Maybe it’s because we indulge Quentin Tarantino. Perhaps that’s why he gets worse. There was a time when irony was cool – it’s true. And maybe even a time when nothing but irony seemed to proliferate (witness Seinfeld). But the trouble was, as we found out, irony is just another way of saying nothing matters. And if nothing matters but irony, aren’t it’s purveyors in danger of sounding hollow, even depraved? A movie like Death Proof isn’t out to shock viewers exactly. That’s its problem. It’s made by someone who thinks style is all there is, that affectation counts as worth.
If Death Proof has a story, it’s Psycho on wheels. Four girls out for a good time in Austin, Texas are menaced and then murdered by Kurt Russell, who uses a stunt car in place of Norman Bates’ knife. In the first half of the movie we’re (I guess) waiting on the kill-shot. In the second half we meet four new girls. This time there’s at least the ghost of a chance that someone might survive.
Kurt Russell seems to channel a life-time’s worth of screen-credits into his role as Stuntman Mike. It’s typical of Tarantino to hand a veteran actor what seems like a pretty gormless role and let them act it to life. By turns, Russell is embarrassing, charming, vulnerable and cruel, as if he were Snake Plissken one minute and whoever-he-was-in-Overboard the next. He’s still playing the amoral psycho (make no mistake) but, like Uma Thurman playing a six-foot blonde ninja in Kill Bill, somehow the way its played transcends the implausible limitations of the role.
As for the women – Well, Tarantino certainly likes girls. The only trouble, as ever, is that he likes them in a slightly Nicholson Baker-type fashion, where the line between liking and fetishism starts to twirl itself into naughty shapes. He’s still hung-up on women’s feet. However subtly that fetish started off (like the wall of shoes in Pulp Fiction), he’s long ago cast off his sense of impropriety about his predilection. Death Proof starts with a prolonged close-up of feet on a dashboard, and it’s a wonder the camera lifts above ankle-level for most of the film. Still, Rosario Dawson is smart and brave as a girl named Abernathy. Vanessa Ferlito is carnal and sexually principled (without oxymoron) as Arlene. And Zoe Bell takes a meta-break from stunt work in Tarantino movies to play a stunt woman named Zoe, who acts like a real person (even though she’s more a cartoon character than flesh and blood).
Car chases are what Death Proof does better than human interaction. There is plenty of Tarantino’s stylised talk for those still listening, but it’s kind of weak and he can’t resist a joke that relies on knowing Zatôichi was blind. Somewhere around Kill Bill, he seems to have lost the knack for writing anything quotable. These days the dialogue is all arched eyebrows, but nothing genuinely witty comes out of people’s mouths. But the car chase – You’ve got to give him props for the car chase finale. In an age when The Fast and the Furious makes a franchise out of simulating thrills on a computer, Death Proof harks back to a time when excitement had a real-world footing; when hairpin turns were made on real roads, not circumvented via a keyboard.
Quentin Tarantino will never grow up. He’s 44 now and I wouldn’t bet on him discovering the real world. To his fans, his juvenile-obsessions are an asset. Violence and irony will always be cool in some circles. Some would argue his passions mean he won’t soften – that he can’t be afflicted by sentimentality or earnestness. But his refusal to learn or to change his stance is his undoing. He may have mastered irony, but it’s like mastering the wisecrack – It’s a front. Death Proof is as well made a piece of trash as I think is humanly possible. But Pulp Fiction promised more.