Conceived in two distinct, Psycho-like parts separated by what could be considered Tarantino's shower scene on wheels, the movie follows two groups of female friends—one in Austin, the other in rural Tennessee—as they successively cross paths with a scar-faced stranger known only as Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell, reconnecting with his inner tough guy), a former movie stuntman whose roguish charm belies a murderous psycho within. His skull-and-crossbones-decorated Dodge Charger literally knocks the ladies dead. Until, that is, he meets his match in a daredevil New Zealand stuntwoman (real-life stunt player Zoe Bell) on furlough from a film shoot, her three plucky crewmates (the terrific Rosario Dawson, Tracie Thomas and Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and, oh, yes, a 1970 Dodge Challenger identical to the one a deliveryman named Kowalski drove from Colorado to California in the 1971 cult classic Vanishing Point.
This isn't the first time that Tarantino has showcased his affection for muscle cars and muscular women, or loaded up a screenplay with pop-culture references (the 1960s British Invasion band Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mitch & Tich gets a memorable shoutout) and verbose discussions of not very much. But Death Proof feels especially personal because its main characters aren't two-bit SoCal crooks or vengeance-minded single moms, but rather the very movie performers and technicians for whom the director clearly feels a special kinship. If all of Tarantino's films can be said to flow from other movies, Death Proof is the one that most directly addresses his chosen profession, his unapologetic movie fandom and the lurid power movies can exert on our subconscious. As Tarantino's film-referencing leading ladies engage Stuntman Mike in an old-school automotive duel that immediately earns a place of honor among the great celluloid car chases, it's as if they've willed their own grindhouse movie into being, and all we can do is hold on to our armrests and pray for someone to yell "Cut!"
For all its automotive derring-do, the most violent collision in Death Proofis the one that occurs between the real and the reel, a metaphysical terrain that Tarantino prowls every bit as boldly as David Lynch did in last year's Inland Empire (no matter that two films could scarcely be more different in style and tone). Like Lynch's movie, I suspect that Death Proof will throw some of its director's admirers for a loop, though it may be the most revealing thing Tarantino has yet done—a full-throttle expression of a singular artistic temperament disguised, like so many gems of grindhouses yore, as a glittering hunk of trash.
PLANET TERROR WAS Written, directed and produced by ROBERT RODRIGUEZ; DEATH PROOF WAS Written and directed by QUENTIN TARANTINO; AND Produced by TARANTINO and ERICA STEINBERG. NOW PLAYING COUNTYWIDE.