Death Proof (2007)
There is a thematic line in Quentin Tarantino's catalogue of films, but it's getting increasingly thinner. With Death Proof, he exposes that there are some things he still does more brilliantly than most, but also some things he has lost his grip on. However, what is perhaps most revealing is the fact that, to the extent that he still is an ambitious filmmaker, these ambitions have changed considerable during the last fifteen years.
This, his latest outing was originally released as the second part of the double-feature Grindhouse that featured Robert Rodriguez' Planet Terror as part one. However, the daunting 3-hour work, put together that way as a homage to the classic B-movie tradition of the 60s and 70s known as Grindhouse-films, fared only mildly at the box office in the USA, and it was decided that the two films be divided in two for the release overseas. The result was that Tarantino's Death Proof-segment was extended by quite a few minutes, which it may or may not profit from.
What is clear, however, is that for large parts of its running time, this is a talky picture. So, in that respect, Tarantino's focus hasn't changed that much since Reservoir Dogs. The difference is that the conversations and dialogue in Death Proof is largely dull and insipid. It doesn't have the crisp relevance Tarantino provided for Reservoir Dogs, True Romance or Pulp Fiction, making most of his female characters here fairly uninteresting subjects, and thus making their, well... antics towards the end of the film not as welcomed as they seem to be intended to be in Tarantino's girl-power mentality of late.
With that said, Death Proof has quite a bit to offer on its way there - if you're patient. Stylistically, the film is an out-and-out homage to 70s B-movies - and Tarantino finds room for this tribute in everything from production values (i.e. cutting, camera movement etc.) to characterizations and thematics. At its best, this approach is refreshing, sometimes even delightful. But one cannot help but keeping in mind that, all things considered, this is pulp based on pulp. With his 90s films, Tarantino drew inspiration from 70s crime movies to present his vivid and profound observations and depictions. Here, he's merely copying the films he's inspired by - for good or bad - and more often than not cherishing their emptiness. Only occasionally does he have something to say of his own.
Most of Death Proof's thematic interest comes through the Kurt Russell character, and it is also through him the film really comes to life. His persona is interesting - both as a breed and as an individual psychological study. As an ageing stuntman, he's at the same stage that the cowboy was in the early 20th century. His conversations with his new acquaintances reveal a pride and a sensitiveness that makes his existence thought-provoking. It is also through the Russell character the film is at its most explosive and potent, allowing Tarantino to work his magic in a couple of fantastic scenes, the best of which commences with Russell and Rose McGowan getting into the former's car.
As a total, Death Proof feels disjointed, feeble and too detached from its material to really captivate. Of course, this is not accidental, as Tarantino arguably knows what he's doing. But in doing so, he must also accept what he misses out on, and what he renounces. I will claim that Death Proof could have been made into a much better film with a different approach. But that is not to say that finding this approach is like a walk in the park. Because, it could also have been a much lesser movie - taking the uneven and often shallow subject matter into account. That is why Tarantino does it the way he wants here, focusing on exactly those elements that make Death Proof a reflection of those classic B-movies: the cars, the simple characterizations, the exploitive nature, the ultimate payoff. None of these elements elevate Death Proof as a film, but added together, they give it a charming obsolete feel.