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.
I once read an interview with Tarantino where he said (I paraphrase) that he attempted to subvert the slasher genre by making this one where the ladies – all the ladies, essentially – win. And he’s right, he has subverted the genre in a lot of ways, since it’s the guy set up to be an unstoppable menace who turns out to be the weakling and the “weak” ladies who turn out to be far stronger than Stuntman Mike. Usually, it’s a far different ending for slasher movies.
Also featured are the typical Tarantino talky scenes, something that’s never really bothered me, but one criticism of the movie that I constantly seem to hear is that “women don’t really talk this way” or some variant thereof. To be frank, this befuddles me.
Lee: [Zoe asks Kim if she still has her gun] You carry a gun?
Kim: Hell yeah.
Lee: Well… do you have a license to carry that?
Kim: [Zoe laughs quietly] Uh, yeah… they gave it to me after I became a Secret Service Agent…
Lee: Oh, I didn’t know that –
[Zoe laughs some more]
Lee: [Lee turns to Abernathy] Did you know that she carried a gun?
Abernathy: Yes. Now, do I approve? No. But, do I know? Yes.
Kim: Well, look, I don’t know what futuristic utopia you live in, but where I live, a bitch need a gun! If I go down at midnight to do my laundry, I might get my ass raped!
Lee: [the girls laugh] Don’t do your laundry at midnight, then.
Kim: Fuck that! I’ll do my fucking laundry whenever the fuck I wanna do my laundry!
I can understand the idea that Tarantino’s vernacular pops up through all of his characters; each of his characters speaks in a distinct way that recalls QT’s own distinctive style of language. To say that women don’t “talk” the way they do in Death Proof, that – as one man once told me – women would never actually have a conversation about a movie such as Vanishing Point is condescending in a lot of ways.
Some women would not talk about car chase movies or mix tapes but a lot of women do, same as men. And to think that women don’t drop the f-bomb on a regular basis, talk in dirty detail about their love lives, and so on and so forth, or discuss obscure movies strikes me as slightly bizarre. If women don’t really talk like that, then men in Tarantino movies don’t really talk like men. It’s a weird singled-out criticism in Death Proof that I find comes almost exclusively from men. The laundry-at-midnight excerpt above is one that almost every woman has at some point. I’ve had variations on the laundry-at-midnight talk in my own life recently. I find it oddly confusing that there are men out there that don’t believe that women actually have conversations like this about life in general. I find it suspect that men would not believe that a woman is talking about Vanishing Point. While it is heavy handed for setting up the plot and while, yes, it’s Tarantino throwing in yet another film nod through a character, it’s not unbelievable, I don’t think.
(There is a great conversation interspersed in a post about this and all things Tarantino at The House Next Door located HERE. The two guys in question having a conversation about Tarantino are far smarter and far wiser than I am about film.)
The overall problem with Death Proof is that the stilted two-movie feel gets really labourious; Part I has the feeling of being the only sober person in a bar watching everyone else get more drunk and more obnoxious as the night goes on. Part I is necessary to Tarantino’s set up because after all, he has to give you a reason to hate Stuntman Mike for being such a bad, evil man that you cheer on the girls in Part II when they’re out for blood. Part II is just so much better and strives toward so much more of a point, as well as the fact that it feels like Tarantino’s itching to get to those chase scenes that it makes you feel a little antsy. (Not to mention Eli Roth is fucking terrible, awful, horrible – take your pick of adjectives in the first part.)
It’s not perfect, and it’s not great, but Death Proof does have its finer points in Part II even with the drag-ass, annoying first half. I’ve never thought it was terrible, so the massive hatefest it seems to get has always puzzled me.