Death Proof (2007): Tarantino’s Longer Version, No Longer Attached to Rodriguez

Reviewed by Patrick Z. McGavin

Cannes Film Fest 2007 (World Premiere, Competition)–The French have a description for the cursed film-film maudit. So it is probably disappointingly fitting that Quentin Tarantinos Death Proof was unveiled in the Cannes competition in the longer form European cut, issued with the delicious subtitle Boulevard of Death, as part of the festivals official competition.

Liberated from its unfortunate attachment to Planet Terror, Rodriguezs reductive and mediocre contribution to the two-part Grindhouse, Tarantinos effort suggests a movie without a fixed or final shape. It was unfortunately denied its proper artistic and critical analysis because of the disproportionate emphasis on the movies commercial flop upon its release in April.

Even more problematic, the new material substantially weakens rather than improves the 87-minute cut that concluded the original release version. Many American critics were also angry and some felt duped by the 16-minute discrepancy in running times posted by the festival and distributor Weinstein Company. For the record, the actual running time is 111 minutes, not 127 minutes. The new material adds ideological and sexual connotations the director is unable to satisfy.

Tarantino said in the press conference that, rather than focus on the running time, the attention should be on the structural and formal changes of the new version, and on what he called a 180-degree shift from the Grindhouse version.

The original cut found a perfect balance between Tarantinos discursive and idiosyncratic feel for character and his colorful, commanding and visceral play of action, suspense and movement.

The originals two-part structure is maintained here, split between two charged encounters involving the malevolent loner, Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) who terrorizes two separate groups of women. Like before, the action shifts between two extremes, a cruel angel of death whose unexplained pathology is turned against him when three bad ass chicks prove far more daring, resourceful and tough than he could ever have imagined.

It is instructive to look at the new material, and explore how it alters and changes the expanded version. Three major changes in the first half are: an earlier appearance of Stuntman Mikes car ominously viewed from a high angle shot trailing the car driven by the three girls; an off-screen sexual foreplay in the rain involving Butterflys Vanessa Ferlito; the excised lap dance involving Stuntman Mike and Butterfly.

The first moment makes explicit a feeling easily inferred, that Stuntman Mike was stalking the girls (a point already made by the surveillance photographs he maintained on his visor). The second added movement disrupts the flow and imagery, slowing and distracting any possibility of a visceral edge.

The lap dance sequence is provocatively shot and staged though it adds a somewhat uncomfortable and reactionary sexual tone to the first part, suggesting an extreme brand of punishment for their sexuality, and it underlines a recurring weakness of Tarantinos work, an inability to articulate expressions of female sexuality.

The location moves from Austin, Texas to Lebanon, Tennessee. The most elaborate stylistic change from the two versions is an extended sequence shot in black and white unfolding in the parking lot convenience store the second group of girls repair to just before they pick up the stunt specialist Zo Bell.

One prominent weakness of both versions is that Tarantino inexplicably chose to shoot the movie himself since he is not a skillful cinematographer and too much of the imagery lacks precision and edge. The black and white photography is inexpressively dull and the images denied any pop, looking rather cheap and unformed.

It seriously harms the power and quality of the material, which is pretty interesting if creepy as Stuntman Mike disturbingly locates the means to insinuate himself against Rosario Dawsons Abernathy. Again the scene also underscores the directors lack of comfort and spontaneity involving female sexuality. They talk a great game, but there appears a fundamental unease and contradictory ideas about women, their bodies and what they represent.

The half hour car chase that concludes the film is still as exhilarating, inventive and satisfying as any moment in Tarantinos previous films. Bell is absolutely astonishing, and the characterization and progressive these women undertake is glorious and beguiling, earning the highest complimentthey become Hawksian, making them as tough, skilled and adventurous as the men.

On a formal level, the power of the pursuit and chase material is not just the electric contrast of the two cars–it becomes a meditation on Bell and her body. The sight of her strapped to the front of the car, her shirt rising exposing her taut, muscle bound stomach is one of the most provocative and empowering images of recent movies.

It remains a movie of moments, like a beautifully designed tracking shot that begins at the feet of Sydney Poitier and climbs up her long and alluring leg, the astonishingly lyrical moment when Bell leaps in one balletic movement into the open window of the car. The back and forth choreography of the chase sequence is certainly something to behold, creating a sense of anticipation and expectation.

Death Proof needed greater precision and dexterity. Now, it is longer but not better version, the movie that needs a propulsive, lean and stripping away. Instead it is inflated and at once self-involved and self-important.

Tarantinos connection to the period, the movies and the directors of the grindhouse era is unassailable. He needed stronger producers to rein some of his inchoate ideas. That would have lifted Death Proof into elite status, a genre B-movie that satisfies as both cinema and deep and lascivious entertainment. It is still caught on a precipice between form and content, stranded and trapped and somewhat fatally at odds with itself. It is the film that never resolves itself.

For a review of the older version of Death Proof, see Grindhouse