On Violence and Retribution: How Death Proof Eerily Predicted Quentin Tarantino's Future
Death Proof (2007) is easily the most underrated film in Quentin Tarantino’s filmography, and yet, one could argue that it is his best. It has often been called forgetful, especially when compared to his showier entries, but I beg to differ.
Death Proof did not try to live up to the standards of other installments. It was not a sequel nor a prequel (although it is tied with Robert Rodriguez’ Planet Terror (2007)). It simply was. Perhaps because of that very fact, the film managed to do what many of Tarantino’s did not, namely make a point that, over a decade later, is more hard-hitting than it was at the time.
It has the (seemingly) feminist undertones of Kill Bill (2003-2004), the bloodiness of Inglourious Basterds (2009), the deliberate pace of Pulp Fiction (1994), the wit of From Dusk Till Dawn (1996), all the while managing to be its very own, hilarious movie.
There is a discernible Before, and an After in Death Proof.
In the Before: three friends spend a relaxed evening in a bar to celebrate the birthday of one of them (Julia, who also happens to be a semi-famous radio host). They are soon joined by other friends, and also attract the attention of a seemingly innocuous, but quietly insistent man (played by a thrilling Kurt Russell). The only revelation he makes as to his identity is his name, Stuntman Mike, which points to his profession in Hollywood. After some mild flirtation with the stuntman, the girls decide to leave, along with one of their friends. He also follows suit, in tow with a girl he offers to drive home. The film suddenly turns grisly, as Stuntman Mike’s sinister nature is unveiled. He is a sadistic killer, who targets his victims with no apparent reason, if not for fun. In his “death proof” car (a vehicle which has been tampered with so that it will not kill the stuntman driving it), he causes two accidents: the first kills the passenger in his car, and in the second, he purposefully rams into the four friends from the bar, killing them all.
It is a senseless accident, made all the more horrible because the camera lingers on every detail: Julia, whose leg was hanging out of the window, is amputated, while the others have their faces crushed, their bodies shattered. Stuntman Mike, on the other hand, survives because of his rigged car, and he is let off, although the police doubt his innocence.
The After part of the film begins in eerily similar fashion: four friends (which include stuntwoman Zoë Bell playing herself) are driving through town, exchanging witty banter and comments on the absurd state of their love lives.
They, too, are four carefree women in their prime who like a good time; even minor details, like Rosario Dawson’s character Abernathy’s affinity for sticking her leg out of car windows, seem to confirm this uncanny resemblance.
They, too, fall into the crosshairs of Stuntman Mike who begins his prowl, stalking and following them with the clear intention to do them harm. Two of the girls become fixated on making a detour to test drive a Dodge Challenger, similar to the one in the film Vanishing Point, in order to try a car-surfing stunt. After as series of events where the girls decide who will stay behind with the owner of the car as a form of insurance, the dangerous stunt is performed by Zoë Bell as her friend Kim drives at full speed and Abernathy watches on in the backseat, anxiously. Unbeknownst to them, Stuntman Mike has been following closely, and once Zoë has been strapped precariously on the hood of the car, he begins to crash into them mercilessly, until he runs them into a ditch.
This, however, is where the similarities ends; because these four women are not the victims Stuntman Mike expects — far from it, in fact. The three girls survive the accident miraculously unscathed and, ablaze with bloodlust and revenge, turn their car around. They pursue a bewildered Stuntman Mike until he crashes his own car. They shoot at him and viciously insult him, in a thrilling vengeance sequence to rival that of Beatrix Kiddo’s in Kill Bill. The hilarity is heightened by Stuntman Mike’s pathetic crying throughout, especially when compared to the stoicism the women displayed during their near-death experience. When the women catch up to him, they then proceed to beat him up savagely until the credits roll, their final retaliation making up for the death of the first four girls who did not deserve their fate.
A seemingly random tale of loosely connected violence and vengeance is elevated into something much more profound, and much more urgent when one reads between the lines. Stuntman Mike is not seemingly the most terrifying of all Tarantino’s villains: Inglourious Basterds’ Hans Landa and Django Unchained’s Monsieur Candie come more easily to mind. But he is more insidious because his is a realer, and much more recognizable threat. He is a man of casual violence and misogyny, a man who goes from perfect civility to murderous psychopathy in the blink of an eye. There is no rhyme or reason to his hatred of women: he just does, the way one would a germ, or an unpleasant song. The fact that it is never not there makes it that much more alarming.
The similarity of Stuntman Mike’s targets is not coincidental. They are not only extroverted, fearless women: they are at their sexual, financial and professional peaks, and they know what they want. In other words, well-rounded, modern, everyday women. As evidenced by their lively conversations, some of them are models, actresses, radio personalities, or otherwise in full control of their own lives. It becomes clear that this, more than anything else, is what Stuntman Mike has a problem with, and it is what fuels his desire for annihilation. And he is not the only one.
The film is peppered throughout with instances of micro-aggressions that make the skin crawl: the men mentioned in the friends’ conversations (Before and After) are either entitled, or else undecided lovers who toy with their emotions.
Arlene, one of the girls in the first part of the movie, incessantly tries to shake off an insistent lover who doesn’t seem to take no for an answer, to the point of showing up to the bar where she is. Even if theirs is a somewhat consensual affair, one cannot help but be slightly nonplussed by his refusal of her refusal.
In the second part of the film, Zoë, Kim and Abernathy leave their unsuspecting (and sleeping) friend Lee behind, so that the owner of the 1970 Dodge Challenger will let them test drive his car. He only agrees after they lie and say that Lee is a pornstar, which piques his interest. And while they later encounter life-threatening danger in the form of Stuntman Mike and his car, Lee is no more safe, left alone and defenseless in the company of a very questionable man (it is obvious, in passing, that a woman did not write this film. No one would leave their friend in such a hazardous situation).
In truth, Death Proof is nothing more than a testament to the men who have a problem with the fact that women are not tethered to them in any way. It is an illustration to the many ways in which some men have historically tried to regulate female behavior: Stuntman Mike’s actions might seem like the senseless antics of a psychopath, but really, the women are (successfully or unsuccessfully) punished because of the fact that they drink, have sex, dress the way they want, and make no excuses for it.
If Stuntman Mike’s car is symbol of his sexism, the title of the film is an indication that this problem is a thorny one, a problem whose roots are deep and far-reaching: a problem, the consequences of which are disastrous.
For all of the above, Death Proof became an effortless favorite of mine. It articulated what I had always felt, as a then-teenager: namely that if it remained unchecked, the antiquated resentment that some men felt for women would only continue to have tragic consequences. In my own life, I had felt the brunt of misogyny, well before I had understood it. I had had insincere compliments thrust upon me, compliments which quickly soured into devastating takedowns and character assassinations if I did not respond in kind. I had felt the repulsive, rough hands of men who presumed they had the right to touch me, because they had grown up in a world that assured them that they did. I had felt the weight of society’s overt standards about my appearance sustained by patriarchal notions.
A film like Death Proof satisfied the fury I had started to feel: it was the vindication that women were just as powerful as men, and that we had a right to defend ourselves in kind to threats and violence.
A decade later, Death Proof is more than interesting, it is prophetic. What unfolds in the film is no more different than what happened in 2016, during the election, as chauvinism and intolerance reared its ugly head. The continued rise of far-right movements, in tandem with more uncontrolled outcries regarding the worth of women, POC and the LBGTQ community is not accidental. It echoes that old fear of mine.
Stuntman Mike’s open disdain for those who don’t “stay in line” is no different from that of emboldened men like Richard Spencer, who proudly proclaims his rancor for those who don’t look like him, because intolerance has been normalized.
Death Proof, however, is prophetic for more reasons than this. In the wake of #MeToo, and in the wake of the respective (but very much related) scandals that have engulfed Tarantino and his longtime collaborator Weinstein, the film becomes an eerie premonition of the ways their own careers have known a renewal of scrutiny. The “bro culture” they partook in over the course of their success makes the film difficult to watch; because it is either evidence of a criminal lack of self-awareness, or it is a farce of a celebration of female empowerment.
In the former case, it would be proof of the obliviousness of men like Tarantino (I won’t even give Weinstein that much credit) who write awful men like Stuntman Mike to criticize him, and write amazing female protagonists to celebrate them, without realizing that in many other aspects of their own lives, they are not the saints they think they are. Tarantino writing about a stunt car and the way it endangers women, when it has been revealed that he endangered Uma Thurman in similar circumstances during the shooting of Kill Bill is almost surreal. It is a more troubling version of #NotAllMen: in making a film like this, despite his affiliation with someone who's been accused of the worst kind of felonies, and despite his own history of troubling attitudes toward his actresses, Tarantino is saying that he does not see himself as part of the problem.
Sadly, the latter is much more likely. It is much more likely that Tarantino made this film knowing full well that he only half-believed it. Perhaps he was able to capture the awfulness of Stuntman Mike and the other men so well because his own views or that of his friends were not so dissimilar. And in that lens, the heretofore glorious (and very justifiable) revenge in the film is cheapened, creepy. Inappropriate. It might even be fetishist, Tarantino getting off on the idea of women fighting off, which he might find risible.
Whatever might have been the case, the following remains: Death Proof, unwittingly, has become more than premonitory. It has become a self-fulfilling prophecy of the utmost kind. The film ends with women fighting back — hard — against the man who tried to ruin their lives: did he not see this as a possibility in his own life? Did he so little take women seriously that this never occurred to him? After all, #MeToo and Time's Up was the reckoning, the exemplification of women taking their power back in awe-inspiring ways, no different from the ending of Death Proof.
And in this sense, while it is forever tainted by its provenance, it does not matter to me that this film was made by Tarantino, a self-confessed enabler to Weinstein’s behavior. It matters little whether or not it was conceived under the guise of an objectified disdain for feminism: Death Proof is the ultimate illustration of the downfall of a powerful asshole who didn’t see it coming. And while it's not likely that any of this will profoundly affect his career, maybe this notion will make Tarantino, and others like him, think twice about putting his money where his mouth is.