Death Proof is an often criticized film. While I don’t disagree that it’s not Tarantino’s best work, I think there’s a lot more to like about it than a lot of people give it credit for.
In Austin, Texas, a group of girlfriends roam about town and end up in a bar on their way to a friend’s house on Lake LBJ. This particular bar scene involves the usual: sleazy guys scheming to get into the girls’ pants, lots of booze and beer and tunes playing on the jukebox. Enter Stuntman Mike, a seemingly affable but dated fellow who shows up to hang out at the bar. What starts out as a fun night degrades into horror for the group of girls and their acquaintance Pam, as Stuntman Mike commits some vehicular homicide.
Mostly unbeknownst to the girls, Mike’s been stalking them and taking photos. Pam dies a grisly death, begging for her life to be let out of Mike’s car after she asked for a ride. Mike informs her that his death proof car, which he had crowed over earlier, is in fact proof. “…But to get the benefit of it, honey, you really need to be sitting in my seat”, he tells her.
Stuntman Mike then causes a head-on collision with the other car full of girls, ripping off limbs and driving over faces. It’s not a pretty scene and it pisses the local law enforcement off. They suspect Mike is guilty of killing all six girls, but have no way to prove it.
Fourteen months later in Lebanon, Tenneessee, four friends are reunited for a vacation. They’re working on a film set that’s shooting in the area and one of them is a stuntwoman with a dream to play a dangerous game called Ship’s Mast on the hood of a 1970 white Dodge Challenger – the car driven in Vanishing Point. Of course, there happens to be a 1970 Challenger in the area, so after sweet talking the owner to let them drive it on their own and leaving a friend for collateral, three of them head off to play Ship’s Mast.
It’s basically a game of holding on to the car with belts while you ride around free-wheeling on the hood.
It’s not long before Stuntman Mike shows up; he’s been stalking these girls, too. After scaring the shit out of them, one shoots at him and injures him. He takes off running, but the girls give chase and hunt him down. It is the proverbial end of the road for Stuntman Mike.
Death Proof does suffer from one massive, almost fatal flaw: it is not actually one movie. It’s really two movies with Stuntman Mike as the connectivity between the two.
The first half is the girls in the bar (Arlene and friends) and the second half is the girls in the car (Abernathy and friends). Mike is the common thread here, but the sudden and jarring switch between the two is somewhat bizarre. Tarantino goes from a color-saturated environment right into black and white. It’s like watching a whole different movie.
In a lot of ways, it is. The girls in the bar have similar conversations in a lot of ways to Abernathy and her friends; small talk about boys and other things is involved. But Abernathy and her friends fight back against Mike’s brutality but Arlene and company are never given a chance to fight back as such.
Abernathy and friends are the victims changing the balance of power and Stuntman Mike, who for all his crowing and creepiness, is really just a wussed-out jerk who hides in his car. He spends the end of the movie sobbing in his car, begging for mercy from girls who have none for him.
Death Proof is a weird amalgamation of slasher movie and car chase movie. Indeed, the car chase parts are perhaps the best bits of the movie. There are none of the annoying, more modern multiple quick cuts to be found here, thank God in heaven, whether it’s Zoe Bell hanging on the hood or Abernathy and Kim screaming their heads off in the car as Mike terrorizes them.
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