Death Proof is probably the most underrated film in Quentin Tarantino’s body of work. In part, that’s because it is often paired with Robert Rodgriguez’s Planet Terror, and their collaborative Grindhouse enterprise. In part, it’s because it is often seen as a transitional or throwaway release between the auteurist gestures of the Kill Bill films and the resurgence of Tarantino’s critical acclaim with Inglourious Basterds. Yet Death Proof is one of the most slyly accomplished films in his career – memorable, in his filmography, precisely because it doesn’t need to insist upon his auteurism in any kind of bombastic or paranoid way. It’s also unique for being Tarantino’s only horror film, setting the stage for some of the more horror-driven sequences in his next three films. While horror wasn’t really Tarantino’s style, it was the natural venue for his grindhouse experiment at this particular moment in the 2000s, when classic horror franchises such as Halloween and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre were being rebooted through a grindhouse optic. In fact, Death Proof was released right when grindhouse was starting to segue into torture porn – a transition that is marked here by a cameo from Eli Roth, who had just released the second film in the Hostel franchise, and would go on to provide one of the most memorable and iconic parts in Inglourious Basterds.
This space between grindhouse and torture porn undoubtedly influences the look and feel of Death Proof, especially during its opening scenes. Here, Tarantino fully indulges his love for retro title cards, glitchy disruptions of images, oversaturated or awkwardly saturated images, and rapid shifts in the tonality and quality of his images. In effect, this is Tarantino’s version of post-continuity cinema, presented as both a nostalgia effect and as an experimental gesture. Whereas directors like Ingmar Bergman and Woody Allen relied on the same credit sequences over and over again to establish their auteurism, Tarantino usually shifts between different fonts and registers, while breaking the credit sequence up into small, self-contained sections. This same taste for the clunkiness and physicality of film carries over into Death Proof as a whole, which often feels cobbled together by hand, still bearing the manual imprint of the director’s vision. It’s perhaps surprising, then, that Death Proof is easily the most lyrical film in Tarantino’s body of work until this point, paving the way for the wide vistas and naturalistic suspense that marks the first scene of Inglourious Basterds. As with From Dusk Till Dawn, Grindhouse makes a sharp divide between Tarantino and Rodriguez’s styles, with Planet Terror absorbing all of the campier, fanboy tendencies, and leaving Tarantino’s film free to luxuriate in some of his most languorous scenes to date.
That’s not to say, of course, that Death Proof is serious, or humourless, since part of what makes it so memorable is the way it departs from the self-seriousness of Kill Bill: Volume 2. If anything, its premise is more outlandish than that of Planet Terror, which is a pretty by-the-numbers zombie homage. By contrast, Death Proof runs off an idea so brilliant that it’s almost unbelievable that it hasn’t been thought of before, which is perhaps why it often feels more like a lost film from the 1970s – or like an unfilmed screenplay from the 1970s – rather than a straight homage. The main character, in a sense, is Mike McKay, a retired stunt driver, played by Kurt Russell. McKay also happens to be a psychopath who enjoys killing women by devising elaborate car crash scenes. Sometimes this involves crashing his own car with women in it, sometimes it involves crashing into other cars to kill the women in them. In both cases, however, his stunt driving skills, and his “death proof car,” mean that he is able to escape with his life, even if some of his more flamboyant murders leave him scarred as well. While this premise is ridiculous, Tarantino takes it dead serious, and the combination brings Death Proof close to a campier, pulpier version of David Cronenberg’s Crash, with Mike’s car playing like a souped-up revamp of Michael Myers’ car in Halloween.
With that central conceit in place, Tarantino opts for a much more leisurely and languorous structure than in any of his previous films. The first half of Death Proof follows Mike as he stalks a collection of young women – played by Vanessa Ferlito, Jordan Ladd, Sydney Poitier and Rose McGowan – over a single evening, following them from location to location along a single strip of road, and gradually insinuating himself into their conversation. Finally, he offers one of them a ride home, crashing the car and killing her, before returning to kill the other young women, who are driving along the same road. The second half follows Mike as he sets his target on another collection of young women – played by Zoe Bell, Rosario Dawson, Tracie Thoms and Mary Elizabeth Winstead – but this time during the day, and in a different area. Once again, he follows them as they move from location to location on a different strip of road, while his surveillance of them grows more diffuse and suspenseful. In this case, however, two of the women are stunt drivers themselves, and prove more than a match for Mike when he tries to take them on. In fact, when he strikes, they are test driving a 1970 Dodge Challenger, and practicing their own stunt work, producing a breathtaking final sequence in which they escape him, and then turn on him and chase him down in turn.
As that plot summary might suggest, the vast majority of Death Trip is comprised of driving and talking – driving while talking, and talking while driving. More specifically, most of the film is comprised of women talking, making this the only Tarantino film in which the majority of dialogue is given to women. For that reason, Death Trip feels like another step in Tarantino’s long journey of trying to write dialogue, and trying to find a way out of the monologues that came to a dead end with the interminable second half of Kill Bill: Volume 2. Within Tarantino’s universe, dialogue seems to be feminised, while monologues are masculinised, so it makes sense that this experiment with dialogue should be entirely inflected through women. At the same time, dialogue, in and of itself, often seems like a threat to Tarantino’s monologic masculinity, so it makes sense that dialogue is only permitted to flourish, in the first half of Death Trip, under McKay’s watchful and censorious eye. Many of these early conversations between women therefore play like an intensified version of Halloween, in which we are only permitted to enjoy frank discussions of sexuality and culture amongst young women with the reassurance that these liberated discussions will soon be proportionately punished through the psychopathic voice of paternal authority.
This punishment does indeed occur at the end of the first half of Death Trip, when McKay kills all four women with his car. Yet even during this first half, it feels like Tarantino is searching for a way to free dialogue from monologue, and liberate female agency from the constrictive paranoia of his earlier films. Weirdly, this makes Death Trip one of his most progressive films, much as the grindhouse framework allows him more room to play around with his auteurism than in his previous films. It also marks a shift in his attitude to the 1960s and 1970s as his main source of cinematic inspiration. In his first three films, in particular, Tarantino mined 60s and 70s B-movies for their lowbrow genre cues, their unabashed pursuit of spectacle, and their oblivion to the kinds of identity politics that make his own brand of white masculinity so questionable in the present. By contrast, Death Trip moves more towards 70s naturalism, and the immersive atmospherics of 70s cinema, not unlike the way in which Jackie Brown moves from the crudest of blaxploitation cues to a more layered naturalism that blooms around Pam Grier during the LAX and Del Camo scenes. Tellingly, this naturalism tends to peak whenever Tarantino reminds us that we are in the present – a Nokia phone, a reference to Lindsay Lohan – as if he were trying to import the most atmospheric moments of 70 cinema into a new blueprint for his future movie career.
Combined with the focus on conversation, this makes Death Proof an amazing hangout film, since that’s what all of the women are doing for most of the action. Even though the women are punished for hanging out – or hanging out like men – in the first half, the hangout vibe quickly exceeds McKay’s punishment, setting up the second half, in which the next group of women turn his punishment back upon him. While Tarantino appears as a bartender, serving up shots, he doesn’t really seem to be “in character” per se. Instead, you really sense that he partied with the actors during the film, and that his appearance simply fuses the film with the fun that went on behind the scenes. That sense of collaborative fun is embedded in the Grindhouse format itself, which didn’t just combine Tarantino and Rodriguez’s films into a double feature, but also included fake trailers for other grindhouse films, one of which became the inspiration for Rodriguez’s Machete, released three years later. It’s disappointing, then, that both films were released as single features in Australia, where I saw them, since this collective party vibe diminishes without the grindhouse frame.
Nevertheless, this party vibe, and hangout vibe, is very strong in Death Proof, partly because of how evocatively Tarantino envisages the two “strips” where the action occurs. These strips are spaces of continguous fast food, alcohol, music and cinema, all driven by car travel as a form of entertainment in and of itself. Time and again, Tarantino cuts between the interior of cars and the interior of jukeboxes, since driving and music provide the connective tissue that gives the strip its character. Listening to music in a car is the ultimate pleasure of Death Trip, or even watching cinema in a car, since the film is entranced with the synergy between cars and films that drove lowbrow cinema and B-pictures at this particular moment in time. In fact, Tarantino is probably more nostalgic for the synergy between windscreen and cinema screen than anything else, which is perhaps why Death Trip often seems designed to be watched in a drive-in cinema, as one stop along an all-night strip, and amidst all the paraphernalia and pleasure of car travel. Grindhouse cinema, for Tarantino, is cinema that is inextricable from car culture, both as the subject of cinema and the ideal venue for it.
Conversely, McKay’s violence is particularly directed at women who are embedded in this continuum between car culture, cinema and music. The first posse of victims are led by a female DJ, the first female “curator” of any cultural object within Tarantino’s body of work. In a testament to the erotic continuum between jukebox and automobile, she announces, on the air, that the first person to “spot” her out on the strip with friends that same night will receive a free lapdance. Stripping thus becomes fused with the strip, while the strip itself becomes an incentive to any man in a car to find the exact right jukebox where this DJ and her friends will be partying. Yet while McKay is the first person to find the women, he also feels vestigial to their world, and a vestige of Tarantino’s more paranoid earlier style. In trying to contain the women, he simply reveals that their pleasure in driving exceeds anything he was able to provide audiences during his career as a stunt driver, which he impotently invokes by crashing into them after they leave the last bar and head for a local lake house. In that sense, McKay is outside the film, an embodiment of Tarantino’s earlier cinematic universe that has intruded into this evocation and continuation of 70s naturalism.
Accordingly, McKay is virtually absent for the second half of Death Proof, which becomes even more of a hangout film. This is one of my favourite sequences in Tarantino’s career, along with “Vincent Vega and Marsellus Wallace’s Wife,” the Del Camo sequence in Jackie Brown, and the showdown at the House of Blue Leaves in Kill Bill: Volume 1. Even more of this second half involves driving, as a second group of women move from a carpark, to the open road, and then to a rural property, where they inquire about purchasing a 1970s Dodge Challenger, the same car used in Vanishing Point. Since two of the women are gearheads and stunt drivers, they ask to test drive the car, but then use it to reprise some of their best moves on the open road. At this point, Death Trip becomes a joyride film, following the women through one dazzling stunt display after another, as the jouissance of the strip spills out onto the open road, culminating the most joyous sequence of Tarantino’s career. Driving, talking and music all combine into a single state of flow – a runner’s high, or driver’s high – as the women become the real death proof characters of the film, exuding an exhilaration that not even McKay’s most punishing paranoia can control or compromise.
That’s not to say, of course, that McKay is simply absent from the second half of Death Proof. Instead, his gaze is abstracted and absorbed into the strip, until he feels more like a principle or potential of the strip than a physical presence. Yet his abstraction, and the daylight setting, makes the second half of Death Trip even more suspenseful than the first – the most suspenseful sequence in Tarantino’s body of work to date – since it feels like McKay’s car could appear from anywhere, and at any moment. Rather than McKay trying to wrest the strip away from the women, the strip becomes a contested zone between female pleasure and masculine discipline that is partly manifested by McKay, who is subsumed into all the sightlines where a car might emerge, as well as all the spaces – carparks, intersections, sidestreets – that might slow or halt the propulsive momentum of the women’s conversation. While being in a car propels them forward, it also limits their perspectives, to the point where McKay’s presence, and the limited perspectives of a car, become the same locus of suspense and terror within Tarantino’s mise-en-scene. Gradually, the camera starts to mimic these constrictions, sequestering the women in an automotive space even when they leave the car – dodging, dancing and weaving around them so that their peripheral vision is still limited to what they can apprehend while driving at full speed.
Not only does this shooting style bunch the women as close as they would be in a car, but it emphasises the shifting spatial field behind them, maintaining the momentum of the road even when they get out of the car, or sit down to take a break. In their first conversation outside the car, the women actually allude to the dangers of what lies beyond this limited spatial field, recalling a photo shoot in which they were all asked to step further and further backwards from the camera, until one of them fell into a ditch. During these scenes, Tarantino also lingers on windscreens in the distance, as well as windscreen surrogates – windows, glass doors, sunglasses – until McKay seems to have been refracted across the mise-en-scene, present more as a series of gazes that the women have to elude with each new burst of momentum. Since the “death seat” in McKay’s car once housed movie cameras, Tarantino’s own camera often feels complicit in this predatory gaze, even as it tries to escape it, or escape itself, at the same time. One of the ways in which Tarantino distinguishes his own ogling from McKay’s is by focusing on how car travel brings women’s feet to the fore – on the accelerator, crouched in the back seat, hanging out of windows – indulging his foot fetish as never before, but as a line of flight from the more conventional ways in which McKay demands that the female body must be circumscribed and controlled.
These two elements of the strip – male paranoia, as embodied by McKay, and female jouissance, embodied by the women – come to a head when the women take the Dodge out for a stunt drive. Finally, at this moment of maximum pleasure, McKay comes back into the picture as a physical presence, making his final claim to the strip, and its continuum of cinematic pleasures, as the domain of masculine auteurism and control. In part, this is a matter of professional pride, since, in the past, McKay seems to have understood his stunt career as entitling him to a greater amount of automobile jouissance than the women he targets, presumably because he has provided that jouissance, in turn, to the primarily masculine audiences who watched his films. Dismantling the jouissance of female drivers, and insisting upon the vicarious jouissance of his male audiences, are tantamount to the same project for McKay, so it’s particularly scandalous for him to be confronted by a pair of female stunt drivers who are even more accomplished than he is. At the same time, his role as a stunt double means that he has never got full credit for the spectacle he provided, meaning that this final encounter is his big chance to make himself the top-billed actor of his own narrative, and to craft a film of his own that is entirely comprised of stunt doubles.
In other words, the subject position of being a male stunt driver becomes a kind of logical conclusion of Tarantino’s paranoid masculinity. Like a director, a stunt driver only experiences the jouissance of masculine performance vicariously, since both are enthralled to the star image of their leading men. Four years later, Drive would also treat the stunt driver as a figure of disenfranchised machismo, while Once Upon a Time In Hollywood more or less displaces the white crisis of the Manson era into the relationship between an actor and his stunt double. There, as here, the stunt double seems to be an analogue for the cinephile-director, existing at the cusp between fandom and creation, while aspiring to a certain brand of cinematic masculinity without ever quite being able to inhabit it. This sits so uneasily alongside Tarantino’s insistence that Uma Thurman do her own driving stunts in Kill Bill, and the industrial complications that followed, that McKay’s character frequently plays as a meditation on the Kill Bill films – if not quite an apology, as evinced a series of snarky asides about the stunt double of Daryl Hannah, one of the Bride’s main nemeses in Kill Bill.
This depiction of the stunt double as a figure of vicarious, disenfranchised machismo is further complicated by the fact that Kurt Russell is playing such a figure, while the women he is chasing are just as clearly real stunt actors. Paradoxically, this means that Russell’s star image is collapsed into the more debilitated experience of his character, leaving the stunt drivers room to graduate into a top-billed presence that they rarely enjoy. From the outset, this shift in the power dynamics between actor and double, and between star masculinity and vicarious masculinity, means that the women are destined to win, especially since there are no other men around to step into the role of protagonist. For that reason the women don’t really respond to McKay’s effort to generate horror, since while they’re concerned when he’s chasing them, it’s ultimately a rush to survive, prompting them to turn the car around and chase him down in turn. The result is one of the best car chase sequences I’ve seen on the big screen, not simply for its logistics, but for its buoyancy and flow, and for all the little lovingly inane flourishes along the way, from a herd of errant cows to a scene where both drivers plunge right through an billboard for a drive-in screening of Scary Movie.
In this gesture, Tarantino goes from the rape-and-revenge of Kill Bill to a study in wreck-and-revenge that plays like Steven Spielberg’s Duel on speed – literally. As McKay grows more abject and pathetic, blaxploitation cues come to the fore, eviscerating Tarantino’s brand of white male angst more comically than even Jackie Brown. Yet they’re enhanced here by an Ozploitation ingredient that is new to Tarantino’s career, and which was quite compelling to me as an Australian viewer. One of the main stunt drivers is from New Zealand, and her accent is a big part of the joy and flow of this second half. By having her comically berate one of the other characters for thinking she is Australian, Tarantino makes it clear that we are not in the realm of either Australian or New Zealand naturalism, but instead an Ozploitation mode in which both cultures are campily combined for American audiences. During these final sequences, the landscape looks more and more Australian, while the insults that this particular stunt driver hurls back at McKay get a lot of their traction from her accent, and from a downunder style of delivery that cuts across his hubris.
Watching these final scenes, I could see why Tarantino has such a love for Australian cinema, since in his hands it turns pastiche awry in a similar manner to the way blaxploitation is appropriated in his earlier films. On the one hand, the Australian film industry doesn’t have the same wealth of images to draw upon, making it less resistant to pastiche than Hollywood. On the other hand, however, the few Australian film images that do exist in the American popular consciousness tend to be more heightened and caricatured than those of any other English-speaking nation, thanks in no small part to the crossover hit of Crocodile Dundee, which for Tarantino is still the Australian-American film par excellence. As a result, Australian films can’t naturalise pastiche in the same way as the Hollywood machine, making them an ideal point of reference for whenever Tarantino himself wants to defy pastiche, as in the incongruous final act of Django Unchained. That Ozploitation element is the final ingredient here in undercutting the paranoia of Tarantino’s earlier films, making the second half of Death Proof one of the most lyrical, beautiful and relaxed sequences in his body of work to date. Instead of a Mexican standoff, we get a three-way punchup, in which the women dispose of McKay and perform a victory jump, which then freezes for the end credits – a perfect final image for one of the few films in Tarantino’s career when he abandons himself to his images without the slightest hint of self-indulgence.