a critiQal film review Death Proof (2007)

Plot: Austin's hottest DJ, Jungle Julia (Poitier), sets out into the night to unwind with her two friends Shana (Ladd) and Arlene (Ferlito). Covertly tracking their moves is Stuntman Mike (Russell), a scarred rebel leering from behind the wheel of his muscle car, revving just feet away from his next intended victims.

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Since I was told I had a likeness in appearance to Quentin Tarantino awhile back, I’ve been interested in what he does. Of course, since I was a big fan of Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994) prior to that announcement, I was already a big fan of his work. Then I found out that he also wrote True Romance (1993) and Natural Born Killers (1994), and I was even more impressed. I kept following his career, enjoying Jackie Brown (1997), Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003), Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004) and Sin City (2005) (he was a “special guest director” in that one – whatever that means). And then I heard about Death Proof.

Needless to say, when I heard he was doing a double-feature with director Robert Rodriguez (who is also a director to watch), I couldn’t wait to check it out. Sadly, however, money was a bit tight back in April, so I never got my ticket to the Grindhouse. When I found out that his section, Death Proof was making it’s way to DVD, however, I signed up for it as quickly as I could.

Now, the only question was whether – after all of Quentin’s successes – would Death Proof aptly describe his continuing directorial career? Or would it be a sadly ironic title?

The stars abound in Death Proof, with 80’s leading man Kurt Russell heading up the pack. While he was in almost everything back in the 80’s (including one of the best cheese-fests of the time, Big Trouble in Little China (1986)), he’s slowed down recently to about a movie a year (his last: Poseidon (2006)). But, it looks like he’s become more picky with his roles as of late.

In Death Proof, Kurt takes on a role most won’t be accustomed to seeing him in: the villain. While he doesn’t do it often, acting slightly off-kilter works for Kurt here. While he’s obviously off his rocker (so to speak), his character seems like a nice enough guy in the beginning of the film. Sure, he’s a bit obsessed with the twenty-something girls in the bar, and he is sporting quite a scar, but he seems nice enough…there just seems to be something that just isn’t right about him, but the viewer won’t be able to put their finger on it. And then he gets behind the wheel of his car…and he flips. He turns into a freakin’ homicidal maniac behind the wheel, and revels in the freedom the craziness brings…until something happens to worry him, and he turns back into a scared little boy.

So how do we, the viewers, know all this about him in Death Proof? Because of Kurt. Kurt showcases why he’s been around so many years with the depth of his acting…even though viewers can almost see the cardboard outline of his character. Despite the shallowness of his character, Kurt manages to make the character exude a creepiness that infests the film most of the way through.

“The Girls”, as Quentin refers to them in the credits, are mostly recognizable as well, with everyone from Rosario Dawson (Sin City (2005)) and Rose McGowan (“Charmed” (TV)) to Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Descent) and Jordan Ladd (Waiting… (2005)). Even Sydney Poitier (famed actor Sidney Poitier’s daughter) puts in an appearance. While their characters are not given a whole lot of depth either, they all manage to bring something to the table…and most are outshone by real-life stunt woman Zoe Bell, whose scene atop a careening car has to be seen to be believed.

And that’s not the only stunt in Death Proof (although that sequence is hard to forget). The car wreck near the middle of the film is typical Quentin – grisly and shocking. While Quentin doesn’t shy away from using gore in his films (a classic example: the ear-cutting scene from Reservoir Dogs (1992)), he only gives us quick glimpses of it – enough to shock us, yet not enough for us to notice details. When a leg falls in the road, the viewer has almost an afterimage of the leg in their mind, so quick is the glimpse. And yet, this type of film-making can be much more disturbing than the long slow shots of gore, as the viewer’s mind sifts through the image, filling in details, long after the image is gone from the screen.

At first, the plot of Death Proof seems old. Killer in a car…hmmm…sounds like The Hitcher (2007) (or a number of other movies). As the first part of the film builds to it’s grisly conclusion, the terror and creepiness seeps into the viewer’s bones even while they yawn at the tired plot…and then, just when the viewer thinks they know what’s coming – and tenses for it – Quentin completely surprises the viewer into a chuckle, completely draining away that tension…and the movie wraps up with a totally different ending than the viewer had expected.

While the film seems to be meant to pay homage to the B-movies of the past with it’s grainy imagery and badly edited together film reels (not to mention the on-again/off-again color), Death Proof manages to be a wild, grisly ride in it’s own right. And yet, it’s not your typical horror flick either, as it manages to surprise laughter out of it’s viewers in it’s later parts – and that laughter seems to be intentional!

Quentin has hit another home run with Death Proof, but then again, maybe this lookalike (and his gal pal) are biased. Check it out for yourself, and see if you enjoy this first half of the Grindhouse double feature.

And join us again in October, when the second half, Planet Terror (2007), arrives on DVD.

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