Death Proof is not Quentin Tarantino’s best film. It is, however, a kind of key to his entire approach to filmmaking, It’s also a really, really good apologia for his style of abrasive, violent filmmaking.
Death Proof is one half of a double-feature film experience initially released as Grindhouse in 2007 along with Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror. Rodriguez and Tarantino conceptualized Grindhouse as a tribute to and recreation of 1970’s grindhouse theater double-features where low-budget exploitation films would play back-to-back with cheap admission prices. Both films consciously mimic the kinds of films that would play in these grindhouse double-features: low-budget sensationalized action/horror flicks.
How seriously Tarantino is takes this homage is evident from the first frames of the movie, as the title “Quentin Tarantino’s Thunderbolt” flashes on screen for split second before cutting to a screen reading “Death Proof,” a recreation of the common grindhouse tactic of retitling movies that received poor reception and splicing a new title screen over the original. The entire film is “plagued” with moments of granular distortion on the screen and repeating frames, the result of Tarantino deliberately damaging the film the movie was shot on to recreate the visual effects of a film real being poorly handled and maintained.
Death Proof is a slasher film starring Kurt Russell as Stuntman Mike, a has-been stunt driver who stalks groups of young women and murders them with his “death proof” stunt car. He meets his match in the film’s second act when goes after a group of friends including Zoe Bell, herself a professional stuntwoman. Spoilers begin here.
The first half of Death Proof sees Stuntman Mike stalking a group of women (Vanessa Ferlito, Sydney Tamiia Poitier, Jordan Ladd, and Monica Staggs) in an Austin, Texas bar. This segment of the film takes place almost exclusively in one location and does little to advance the plot. It is Julia’s (Poitier) birthday, and the friends are heading to her father’s lake house after the bar.
With this established, the film spends the better part of an hour simply showing them converse at a table, developing their characters in an unmistakably Tarantino-fashion without showing any concern for advancing (or even, frankly, establishing) the plot. Russell’s Stuntman Mike eventually begins interacting with the party and the dialog establishes a few things about them without stating them explicitly: he’s a calm, cool operator and a master manipulator, and deeply, deeply disturbed. The women leave the bar intoxicated; Russell leaves sober. He then follows the women in his “death proof” car and circles them to hit them in a head-on collision at full speed. The resulting crash is one of the high points in Tarantino’s stellar filmography, a gut-wrenching impact scene established entirely through practical effects. Gore abounds. The four women are killed while Stuntman Mike survives the wreck with only a few broken fingers. A car with a drunk driver crashed into a car with a sober driver; case close, as far as the law is concerned.
It’s an interesting take on the slasher trope of the “first kill,” where an entirely undeveloped character is killed in the movie’s opening scene to demonstrate the danger the killer poses. These four women are the first victims of Stuntman Mike that prepare us for the real protagonists in the second act, but they are meticulously developed across nearly half of the film’s runtime. These victims weren’t just therepons preparing us for the real action: they have internal lives and complex desires that exist independently of Stuntman Mike.
The film’s second half sees Stuntman Mike stalking a new group of women (Rosario Dawson, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Tracie Thoms, and Zoe Bell) in Tennessee. Like the first segment, much of this part of the film is dominated by the four women talking in a diner (unlike the first half, Russell does not engage with them, though eagle-eyed viewers can spot him sitting in the background of the diner eavesdropping).
Later, the women go for a drive to allow Bell to play “Ship’s Mast,” a driving game involving her holding on to straps inside the car while laying on the car’s hood as it drives. Stuntman Mike uses this opportunity to attempt to ram the car off the road and kill Bell, but unbeknownst to him both she and the driver are also stunt drivers. The women successfully evade and injure Mike, then follow him as he frantically flees the scene. They knock his car off the road, pull him out of it, and beat him to death as the movie closes. Credits roll.
What I found so striking about Death Proof, admittedly the most straightforward in Tarantino’s filmography, was how every aspect of the movie works in an almost Brechtian way to remind the audience that they are, in fact, watching a film. The aforementioned editing is the most obvious way the movie does this, as a clear picture is frequently broken up by bands of discoloration or frames repeat several times before moving on. The theatrical release of the movie even masks scenes cut for run time by flashing a “film reel missing” notice between obviously discontinuous scenes. Recreating a grindhouse double-feature means, for Tarantino, recreating the experience of watching a film.
Beyond this, Zoe Bell’s presence in the film greatly confuses the line between art and audience. Bell, who previously worked as Uma Thurman’s stunt double for the Kill Bill movies, plays herself: Zoe Bell, the New Zealand-based stunt double. She is credited as “herself” in the credits, and her work as a stunt double is critical to the film’s narrative.
Tarantino himself gives an uncharacteristically bad performance as Warren, the owner of the bar in the first half of the film. His presence is distracting in an almost certainly intentional way, given that we’ve seen good performances from him in films like Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill. He also loads the film with even more references to the “Tarantinoverse” than normal, including an especially fun Kill Bill callback in a hospital that I won’t spoil.
Needless to say Tarantino is not a method director, and there’s a reason he and, say, Daniel Day-Lewis have never collaborated. The behind-the-scenes features make it clear that everyone on set was having a blast and no one was taking any of it especially seriously. Death Proof at times feels like “The Treachery of Images” in slasher format: Ce n’est pas une poursuite en voiture, “this is not a car chase.”
Except it is a car chase. What those bands of discoloration distort is actual, practical stunt effect work. When we see, say, two cars crash into each other at full speed or Zoe Bell dangling on the hood of a speeding car as another car bashes into it, we are actually seeing those things happen. Death Proof is self-consciously a film and self-consciously real. This makes the film tremendously effective in delivering its thrills and scares: the second chase especially features long, close shots of our protagonist reacting to real danger in real time.
These two aspects of the film- its constant reminders that it is a film and its intense realism in both script and execution- produce an interesting effect that, I believe, clarifies Tarantino’s philosophy of filmmaking and provides a compelling defense for the existence of film as a unique medium. The movie is simultaneously a fake thing and a real thing. As a fake thing, the movie is a creation; it is the product of a certain context and every aspect of it is a decision made for one reason or another. As a real thing, though, the movie has real power, real potentiality to affect the world it emerged out of.
To demonstrate this idea, consider the role of women in Death Proof. The film is a slasher, historically a genre that is not especially kind to female characters. Women in slasher movies tend to function as objects: they are weak things to be protected by stronger male characters, vulnerable things to be exploited by the killer to demonstrate power, sexual things to be ogled at by the audience.
Death Proof undermines these notions in sophisticated ways. First, as mentions earlier, the film plays on the “opening kill” cliché by making the “opening kill” victims the main characters of the entire first act.
And, of course, we have that spectacular ending: the women defeating Stuntman Mike through their unique, well-established abilities as stuntwomen. We see Zoe Bell being a bad-ass and realize that we aren’t just seeing Zoe Bell act like a badass; she’s actually doing all of these impressive things. It’s one thing to write a scene that portrays a female actor doing something impressive; this has the potential to undermine the kind of harmful stereotypes that the typical slasher tropes play on. Actually writing a scene where a badass stuntwoman is able to actually be a badass, however, is a different matter entirely. That’s a real challenge to those stereotypes.
This is what I mean when I say that Death Proof plays on the blending of unreal and real in film. The stereotypes about women that slasher films often rely on are fabrications, creations of this type of media, that has real-world ramifications. But those stereotypes, because they are creations of stories we tell, can be “untold” by being challenged by better storytelling. By writing a fictional narrative that’s informed by and aimed at the real world, Tarantino has shown us that filmmaking has real potential to change the real world. This concern for redeeming the grindhouse/slasher genre is made even more blatant during the end credits, as April March’s “Chick Habit/ Laisse tomber les filles” plays lines like “Hang up the chick habit/Hang it up, daddy/A girl’s not a tonic or a pill.”
Death Proof demonstrates why film matters- or, rather, how film can matter. The media we create and consume affects our perception of the world and subsequently how we interact with it. But this media we create and consume is something we have complete control over- we can tell better stories in a better way and make the world a better place. Media changes the world by giving us stories to process the world through, and film does this perhaps more effectively than any medium in existence right now.
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