This morning, after what I figure is probably nearly a year, I finally finished watching Death Proof. I'd had the movie on my iPod for forever, and for a while I was watching it pretty regularly, usually on the train (although I felt uncomfortable doing so sometimes, especially during the lap dance scene). I took a disliking to the film almost immediately and thought many times about giving up on it entirely. Then at a certain point I just forgot about it. The other night I got tired of trying to read the only book I had with me (Portraits of His Children, a collection of really mediocre short stories by George R.R. Martin), went looking for something to watch on my iPod, and rediscovered Death Proof.
The movie essentially has two sections, with a kind of exposition intermission sandwiched between them. In the first section, set in Texas, we are introduced to a group of young women, all close friends, planning a weekend getaway. But before the weekend, they're meeting up with their boyfriends (one of whom is played by Eli Roth) to do some drugs, make out, and drink at a local bar (which is overseen by its oddball owner, played by the director himself, Quentin Tarantino). Unfortunately for them, they've been targeted by the film's monstrous villain, the murderous psychopath known as Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell). He stalks them creepily for some time before finally striking. His weapon is his car, which was specially built for movie stunts so that the driver will be protected no matter what kind of crash he gets into. Any passengers will not be so lucky.
In an interlude, we learn that Mike has done this sort of thing before, and will most likely do it again. The film's action jumps a bit into the future, and changes setting to Tennessee, and indeed Stuntman Mike is on the warpath again, having now targeted some Hollywood girls: a stunt woman from New Zealand (Zoe Bell, playing herself), makeup girl Abernathy (Rosario Dawson), another stunt woman named Kim (Tracie Thomas), and a not-so-bright B-movie actress named Lee (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Callously leaving Lee to a rather disgusting and horrific fate, the rest of the girls decide to perform an infamous and incredibly dangerous stunt just for fun. In the midst of it Stuntman Mike strikes. A lengthy car chase follows, but at the end of it, the tables are suddenly turned, and the hunter becomes the hunted.
Death Proof, of course, is Tarantino's half of the double-feature ode to exploitation films called Grindhouse. (I still intend to see Robert Rodriguez's half, Planet Terror, one of these days.) Tarantino fills the movie with deliberate mistakes to try to recall the cheap, B-movie experience. For instance, the film seems to skip a few times in the beginning, as if it was poorly spliced together, and we miss sections of dialog. (It's a pretty bad sign that this didn't bother me at all, and I didn't feel like I'd missed anything important.) Oddly, he doesn't remain consistent with this gimmick, as if he got tired of it halfway through (or was afraid his audience would get tired of it halfway through - which, let's be honest, we probably would have), and the latter half of the film runs pretty cleanly.
The first half drags on interminably. I found it almost impossible to watch or listen to the strange and irritating main characters. Tarantino is rightly famous for his clever and unique dialog, but in this film, especially in the first section, all the dialog feels stilted and false, and doesn't sound at all like anything real human beings would actually say to one another. Partly because of this, and partly because the characters are all vapid idiots, it's impossible to sympathize with or even understand them. The first half of the film is therefore just a long wait for Stuntman Mike to please get it together and murder these people and put us out of our misery. And I'm not kidding about that long wait. It just goes on and on. They wait in the bar for someone to show up and sell them drugs. They argue bitchily. They go outside. They come back in. They listen to music. Argh!!!
Admittedly, it's not all boredom. In fact, the tension begins to build uncomfortably rather early on, as soon as Stuntman Mike is introduced. He's one of the more interesting characters in the film. He stares and stalks and slurps up nachos in the most disgusting way imaginable. Then, in one of the film's more uncomfortable and skeevy moments (amongst many uncomfortable and skeevy moments), he convinces one of the (much younger) girls, played by Vanessa Ferlito, to give him a lap dance.
Finally, after a very long wait, the tension is suddenly broken in a tremendous and bloody car wreck, filmed lovingly in slow motion. As is right for an exploitation film, Tarantino focuses firmly on sexy young women, debauchery, and gore.
There's an odd interlude in which we meet father and son cop duo Earl and Edgar McGraw (played by father and son acting duo Michael and James Parks). Earl is nearly as skeevy as Stuntman Mike, but Michael Parks is one of the few people in the movie who can deliver Tarantino's ridiculous dialog believably, so I rather enjoy the character. Earl and Edgar are rather obviously just here to provide the exposition that bridges the gap between the two sections.
The next section's group of young women is marginally more likable than the first group, because they seem more like real people, especially Rosario Dawson's Abernathy and Zoe Bell's... well, Zoe Bell. This part of the movie is thus marginally more engaging, especially since the characters aren't just being lazy, drugged-out dicks and are instead actually engaged in something interesting: they're trying to get their hands on a specific car in order to use it to perform a specific and very dangerous stunt which is never described; you just have to wait and watch them do it. And this time instead of a very sudden and final car crash, we actually get a car chase that lasts for a while, even though it's a little hard to believe. At multiple points during the chase, it seemed obvious to me that the characters could have slowed down and pulled Zoe back into the car, and the only reason they didn't was because Tarantino wanted her on the hood of the car for the whole chase, to make it more exciting. Anyway, eventually there's a break in the chase where the movie makes a sudden and fascinating shift. Throughout the film Stuntman Mike has been like the monster in a monster movie, or the slasher in a slasher movie: a seemingly invincible, almost supernatural entity toying with sexy young people before brutally massacring them. But all of the sudden he's revealed to be vulnerable and human. In fact, he's actually kind of a wuss. Which is hard to understand. I mean, if he really is a stuntman (and he does appear to be, as he has the knowledge and the scars to prove it), he must have been beaten up a lot. I would figure he'd be pretty used to pain. Maybe not immune to it, but certainly familiar. Yet he reacts to being shot and beaten up by crying and screaming in shock and horror, for all the world like a great big baby. It's so ridiculous and unexpected and odd that I laughed aloud, and I could barely believe what I was watching. I guess the point is to show the audience what a pathetic and disgusting person he is. Or perhaps the point is to turn the tables on our expectations and our sympathies. In a way, Tarantino is harking back to exploitation movies past. After the villain has done unspeakable things, the victims track him down and do unspeakable things right back, and the whole movie just revels in blood and gore and torture and vengeance. But at a certain point the victims start to seem like the villains and the villain starts to seem like the victim. Of course we all want to see Stuntman Mike go down, but when the girls saddle up and go after him with such cold-blooded relish, chasing and attacking him mercilessly and using sexual terminology to describe how they're torturing him, I for one started to feel dirty and deeply unsettled. The women seemed to have transformed in an instant into creatures nearly as awful as the now pathetic Stuntman Mike, who, for his part, was crying and whining for mercy and desperate for escape.
I guess all of that is probably the point of making an exploitation movie - to help the audience indulge in its own sick desire to see blood and sex and torture, and perhaps at the end turn a mirror on them and make them feel a little ill at what they see. It's an interesting concept, but I can't say I really enjoyed very much watching it be executed. For one thing, Tarantino could have done this story and gotten his point across in about half the time. The film is really the epitome of his seemingly ever-increasing self-indulgence, and is crying out desperately for an editor. The first half in particular drags painfully. Exploitation movies should be quick and dirty, not endless and dull.
Death Proof is a fascinating idea for a movie, and there are bits of it that work. But mostly it's clunky and weird, and sickens and bores rather than entertains.