Reviewed by Tim Wong

A SCRAP YARD of subgenre and pop-cultural hoardings, Quentin Tarantino’s oeuvre resembles a scavenged cinema. Bookmarked in films of incessant referential worship, his findings, in the trappings of Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, and especially Kill Bill, make for hyperbolic, at times exhilarating expressions of film obsession; as fan-boy compendiums, they’re also responsible for the thousands of impressionably bad student movies to emerge since. What’s ironic is that Tarantino should look to turn over a new leaf within the skin of the now-defunct Grindhouse double-bill – a two-for-one throwback to the exploitation programmes of American drive-ins and seedy Times Square theatres – because Death Proof, for all its retrograde gestures, distinguishes itself as his most authentic feature to date.

Even so, old habits die hard. It hinges, rather typically for a Tarantino movie, on two asymmetrical parts: the first, a leering all-female roadtrip where three foxy ladies, en route to a lakeside cabin, make a pitstop at a local watering hole, cross paths with the film’s psychopath, Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell), and meet his ‘death proof’ vehicle head on; while the second, a year later, concerns a quartet of girls on hiatus during a movie shoot, burning up the back roads of Tennessee in a muscle car, only to be tailgated by Russell’s maniac driver. In keeping with the spirit of things, Russell is aptly frozen in the past: sporting leather, a mullet, and deep facial scars, he’s his own crumpled homage to Snake Plissken, cast in this film clearly because he’d draw too much attention to himself in its Grindhouse sibling, the John Carpenter-esque Planet Terror.

Roughed up with degraded celluloid and badly spliced frames – as well as an instance of needlessly interchanging film stock – Tarantino can’t hide his affection for vintage B-movies, if not his own body of work. Emulated are the bumper-to-bumper antics of Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry and Duel; favourite citations include Vanishing Point, Convoy and indulgently, most of his previous films; ever-present is the jukebox soundtrack and an infinity of aimless dialogue. The interiors are mostly automobiles and eateries – the domain of patented “Royale with cheese” exchanges – and in one egregiously self-congratulatory moment, Tarantino flashes back to the breakfast scene in Reservoir Dogs using four women, a roadside diner, and some free-associative conversation, further precipitated by the camera whirling, ostentatiously, for seven uninterrupted minutes, as if the director’s earlier cameo wasn’t enough of a pat on the back.

Though in no uncertain terms a Tarantino movie, Death Proof differs from the pure pastiche of Robert Rodriquez’s Planet Terror – a gaudy, special-effects intensive riot of zombie holocaust and sci-fi survivalism with commendable exploitation intentions – in that it achieves an unlikely autonomy, only skimming the surface of teen slasher pictures and road rage thrillers, while all in all eluding classification. Tarantino may be a narcissistic filmmaker, but Death Proof feels neither governed specifically by fetishism or grindhouse categorization; resisted, for example, are the standard issue ‘ploitations of sex, gratuitous nudity, lesbianism, rape-revenge, and the spectacular gore that Planet Terror so knowingly slathers itself in. An unexpected talk-fest, it’s also a film that shrewdly subverts expectation: when Lee (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), in fetching cheerleader costume, is given up as ‘collateral’ to a bucktoothed hillbilly (so her friends can test drive his ‘Vanishing Point’ car), nothing (sexual or otherwise) comes of it; or when Stuntman Mike returns to terrorise the film’s second set of victims, he’s just as quickly inverted into a blubbering, pathetic mess. Much enjoyment is to be had from Russell’s surprising U-Turn; akin to a schoolyard bully who’s been punched back, he gets to ball his eyes out like a girl for probably the first time in his career.

A model of restraint through rationed bursts of violence, when Death Proof does yield to temptation, it sure as hell delivers. Indeed, for every decapitation and dismemberment splattered throughout Planet Terror, Tarantino outdoes Rodriquez in a single stroke, launching a two-car pileup of pure collisional carnage: a quadruple-take of mangled limbs and autoerotica that hurtles the movie into its second lap. Now with a more appealing carpool at his disposal (including Rosario Dawson, Tracie Thoms), Tarantino shifts his film into top gear, reaching a high-speed, white-knuckle chase sequence at its apex with Beatrix Kiddo’s double, stuntwoman Zoe Bell, clinging precariously to the hood of a Dodge Challenger. Kiwis at heart should take note: in the year Flight of the Concords and Eagle vs Shark crash-landed abroad, Bell’s infiltration of this most American piece of cinema couldn’t be more appropriate. By no means a natural performer, she plays herself with relative aplomb, and best of all, retains the foibles of a national identity – that twangy New Zealand accent, some fully fledged colloquialisms, and various trans-Tasman contentions (Australian she is not) remain firmly intact. Tarantino’s bastard reputation may precede him, but his casting of characters is nothing if not unique, as illustrated by the incongruously, appealing Bell. Similarly at odds with the exploitation double-bill, Death Proof defiantly – even unconsciously – stands alone, and however self-aggrandising, contains some smashing moments, builds to a considerable fuck yeah, and works even better on its own terms.