprinted with his signature, his lone horror film is more like an old tattoo: as much a part of him as he is a part of the culture of underground B-movie shlock that first gave him his creative wings so long ago.

Watching the movie for the first time long after it made its debut, I was struck by how wrapped up in the details I got, knowing full well that it all beats to a familiar rhythm and rarely strays from his witty and macabre formula. That can be a boring realization in less capable or interesting hands. In Tarantino’s, it gives him the space to embellish and exploit our expectations to a point of bemused awe. An early scene emphasizes the matter: three friends are engaging in a discussion at a bar that involves Julia (Sydney Tamiia Poitier), a radio personality, informing her pal Arlene “Butterfly” (Vanessa Ferlito) about a personal reveal she made on her morning radio show. The reveal is a tip-off for the inevitable come-ons that Butterfly might experience in the evening, when men might recite a detail from the broadcast in hopes of her giving them a pre-promised lap-dance. In most movies this would be a move to inspire outrage or even hostility. Butterfly’s annoyance is too casual to let it disrupt her good time, and later that evening, when a mysterious man recites the words in hopes of getting said dance, it is Julia who is quick to jump in and attempt to nullify the matter. Little do either of them know, the mysterious stuntman with a long scar on his face and an Icy Hot endorsement jacket is actually a vicious madman, who later that night will crash his vehicle into theirs and herald the dawn of an endless marathon of bloodshed and violence for the remainder of the film’s running time.

Why is that early scene so important to what follows? Because it creates a puzzle, however superfluous, that raises the stakes of the characters we follow. They are no longer mindless sexpots lined up to be picked off, instead becoming thinking, breathing beings with interests and intellect – enough, thankfully, that when Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) first engages with them, they are cognizant enough to recognize that his black car had been following them earlier in the day. That in turn creates a devious tension with the lap dance sequence, which accomplishes the rare quality of being both seductive and ominous without directly revealing the possibilities of the inevitable outcome. By definition those details make Tarantino probably far too well-equipped to do true justice to the transgressive nature of grindhouse pictures, but this is the garden where most of his seeds were harvested, and it is only fair for him to claim the overgrowth as his own.

“Death Proof” is a strange, funny, observant, intricate and ambitious little horror film in which the horror is not about how many limbs are severed or how mutilated someone will become at the end of a high-speed massacre, but about how an unpredictable villain can stalk, taunt, manipulate and ultimately amuse himself so casually with the ambivalent nature of his victims well before he plans to kill them on the open road. In much more grandiose or serious material, he’d be the kind of antagonist Anthony Hopkins or Robert Mitchum would gaze at in amazement. Yet because Tarantino’s screenplay refuses to just let the prospective victims be shallow or dumb, that means we can’t exactly be sure how events will play out: will they all go down with the same hysterical hopelessness of the victims in any number of Dead Teenager films, or will they fight their way through the madness enough to raise the stakes of the outcome? It’s anyone’s guess how a movie like this might resolve itself, and to say that now, so long after we’ve seen all the tricks of the trade, is to marvel at how endlessly unpredictable its director remains.

Other staples he finds time to invest in: dialogue about pop culture references, emphasis on fictional brand names, a jukebox that plays obscure 70s songs, long passages of observation with no dialogue, and camera shots that linger a little longer than they are expected to – mostly to give the audience the time to realize there is a critical detail in the backdrop they might otherwise be missing. Also not surprising, either, is how the movie shifts its story at the halfway point to a different locale – while the first act occurs in Austin, surrounding the three aforementioned friends on a night of drinking, the second takes place in Lebanon Tennessee a few months later, where another three emerge in the crosshairs of the murderous Stunt Man. Notice, also, how the early half of the picture appears to be shot in film stock that is scratched and burned as it passes through the projector, occasionally punctuated by abrupt edits, shaky still shots or cuts that inadvertently overlap, causing the dialogue to be heard twice in the same moment. Later, when the story moves to its second locale, a brief strip of black-and-white film stock bridges the events of the first arc to the second, which is polished and crisped like a movie made in the 2000s ought to be. What can be said of the era, though? Despite many of the characters clearly styled in 70s costumes and hairstyles, some of them carry cellphones, while others discuss burning CDs for loved ones. In this world, much like all others under Quentin’s umbrella, all eras have converged. And perhaps the shift in film stock is more a nod to the old grindhouse method, when directors used whatever film stock was supplied to them in the moment and often made pictures that utilized multiple.

If there is something profound that can be said of the technical shift and how it correlates to the story, perhaps its an indication that a woman’s sense of survival may depend more on the place and time for which they exist. Assume, for example, that the earlier characters are in fact operating in the headspace of a 70s movie. They are smart but uncultivated feminists, not yet aware of all the dangers men pose to them. They are not supposed to endure beyond the final fade-out. Now contrast that what occurs to the prospective victims of the latter half. These women are much more savvy and less reactionary, unwilling to give up even as the odds are stacked against them. The climactic chase on the road seems destined to end one way, but somehow we know well before that they will turn the tables – because they embody the spirit of the shifting cultural tide. The title, perhaps, is both a riddle and a statement. Is it really about the car the stunt man drives? Or is it about women who will defy it when the chips are down?

Written by DAVID KEYES

Horror/Comedy (US); 2007; Rated R; Running Time: 127 Minutes
Kurt Russell: Stuntman Mike
Zoe Bell: Zoe Bell
Rosario Dawson: Abernathy
Tracie Thorns: Kim
Vanessa Ferlito: Arlene
Sydney Tamiia Poitier: Jungle Julia
Rose McGowan: Pam
Produced by Elizabeth Avellan, Shannon McIntosh, Robert Rodriguez, Pilar Savone, Bill Scott, James W. Skotchdopole, Erica Steinberg, Quentin Tarantino, Bob Weinstein and Harvey WeinsteinDirected and written by Quentin Tarantino

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