So, here is the thing. I spent my formative years watching movies. I worked in a movie theatre, and could see everything I wanted for free, which was awesome. When I went to university, during the early to mid nineties, I was a film major. I spent my days and nights watching, dissecting, and enjoying films.
Now, the early to mid-nineties were a great renaissance period for films, in my opinion. Offbeat, indie films were in vogue, and auteurs like Jim Jarmusch, the Coen Brothers, and Hal Hartley were making some of the finest films of their careers. Among those directors was Quentin Tarantino, who burst onto the scene with the film Reservoir Dogs. Many of my fellow film students were in awe of this guy; he could do no wrong. Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown solidified his rep, and although there was the odd misstep (Four Rooms comes to mind), he consistently proved to be one of the most watchable directors around. Even Kill Bill, for all its faults (especially the tedious second half) was respectable film-making. Entertaining and visceral, with some amazing action, interesting characters, and enough blood to fill the average suburban swimming pool, Kill Bill did little to tarnish his reputation.
But then came Death Proof. And suddenly the most watchable guy in the room is an embarrassment. It’s not enough that this is a bad film. It’s a terrible film. It is in every way junk filmmaking. Here’s why.
Structurally, the film follows Psycho. Yes, the Alfred Hitchcock film. Also, I suppose, the Gus Van Sant film as well, but that is a subject for another rant. Both films are essentially two acts, with a small middle bridging scene.In Psycho, Hitchcock introduces us into his world through a pair of young lovers, and then focuses on Marion Crane, a woman who steals $40,000 in an attempt to finance a new life. Although the character is, in many ways, morally ambiguous, the audience sympathises with her, she is our mirror in the film. We root for her, feel her pain, understand why she would make such a choice, and feel good that she is on the right track to do the right thing.
And then she is brutally murdered in the shower. Even if you have never seen Psycho, you know what I am talking about. It’s been referenced everywhere.
Now, this is where Hitchcock shows his mastery. The beautiful young woman that we have been emphasizing with for half the film is now dead. Norman Bates cleans up the mess, and drives her car out to a marsh to hide the evidence. He pushes the car into the marsh, and it gets stuck. And the audience is tense, WAITING FOR IT TO SINK INTO THE MARSH! We are suddenly, without noticing it, worried for Norman. Our empathy is now with the tense, nerdy guy that has mother issues. The lovely Marion is forgotten, it’s Norman we are worried about now. Suddenly we are in a new film, almost, but not completely, unconnected to the first half. We no longer are concerned with Marion Crane’s story, but Norman’s, his mother’s. It’s one of the masterful strokes of cinema, and it is one of the reasons that Psycho is hailed as Hitchcock’s best. Even though it helped kick start a genre of slasher films, and one could draw a straight line from Psycho to Halloween, (either the Carpenter, or the Rob Zombie film), it stands as a cinematic masterpiece.
Now, of course, it turns out that Norman is a little nuts, and pretends to be his mother, and kills a bunch of people, but his psychosis is neatly packaged in a little box by Dr. Fred Richmond, in the closing speech. And it’s all over, except for a series of unfortunate sequels in the eighties).
So that is Psycho. Now, here is Death Proof.
In Death Proof, QT introduces us into his world through a group of friends, specifically a group of three or four women who drive around Texas, boring the shit out of the audience. Will they score weed? Who cares. Will they invite boys to the cabin? Who cares. In what order are they going to the restaurants/bars? Who cares. None of the characters are interesting, or even really likeable. If you don’t care about the characters, you don’t care about the film. These women are simply not interesting enough for me to want to spend a lot of time with. One of the most hilarious defences of the indulgent, overlong dialogue scenes in the first half of the movie is that you need to get to know the characters, so it will be more meaningful when they die. Doesn’t work. Okay, so, about halfway through the film, these characters, our entrée into the film, die. They are killed, actually, by the Psycho Villain “Stuntman Mike”, an over the hill stuntman with woman issues, and a death proof car. He is slightly injured, they all die.
Now, in the hospital, we are treated to the scene explaining his psychosis, this time by Texas Ranger Earl McGraw, who, while convinced this was an intentional murder, carried out by a nut job, is more concerned with following sporting events than proving it. Also, he uses the phrase “shot his goo”, in this speech, which I do not recall being used in Psycho.
Next scene, which, for no reason I can think of, is in black and white. Stuntman Mike meets his next group of victims. Suddenly, we are in a totally different movie, aesthetically. The first hour was film and treated to look like a choppy, sweaty 70’s exploitation flick (the Grindhouse films of the title), then there is a little black and white, and then, whammo, the films aesthetics as similar to Kill Bill, or any recent film. Pointless jerking in my opinion. But back to the point.
So, we start the second half of the film, and in a masterful scene, QT changes our perspective to…. Wait, her doesn’t do that at all, he just introduces us to a slightly less boring group of women for Stuntman Mike to threaten. But, he picks on the wrong group, and he gets his ass handed to him, and they maybe even kill him at the end. It’s just a shoddy, shoddy mess of a film, with no plot, logic, or interesting characters. It was a waste of almost two hours of my time. If you are in the video store, looking for something to rent, do yourself a favour, go to the classics section, and grab Psycho. You will be happy you did.
NOT THE GUS VAN SANT VERSION!