The UnPopular Opinion: Grindhouse - Death Proof
THE UNPOPULAR OPINION is an ongoing column featuring different takes on films that either the writer HATED, but that the majority of film fans LOVED, or that the writer LOVED, but that most others LOATHED. We're hoping this column will promote constructive and geek fueled discussion. Enjoy!
In my experience, general opinion about the Tarantino/Rodriguez experiment known as GRINDHOUSE seems to be that PLANET TERROR is the good flick while DEATH PROOF is the bad flick, comparatively as well as in terms of filmmmaking in and of itself. But, as is the way with an UnPopular Opinion, I happen to think the exact opposite. I find PLANET TERROR to be the boring, pat, mostly uninspired movie and DEATH PROOF to be the interesting, well-made, exciting movie.
So consider this two-part review my own sort of GRINDHOUSE - today is DEATH PROOF, and come back next week for PLANET TERROR!
As far as audience psychology goes, DEATH PROOF is both the better movie and just a good movie in general as it starts with everyone and everything in motion. Not that all movies must do this (because they obviously don't), but in this particular case the movie starts with a kind of energy that really pulls you in and brings you right along for the ride (pun intended). It's a wonderful way to draw an audience into the story before beginning the slow build of Stuntman Mike's malevolence and methods. There are basically two ways to start a horror flick (which DEATH PROOF is in its own way, despite the bright colors and light and high energy) - either with the measured layering of suspense (a la THE ORPHANAGE or THE OMEN), or with high energy and motion used in such a way that it sucks in the audience's attention before settling back for the slow build (a la the original HALLOWEEN). DEATH PROOF not only does the latter, but does it very well at that.
"Shit. Two tons of metal, 200 miles an hour, flesh and bone and plain old Newton... they all princess died."
While we're on the note of doing things really well: DEATH PROOF is a movie that just looks great. Like "hot damn this is a pretty movie" great. Which is to be expected after the vibrancy Tarantino previously exhibited in KILL BILL Volumes 1 and 2, but is also still very worth mentioning. The colors pop and the picture composition is engaging, especially for what is meant to be a throwback to the GRINDHOUSE-like pics of old. Honestly, as fun as those original flicks may have been, they weren't the best as far as the technical side of filmmaking goes. But Tarantino manages to shoot DEATH PROOF both as an homage and as something all his own, and have it succeed on both fronts to boot.
I'd also add that the sorts of details Tarantino adds enhance the viewing experience for me over PLANET TERROR, both in terms of references to the "Grindhouse Style" (missing reels, color shifts, plain detail shots, etc...) and in terms of how they almost make the film a character in and of itself. The same way "Lost" was as interesting to watch for the characters/story as it was for the mysteries of the Island itself, so to is DEATH PROOF more interesting than PLANET TERROR to watch because of the details that define it. Some of the more effective details I speak of include (but are most certainly not limited to) watching the jukebox work, the moment when Arlene (Butterfly) puts her foot near Stuntman Mike's crotch and he spreads his legs slightly, and the look Stuntman Mike gives the camera right before he kills his passenger and then runs down Julia and company.
"Before you can claim a nigga, you got to claim a nigga. And you can start by giving the mother f***er a hand job on the back of the van on Tuesday."
I think it's fair to say that DEATH PROOF is actually more like two movies in one (I know I'm not the first to say this) - basically the same scenario happens twice, with Stuntman Mike meeting a group of attractive young girls at the beginning of the story and stalking them through to the end. Of course it's that end which makes all the difference, as the two conclusions could not be more removed from one other. That being said, I do think that there's a very distinct reason why 1) Tarantino made the film this way, 2) it works, and 3) it's actually kind of brilliant.
See, the first batch of girls we're introduced to aren't that great insofar as human beings go. They have small moments of character and depth and connection, but for the most they are hot and that's about it. Not that there's anything wrong with that, and indeed many horror movies settle for their characters being nothing more than hot. But what this allows Tarantino to do is actually make the first half of the movie all about Stuntman Mike. It allows Tarantino (and thereby us) to really take the time to know this guy, to learn the games he plays to achieve his desires, and to invest in his insanity. Hence why there are effectively two movies in DEATH PROOF. Yes, perhaps Tarantino could have pulled the two stories together a bit more fluidly and made the effort to shoot the second story as much like a traditional Grindhouse movie as he did the first half. But by having Stuntman Mike go after what is effectively a bunch of bimbos in that first half, we are able to really watch him hunt and desire without distraction. It sets up a connection with him. I know I referenced HALLOWEEN earlier, and I'll do it again - Carpenter does the same thing with the way he shoots Michael Myers throughout the movie, putting us in the car with him and seeing his hands as though they were ours and other such tricks to somewhat invest us in this killer. It was effective then, and so to is it effective here.
Few people can introduce a character better than Tarantino, and DEATH PROOF is no exception. After seeing bits and pieces of Stuntman Mike (and plenty of his car), the close-ups of him eating nachos in the bar works extraordinarily well to tell us volumes about his character. This is especially clear in how greasy and oily the nachos are, and how dismissively he eats them. It demonstrates a sort of attitude which says “I don’t give a f*** these are messy, I want to eat them so I’ll eat them.” He’s not a classy killer, nor is he an animalistic one. He's just a callous and calculated motherf***er, something foreshadowed with the nachos that can very clearly be seen later in the way he says to his doomed passenger “Only to get the benefit of [my car being death proof], honey, you REALLY need to be sitting in my seat.” His grin there, the anger and excitement and loss of control present in his voice... it makes me shudder.
"Well damn if you ain't so sweet you make sugar taste just like salt."
The second batch of girls, as I've implied above, are more genuine in their relationship and more engaging in their humanity/energy than both the first batch and most of the characters in PLANET TERROR. We are allowed the time to give a shit about them, to in turn invest in them before Stuntman Mike comes roaring down the road trying to murder them. Not that every piece of popcorn entertainment absolutely needs to give an audience the time to care about its characters, but I say that one which does will always better than one which doesn't.
That being said, the second half of DEATH PROOF does drag a bit. Giving us said time comes with the price of eroding most of the momentum that the first half of the film built, and dropping Stuntman Mike out of the story for such a long time while the girls explore their friendship and repeatedly reference VANISHING POINT is equivalent to a case of cinematic blue balls. You could argue that the shift in the story's momentum actually works just fine, since Tarantino has already spend to much time setting up Stuntman Mike and doesn't need to re-iterate the threat he poses, but that doesn't ring all too true for me. But for all you lovers of GRINDHOUSE's other half, I'll say right now that I don't think PLANET TERROR is any better in this particular respect.
So while both DEATH PROOF and PLANET TERROR may be accused of failing on a very core level with their treatment of their star characters (i.e. Stuntman Mike and Cherry Darling), I'd nonetheless say that DEATH PROOF is a slick flick that works not just as Grindhouse-style throwback but as a good movie in and of itself. Which PLANET TERROR does not.
For those of you curious as to why I have so many problems with Rodriguez' effort, check back in next week for Part 2 of my GRINDHOUSE review!
"Are you sure it's safe?" "It's better than safe. It's death proof."