On the Wednesday of the week before the current semester would start, I sat down and watched Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof for the first time. It had risen to the top of my consciousness for a few reasons — Zöe Bell and Kurt Russell played a married couple in Tarantino’s most recent movie; I had just been in Northampton, MA, where I remembered hearing someone talking about his plan to go see it the first day I ever spent much time there — a cold and snowy day in April, 2007 that happened to be opening night; and with the semester bearing down on me, I was in the mood to procrastinate. Also, I’d just committed to making an effort to watch movies that skewed scary and ambiguous, in response to what may be one of A.S. Hamrah’s key arguments in The Earth Dies Streaming.
The moment the movie came out was remarkable for personal and more universal reasons. On the release day — April 6, 2007 — I was driving from Vermont, where I’d been living with my then-boyfriend, now husband, down to my parents’ house in Maryland in a very liminal state. I had just quit my shitty first-job-post-college after getting into graduate school; I had no idea what to expect from my future commitment to life in the Pioneer Valley dedicated to economic academia; I was going to New Zealand for a month; and my now-husband and I didn’t know that we were going to stay together for the then foreseeable future. Twitter had been created the previous year, but was not yet the juggernaut of takes and opinion it would become, for better and worse; flip-phones reigned; and ride-hailing apps were a distant fantasy.
The movie itself was initially half of a double-feature with a Robert Rodriguez film (Planet Terror) under the name Grindcore; I don’t know which movie came first, since I worried at the time that it would be too scary. When I bought the movie, it was a standalone film, and so fleshed-out that I can’t imagine the story telling anything so rich in less than the current running time of 113 minutes. Needless to say, spoilers abound in what is left of this post.
In brief, Death Proof is a call-back to the ‘car-chase’ genre (you can learn a lot on Wikipedia), and a very Tarantino-esque exercise in the subversion of exploitation film-types from the 1970s. It follows two different groups of women who attract the malevolent attention of a drifter who calls himself Stuntman Mike, and may be a former stunt driver, though no one seems to remember any of the movies he claims to have performed in. In the first half of the movie, a group of girls — Julia, Arlene, and Shanna, are headed to a lake house in Texas, after getting hammered at a local bar; no boys are allowed. In the second half, a group of friends — Abernathy, a makeup artist, Lee, an actress, and Kim and Zöe, stunt doubles — working on movies filming in rural Tennessee, are catching up during a rare lull for all at the same time; the stunt doubles have a plan to test-drive a dead-ringer for the car from Vanishing Point (a white Dodge Challenger from 1970). Hi jinks — deadly! — ensue for both groups.
Here’s what you might successfully predict about the movie: there are a lot of bare feet; Quentin Tarantino plays a creepy dude who gets to put his arm around a lot of pretty young actresses (some of them even sit in his lap), and there are a bunch of callbacks to music in other Tarantino movies. He also imagines that a group of hip young women in their mid-20s will dance with abandon to deep cuts from his personal jukebox, which is cited in the credits.
Here’s what you might not: there is a loathsome spectrum of men onscreen and off. With the possible exceptions of a convenience store clerk who skeevily tells Rosario Dawson’s character Abernathy that he has a copy of Italian Vogue that he sells her at a markup and maybe the police officers interrogating Stuntman Mike in a Texas hospital, we have (in Texas) the guy at Warren’s (the bar run by Tarantino’s Warren) who whines about wanting to make out with Arlene, Julia’s hot friend in town from New York; his friend, the guy ordering Jäger shots for the hot girls in hopes of getting invited to The Lake House, and their other friend who just goes along with it; Shanna’s dad, who owns The Lake House, doesn’t want any boys there but happens to show up when Shanna and her friends are wearing swimsuits; Warren, who sends over a flight of &*(%ing Chartreuse shots (and if Warren gives it to you, you can’t say no); and the asshole guy not responding to Julia’s texts. In Tennessee, we get references to a guy who is not the Rock, who likes to hold Lee’s throat when they’re making out; the director flirting with Rosario Dawson’s character Abernathy, but still sleeps with the Daryl Hannah stand-in; and we meet Jasper, the racist who loans out the Challenger to Kim, Zöe, and Abernathy and gets to keep Lee as collateral. God knows what he does to Lee after that; we never see them again. In his own category, we have Stuntman Mike, the sociopath who stalks both groups of women and then mows them down (or attempts to) with his car in, like, really gruesome fashion. The movie is a good reminder not to stick your legs out a car window while in transit, anyway.
The movie is great. I was surprised by how much I liked it, and how little critical praise I’ve heard for it.
Genius decision #1: Tarantino makes Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell!) hot, in a way echoed by Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth in Once Upon a Time, and very not echoed by Russell’s character in that movie. If Cliff Booth could be Aldo Raine from Inglourious Basterds some time down the line, I could imagine Stuntman Mike as a much later iteration of Cliff. You might imagine Stuntman Mike as some sort of proto-Incel character; I think you’d be wrong. Though a prominent early shot of Mike has him eating a platter of bar nachos that leave his face covered in grease, I could see the appeal he might hold for an unsuspecting target. And he’s funny, when he’s not trying to kill people by ramming his car into theirs. Russell’s imitation of John Wayne is fantastic, and foreshadows his delivery in The Hateful Eight.
Genius decision #2: the women are human. They’re not depicted as guilty for their decisions to (1) get drunk at the bar, (2) go sans-men to the Lake House, (3) have raunchy conversations about what they’re doing with their love and sex lives, (4) make dumb decisions about stunt driving in a borrowed Dodge Challenger, and (5) accept a ride from someone that turns out to be a serial (spree?) killer. It’s clear that Mike decides early on with both groups that he is going to kill them with his car; Arlene’s decision to give him a lap dance has no bearing on his actions later. Why does she give him a lap dance? Long story, but it stems from a mean trick Julia played on her; the point is that Stuntman Mike picks his victims regardless of their backstory or immediate actions to him.
Genius decision #3: Stuntman Mike’s reaction to having the tables turned upon him in the second half. He massacres the women in the first half; he doesn’t know that the women driving the car in the second half are trained professionals. When they regain control of that Challenger after nearly being run off the road by him, Kim manages to shoot him in the shoulder, and then they successfully chase him into submission. What happens when he’s the victim? He sobs; he shrieks that he was just joking; he pleads that they should just get along and leave him alone. It is an amazing display of toxic masculinity called out; Russell crumples into a hysterical display of victimhood. It’s dramatic, exaggerated, and full of poetic license, but it immediately reminded me of the antics of men accused in the Me Too era. Did I mention that he’s laughing in his initial murderous pursuit scenes? (Thinking about it now, there are some parallels with Christine Blasey Ford’s memories of young Brett Kavanaugh at the high school pool party laughing as he assaulted her, and Kavanaugh’s histrionics during the Judiciary Committee hearings.)
Oh, and the three women beat him to death when he staggers out of his flipped-over car. Like I said: the movie’s fantastic.
Were there things I didn’t love? SURE. The underwear, the midriffs, the lap dance, the n-word usage in the discussion about a Chekhov’s gun in a diner, that Quentin Tarantino apparently touched Dawson’s feet per the set stills on IMDB — I don’t know; it’s a genre movie? I’ve taken a college literature class; I understand that imagery ‘does work’. Watching this I thought about arguments I’ve had with people I love (sorry guys) about every Tarantino movie since this one: should we show Jewish soldiers bashing in Nazis’ heads with baseball bats? Wasn’t that a lot of times to have racist Antebellum/Reconstruction era characters say the n-word? Why should we give those deplorable losers a chance to redeem themselves by killing some dirtbag hippies? Why do we have to keep looking at cute actresses’ feet?
Does pervy cinematography enable lesser talents to make exploitative movies? Probably — I’ve suffered through plenty of Reservoir Dogs Lite. But (one) the world is full of nuance and so, too, good art; (two) a group of women beat a misogynist serial killer to death at the end of this; and (three) exploitation movies subvert norms at their best by portraying the world at its worst. Shakespeare had Problem Plays! Film scholars and other critics of the humanities will write — indeed, have written — about this far more eloquently than I could ever hope to. What struck me most watching this movie (apart from the scene where Julia laboriously taps out a text message complete with punctuation marks on her flip phone) was the magic of its timing. Can you imagine the hot takes and twitter tectonics following its release if it had come out in 2017?
I compulsively check cast details on IMDB while watching movies; it’s a bad habit. But the most jarring thing about this movie (which shows in graphic detail what would happen to four people in a tin-can with wheels if a super car plowed into it head-on at 200 mph) was seeing the publicity photos with Harvey Weinstein smiling and putting his arm around Quentin Tarantino. Rose McGowan looks radiant in pictures from the same events; she’s smiling because she’s at work, and she understands the game. Knowing what we know now, the greatest horror of this movie is that despite its brilliant portrayal of toxic masculinity, it was produced by a next-level predator in his own right.