“Death Proof” is the worst movie Quentin Tarantino has ever made, even he’s said so. But what “worst” means for one of the most inventive and original writers/directors of an era is a bit different than what it might mean for one of his peers who holds a lower career batting average. Especially when we’re talking about a movie like “Death Proof,” a purposefully sleazy throwback that flaunts its flaws and scars with pride.
Originally released as part of a double feature with Robert Rodriguez’s “Planet Terror” under the umbrella title “Grindhouse,” “Death Proof” meant to focus on the visceral punch and primal nature of midnight movie madness, relishing in the subversive seeds of an outcast genre. While it’s sometimes a bloated and unfocused movie, it’s also maybe his most subtly sadistic and strangely sexual — the darkest moments are uncomfortable and cringeworthy, in the sort of way that escalates the tension and binds the narrative.
“Death Proof” is certainly not in the same weight class as a film like “Pulp Fiction,” but it never tries to slug with Tarantino’s best work. When we think of pop culture icons with a downward career spiral, normally because they lose their edge or perspective, seeming lost in their direction or motive, but, with “Death Proof,” Tarantino knows exactly what he’s doing: He’s making the movie that teenage him wanted to make. And it’s aged well, mostly because what came after it was better. “Inglourious Basterds” and “Django Unchained” eventually showed us that his lofty, hyper-creative side was still intact, so it’s now a lot easier to look at “Death Proof” through rose-colored nostalgia goggles.
The film follows two groups of young women — one in Texas, one in Tennessee — who are stalked 14-months apart by Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell), a mangled old-timer who uses his limited charisma to feed his psychopathic desires. Russell soars as Stuntman Mike, perpetually pinging that subconscious, ephemeral beacon in your brain that says there’s something secretly dangerous about a person. After a drawn-out, late-night dive bar scene, Stuntman Mike pretends to be giving Pam (Rose McGowan) a ride home, which turns into the film’s best back-and-forth.
Stuntman Mike gives a brief, creepy smile, cigarette toss and wink at the camera when he realizes he’s alone with Pam — him in the driver’s side, which is protected by a roll cage, her susceptible to injury in the passenger’s seat.
“Well Pam, which way you going,” Stuntman Mike says.
“Right,” Pam replies.
“Aw, that’s too bad.”
“Well, because it was a 50/50 shot whether you’d be going left or right. You see, we’re both going left. You could have just as easily been going left, too, and, if that was the case, it would have been a while before you you started getting scared. Since you’re going the other way, I’m afraid you’re getting to have to start getting scared immediately.”
The head-to-head car crash that bookends the first story is jaw-droppingly gruesome. The dialogue combined with the cinematography of that two minutes or so takes B- material and polishes it into solid A work.
In Tennessee, 14 months later, Stuntman Mike runs into a group of film professionals fresh off a shoot, including stuntwoman Zoë Bell, who plays herself. Bell was Uma Thurman’s stunt double in both “Kill Bill” movies and, in a bit of metatextual humor, it’s implied that she’s just finished “Kill Bill” itself. In Bell, Mike finds the perfect foil, one whose driving skills have him outclassed. The car chase scene in this portion of Death Proof is an adrenaline-pumping fast track to the film’s most high-octane moments and a gateway to the violent finale.
It was 2012, five years after the film was released when Tarantino said that “Death Proof” had to continue to be the worst movie he’s ever made, so he can keep his legacy intact. He also commented that it’s also pretty good for an oddball film. Considering his comments and the context of his work that came after, it’s pretty apparent that “Death Proof” was made to make his younger self happy. And to have some fun. What came before and after was for how he would be remembered.