Welcome to Directed Viewing, the weekly series where I take a look at a director’s filmography—one movie at a time. If you haven’t been following along so far, you can find a big explanation of the whys and wherefores on the handy table of contents I built just for that purpose, including links to all the prior seasons.
It’s time to get real with you all: the whole reason I did this Quentin Tarantino project is because I wanted to write this article. It’s been a long time coming, and I’ve tried to start it numerous times over the years and always put it off. I knew that if I got five movies into this project, however, I’d eventually come across today’s movie and have to tackle what I want to say about it. It won’t be easy, and it is probably going to cause some shouting matches, but someone has to own up and say it. So I’m just going to cut this intro short and give you the one sentence version of what you’re about to read, and then we’ll get into the meat of it. You ready?
Death Proof is Quentin Tarantino’s best movie.
Death Proof (2007)
While you reel from that statement, a bit of background: Death Proof was originally conceived as part of a grindhouse homage double feature (called, of course, Grindhouse) with directorial cohort Robert Rodriguez to be a double-bill of genre movies that meant to send up and pay tribute to the exploitation fare of yesteryear. Both movies, this and Rodriguez’ Planet Terror, were cut down to hit a reasonable running time when the movies were shown as part of a single feature. The experiment never really made box office waves, but Death Proof on its own has since been released in a longer cut that has since become the default ‘real’ cut. We’re going to be talking about that movie.
To watch Death Proof is to watch a lesson in cinema. It operates, formally, on the level of a grindhouse hack job, two movies cobbled together into one narrative that isn’t necessarily coherent or meant to be shown together, but that some overworked projectionist taped together in the booth from footage they had lying around. The first movie, Thunder Bolt, has its title card displayed for a fraction of a second before the insert card of Death Proof comes onto the screen. The second movie doesn’t even get the decency of that, dropping us right into the middle of a story in-progress, a vague similar story with wildly different tone and only one linking character.
This isn’t a big surprise: the 60s and 70s in particular are littered with movies that got retitled and recut as they were shown over and over. Unofficial sequels pumped out of production houses on the cheap were common: just rehire some of the same actors, try not to rename anyone too radically, and release a movie that is just like one that made money. It’s the seedy underbelly of the old way of distribution, of double features and drive in specials, of movies made fast and cheap to play for audiences who would go to see anything so long as it had enough blood or tits or explosions in it.
So Thunder Bolt starts as a late 60s or early 70s slasher film, opening on a bunch of beautiful women about to hit a night on the town. They’re drinkers, they’re promiscuous, they joke about drugs. They are coded to be doomed by every established genre convention. They kick around Austin and prepare for a big birthday celebration for local radio DJ Jungle Julia (Sydney Tamiia Poitier), who bosses her friends around and sets up a lengthy story about how she told her radio audience that visiting friend Arlene (Vanessa Ferlito) will give a lap dance to whoever buys her a drink and recites a poem. All the while, Arlene notices that a certain black Chevy Nova is following them around, roaring menacingly before racing off.
That Nova belongs to Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell), who is introduced in appropriately goofy fashion, a slightly imbalanced local color guy who seems to mostly be charmingly old fashioned and a little sensitive about his signature scar. He sits, eating nachos and drinking virgin drinks, as the night unfolds. He offers to help a woman in need. The bartender vouches for him. He’s kind of weird, but he’s a stand up guy. He’s also on the prowl, originally a dim sense that he’s some sort of threat but later realized that he’s been screwing up his courage to ask Arlene for that lap dance. It was all just a hilarious misunderstanding. This guy isn’t a menace, the movie was just misdirecting us with typical horror movie empty setups.
And then, before Mike climbs into his car to take Pam home, he smiles at the camera.
That smile is the moment the film revolves around, a singular moment of fourth wall breaking where Russell brings all the boyish charm and gruff heroism that he’s had for his entire career and throws it right up into our face. “You think you know how this is going to go?” that smile boasts directly to us, “wait until you bastards get a load of this!” It’s the sickening realization, a minute before the film makes it explicit, that what we’re being presented with is just a long, long setup for something that is about to go fundamentally and fully terrible. It’s the smile of sadistic glee, and for the viewer that knows how these movies go and how to read the cues, it makes two things happen: your skin crawls, and you cackle with glee despite yourself. This is the eternal dichotomy of grind house appreciation in microcosm.
And then the violence happens. It’s been a long build, and the payoff is short, brutal, and spectacular. Stuntman Mike takes that Nova and buries it into the front of the car of Jungle Julia & co, and all four girls end up very messily dead. It’s an explosion of cartoon gore and special effects played over and over again, each one turning more abstractly messy and dumb with each repeat, as the endless cycle of the same moment of violence (a car crash) is repeated over and over until it loses any emotional impact and just becomes a recursion of new gags and obvious dummies and fake blood. It is the entire slasher genre’s inception and fall from grace in a second, from the first sickening realization that you can show and excite with murder, to suddenly throwing it in our face so often it has to become a sideshow novelty to even chart.
One wonders if that’s how Stuntman Mike felt? A serial murderer who continually needs more and bigger to get the same death fix, at first in the movies and later in real life. But even his narrative about killing is wrapped in a sort of artifice, him putting himself in the role of this murderer to get the fix. He plans it out so carefully, sets up the stunt so perfectly, and when the dust settles what happens? The police find drunk women, a sober man, and he was just lucky he had a car that was built for stunts and kept him safe, as no human would survive those crashes in a normal car. He walks away free as a bird, ready to set up the next big spectacular, unchallenged. Would he even know how to deal with an actual threat?
The second movie tacked onto the end of Thunder Bolt is a far different creature. It’s newer, cleaner, the print suddenly losing all of the dirt and dropped frames. It comes from a different director, a late-70s or even later sensibility that looked at exploitation films and said “We can do something fun with these.” It’s subversive, it’s post-modern. Maybe it was an art director taking a job to make money to finance a ‘real’ movie. Maybe it was a woman working under a pseudonym who saw this not-a-sequel about a macho murderer icon and wanted to bury him. Either way, the second half of Death Proof comes from the era where exploitation is dead and all that’s left is to sift through the pieces for things that inspire actual thought.
We’re introduced to a new group of women. Abernathy (Rosario Dawson), Lee (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Kim (Tracie Thoms) all work in movies. They’re currently going to pick up a fourth woman, Zoë Bell (playing herself) from the airport. These aren’t the same type of women as we saw in Thunder Bolt. These are career women. Showbiz women. Kim and Zoë are stunt women who, in the grossly macho parlance, know how to strap it on. They’re upfront and take no shit and they are all work hard and party harder. So when you see, early on, Russell spot them, one can’t help but wonder if the movie is a ‘take down the feminists!’ kind of movie or if Stuntman Mike is in for some shit.
The question lingers only for a second before we’re back in the world of these four women talking about on-set problems and relationships and sharing cool stories about how much of a bad ass someone has to be to be a stunt woman. And then they start talking about cars, about how much Zoë wants to go see a Dodge Challenger (not just a Challenger but the Challenger, a white 1970 Challenger R/T, and if you don’t know why that’s important then learn you some movies) and give it a test drive. And here’s where the movie pulls its genre inversion, because while the first group was decidedly girly, this group is coded as a bunch of dudes, talking about fucking and cars and guns and doing dumb things. While that’s not abnormal for women to be into those things, it’s abnormal for films to portray them as being into those things, and the movie lingers on the sense of invasion, that these women are intruding into the realm of men, that their maleness makes them a unique threat to the dogmatic order of the slasher paradigm. What could possibly happen if/when Stuntman Mike shows back up?
But first, the car. Let’s talk about the car. The Vanishing Point Challenger, a car so cool that it has become a cinema icon. Of course they get in it. Of course they talk themselves into joy riding. But it’s more than just that. Tarantino fundamentally understands why cars in movies are cool. It’s not about the machine. It’s not about being a gearhead. It’s about the power of personification in cinema. Cars are built to have faces, designed with character so people will identify with them. Movies are an art form that derive from showing us unreal things and asking us to invest them with real emotions and weight. We’re wired as moviegoers to bridge the personification gap. So when these already visually personified cars are suddenly on screen moving and turning and racing and crashing and doing what cars do, what we see isn’t a bunch of machinery or physics or sport, what we see is character.
The fundamental truth of car chases isn’t that it’s Good Guys A and B running from Bad Guys 1 2 and 3 in one group and Y Z in another, it’s that it’s Good Car versus Bad Cars 1 and 2. When people climb into cars, in the best movies the cars become the character, an extension of who the people are. We invest in them the same way we’d invest in the actors, so that the motion of the chase has nothing to do with cars as a concept, but with the instinctive human response of seeing figures we’ve related to and invested emotions into engaging in drama as old as neolithic hunting urges. That’s why car movies work, and why they matter, and why people who say they aren’t into them because they aren’t into cars have missed the point and obviously not watched any actual car movies. It’s never about the cars.
Instead it’s about Zoë Bell, one of the coolest people on Earth, climbing onto the hood of a Challenger tearing down the interstate and laying flat on the hood of the car. It’s about the thrill that Kim and Abernathy feel watching her do it, the fear and admiration and wonder. It’s Zoë’s whoops and hollers as she puts herself on the line for that beautiful moment of thrilling risk like she does over and over again not just in the movie but in real life. It’s a beautiful moment, bending the reality of what is and what we see on film, which is ultimately what the best stunts always do: you recognize the reality of the situation, and the thrill comes from understanding that real people did real things.
Which is when Stuntman Mike inserts himself into the scene. It’s an intrusion not just because the movie has mostly forgotten about him, but because he is invading this moment between the characters and the audience and the universe, this private moment of joy suddenly invaded by destruction and death and terror. It thrusts the violating nature of murder right up under our noses and makes what was exhilarating suddenly lurch with the sick realization that Zoë is doomed and these women are going to die and there’s nothing they can do about it. These tough women, these badasses of screen and life, are going to get mowed down by some maniac asshole in a tough car who gets his rocks off by killing. The terror of this kind of sexualized murder is opened right up for us, our noses rubbed in it, our sympathies handed to the side that so normally exist just to titillate and then die interestingly. We’re brought along, in so many ways, for the ride.
By the time Mike chases the women off the road, Zoë ends up thrown from the Challenger and into a ditch, and Mike comes out of his car to gloat. Big mistake, since Kim is packing heat, and doesn’t hesitate to unload at him, grazing him in the arm. He drives off, and we’re left with the idea that this group of friends have been horribly broken forever when suddenly a hand shoots up from the bushes. “I’m okay!” Zoë Bell, so cool she had a documentary about her before she was famous, the stunt double of Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, isn’t going to be inconvenienced by anything as minor as being thrown from a speeding car into a ditch. She’s fucking Zoë Bell. She’s invincible. It is a moment of pure joy, turning the inevitability of death at the hands of the killer into one of catharsis that they (and by proxy we) have faced the killer and somehow survived shaken but unscathed.
That joy quickly turns into outrage. How dare he show up and invade their space and threaten to do those things. It’s not just wrong, but our heroes are offended that he’d even try to kill people as obviously flawless and worthy of continued existence as them. And so all of them decide, through their manic laughter and tears of relief, to climb back into the Challenger and hunt him down and give him a taste of his own medicine. He wants murder? They’ll show him some murder. The Challenger speeds off, Zoë astride one of the doors like she’s stunt-riding a horse, metal pipe raised up in the air as she lets out a war cry and they speed off on their sudden desire for retribution.
Meanwhile, Mike is off nursing his wounds, the reality of the bullet and the pain having shattered his idea that he’s some sort of lone hero off doing the cool thing for kicks. He’s now a sobbing wreck, an impotent pathetic shell of a man, suddenly old and powerless in the light of day and the new frame of an injured, whimpering dog of a monster. The threat is gone forever, the charming monster turned into something that would be worthy of pity if he wasn’t so inherently disgusting in what he had done. This guy has what’s coming to him, and we’re now savagely ready to lash out at him, just like our heroes are when they come running in fast and ready to ruin his car and his life and his day. Even this inversion delights in the power of the gender and role reversal, with Kim riding hard on the sexualization of murder as sex, talking mostly to herself about how she’s going to fuck him even as the Challenger crashes into Mike’s car in a spectacular spray of orgasmic destruction and twisted chassis and shattered glass.
Everyone surrounds Mike as he flops out of his car, then, and they proceed to beat the hell out of him. It’s short, brutal, and ends suddenly with a freeze frame and a THE END title card in a moment of triumph, right before the movie picks up just long enough for Abernathy to crush his head with her boot. The women, cheering and celebrating, have won the day. The villain, the archetype of masculine sexual threat vis a vis slasher psycho killer, has not just been killed but made helpless. The cycle of film history, from inception to trivialization to philosophical revolution, is complete. The victims have become the killers, and it’s not only good but it’s great, a thing worthy of cheering for as the credits careen into the endless reminders of countless women who Mike undoubtedly tracked down and terrorized. The girl power anthem blaring over the credits just underlines the sudden feminist turn the movie took. Ding dong the witch is dead.
I’ve said for years now, without irony or hesitation, that Death Proof is Tarantino’s best film. The explanation was always too complicated to give people in short, but I’ve tried my best to share as much of it as I could articulate why I feel that way. It’s amazingly shot and paced, written with a variety of distinct women characters who fall on both sides of the slasher victim divide. It’s a movie that represents a lesson in the real history of grind house film, of the exploitation genre, if you’re willing to tease out the various elements. It smartly represents the best of both the actual films and the commentary through revival that is still happening today.
They’re also incredibly funny movies, with stellar casts. I could watch the four women who make up the second group just talk and hang out for hours, because they’re amazing actresses and great roles, but put them in a movie that serves not only as one of the greatest car movies ever made (and one that tries to explain, in some way, the appeal of why car movies work for non-car people), but as a feminist critique of the often misogynistic slasher genre and tropes? Death Proof is a great story told well, riddled with themes and agendas the likes of which even the best Tarantino movie never usually engages with on such an up-front level. It’s all his quirks and all of his best qualities given new voice with new purpose, and so far it’s singular among all his films as the one that is obviously and deliberately trying to say something about multiple things all at once.
That’s why I love Death Proof.