The Tarantino debate has been doing the rounds again on social media with several of his films maligned (this one included) by ‘experts’ and divisive views reverberating around the echo chamber. Have you ever noticed that when Scorsese references other films it’s art but when Tarantino does it, he’s a rip-off artist? Anyhoo, it seems like as good a time as any to dust this off again…
Love him or loathe him, everybody seems to have an opinion about Quentin Tarantino and his body of work. Whether you admire, abhor, or are apathetic towards the Tennessee native most appear to have their favourites (Django Unchained and Reservoir Dogs), one that they just cannot stomach (Kill Bill Vol.2) or one that they unequivocally love. For me, that is Death Proof (2007).
As appears to be the norm with Tarantino he channels all manner of homaging forces in his texts. For this one, exploitation meets Ozploitation, via a nudge of French new wave and an open-handed slap of the slasher to give a really enjoyable ride. Revenge is a dish best served hot rod (at 130 mph).
Released alongside Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror as a Grindhouse double feature, the premise is a slasher road movie in which a group of women are stalked by an ex-stuntman, a lone wolf, who has little to do but force them off the road for shits and giggles. The first half of the film follows Jungle Julia (Sydney Poitier) and her friends Arlene a.k.a Butterfly (Vanessa Ferlito) and Shanna (Jordan Ladd) on a night out. They stop off at a bar – of which Warren (Tarantino) is the proprietor – and drink cocktails, down shots and generally bust the balls of the three men in their company – Eli Roth, Omar Doom and Michael Bacall (all three would later become Inglourious Basterds).
Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell), it would appear, has been on their tail for some time, cut to a wonderful in-car-moment which does for Hold Tight – and the erroneously misnamed Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mitch (it’s Mick) and Tich – what Bohemian Rhapsody did for Wayne’s World. There is an interlude and a flash forward following a crossover sequence involving the PT hospital and Dr Dakota Block (Marley Shelton). This time, Abernathy (Rosario Dawson), Lee (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Kim (Tracie Thoms) and Zoë (Zoë Bell) are in town taking a break from filming – they all work in the film industry – when Mike strikes again. Subsequent to the masochistic fender-bender of the first half, these ladies are ready for him.
This film has all the markings of the 70s and early 80s; retro titles, an amazing soundtrack, jumbo cuts, fast zooms and scratches on the print adds authenticity and while these elements are in keeping with Rodriguez’s Terror it manages so much more even randomly switching to black and white. This is, I believe, Tarantino’s most feminist movie. These are sexually confident, voracious women who love men but also each other’s company (they even manage conversations where men are not even mentioned, although not quite as many as one would like) and best of all they kick arse.
These savvy women are only as good as their aggressor and this is one of Kurt Russell’s best characters in years. As Stuntman Mike, he is fetishised with a facial scar, the first time we see him, fully, onscreen is in close-up shovelling greasy nachos into his mouth. He is Snake Plissken by way of John Wayne, his baby blues and dimples still visible beneath the aged, craggy demeanour – the fantastic facial hair would come much later in The Hateful Eight. Russell is beguiling and repugnant in equal measure with a beautiful maniacal laugh to boot. As Mike, he revels in inflicting pain and yet is not a fan of it himself and watching him writhe, scream and cry in agony is a very pleasurable experience, especially following the heinous, violent misogynistic code he appears to live by.
There are, as expected, several nods to Tarantino’s earlier work including Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill, (as well as the subtle reference to DP in his 2019’s Once Upon in Hollywood), and even his collaboration with Rodriguez From Dusk Till Dawn. As well as several allusions to the films of the genre(s) he is paying homage to: Fair Game (1986), Dead End Drive-in (1986), Mad Max (1979), Road Games (1981), Vanishing Point (1971), and Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965) to name but a few. Tracie Thoms is the female equivalent to Samuel L. Jackson, delivering Tarantino’s lines with the same expletive motherfucking aplomb. The last action sequence is fantastic, reminiscent of the greatest set-pieces recorded onscreen, in the likes of Bullitt (1968), The French Connection (1971) and, hell, even The Bourne Supremacy (2004).
New Zealand stuntwoman Zoë Bell plays a version of herself and the sight of her grappling on the bonnet of a white Dodge Challenger is exhilarating to watch and, lets face it, while Refn’s Drive (2011) may have had stylish neon cinematography, a funky score and the stoic masculinity of fanboy favourite Ryan Gosling, Death Proof is far more exciting and entertaining to watch – also, better soundtrack. The viewer needs to be part of a car chase and Tarantino keeps the camera on top and up close to the action, credit also has to go to the director’s editor, the late great Sally Menke who keeps up the frenetic pace.
Yes, by no means is it perfect, it is a dialogue heavy screenplay and QT does flounder somewhat with the womanly repartee but it truly is an enlivened and gratifying female fantasy. So, <blows raspberry> to the naysayers.