Z To A: Death Proof (2007)

(Z To A is an ongoing series: cumulative reviews of my DVD collection in reverse alphabetical order.)

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Plot Synopsis: Kurt Russell stars as a sociopathic stuntman whose taste for stalking sexy young ladies gets him into big trouble when he tangles with the wrong gang of badass babes. Their confrontation escalates to a hair-raising 18-minute automative duel with one of the girls strapped to the hood of a thundering Dodge Challenger.

– From DVD Production Notes

(Spoilers Ahead)

Upon revisiting Death Proof I had two thoughts:

1) I own this DVD for the last twenty minutes of the film.
2) If it was released now, how would it fare with today’s pop feminism?

Watching it repeatedly hasn’t answered the second question. However, the ending of this film is so fantastic I’ve mentioned it as one of my favorites. Some things don’t change.

Fans, critics and even the director have agreed Death Proof isn’t Tarantino’s best. In spite of that I still think it’s memorable, emotionally satisfying and definitely worth watching. The way I look at is as a philosophical exercise- not only about film, but about Tarantino’s intolerance toward misogyny. Death Proof is the second feature in Grindhouse, a double-bill homage to exploitation cinema. How are women portrayed and treated in these kind of films? In short: as objects and like shit.

This doesn’t suit Tarantino’s style. His female characters are sexy but never sexualized, and anyone- anyone– who assaults or rapes women (or men, or little girls) meets a horrible, savage death in his universe. It’s as obligatory as his famous trunk shots or recurring surnames, one of those details you can’t help but notice in his filmography.

This notion splits Death Proof down the middle. What you’re watching is two movies. The first half is the grindhouse feature, complete with scratched up film, editing mistakes, missing frames (in the theatrical version, missing reels) and plenty of ass shots. In essence it’s a set-up, introducing several female characters and the man who is stalking them, Stuntman Mike (Russell, in wonderful psychopathic form here). From the very beginning he is the odd man out, considered a relic by the younger crowd he’s mingling with and made fun of behind his back.

But he does have one thing going for him that the others don’t: his car.

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This car is an unusual choice of weapon. It’s usually blades or binds that dispatch women in horror films. In this case it’s speed and twisted metal, only the car’s safety features ensure Stuntman Mike survives. After that he can pass the whole thing off as a traffic accident.

This makes Stuntman Mike an unusual villain as well, mainly because his methods are unexpected. None of his victims know what’s coming until it’s much, much too late. He is also a walking case of irrelevance. I’d argue that he is representative of a cinematic ideal- not only the rugged antihero of the 1970s but the spirit of the grindhouse era itself. His history is storied and impressive but doesn’t impress anyone he meets. Even his John Wayne impression seems lost on the other characters (and by extension- the younger audience watching it, bringing in the usual meta quality Tarantino enjoys).

The girls in the first half of the film seem like they’re from another era as well. Although they have cell phones their style, interests and manner of dress seem stuck in the ’70s. They’re also much less guarded and flagrant about their sexuality. I’m not saying this as a criticism- in my opinion women should be able to go out and do whatever they want- but they’re stuck within the confines of a grindhouse narrative. Being sexual means you will be punished for it.

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And in case you were wondering- yes, Stuntman Mike’s motives are definitely sexual. There’s a theory posed by Sheriff Earl McGraw (Michael Parks) that car crashes are the only way for Stuntman Mike to “shoot his goo.” Moreover, a scene was shot in which Stuntman Mike masturbates among the wreckage of his first kill but it didn’t make the final cut.

Personally I don’t think it was needed. We get the idea. Even the notorious 4-death car crash scene culminates like an orgasm, with its own version of a money shot.

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The aftermath of this carnage is a man who gets a hospital stay instead of jail time. There’s no physical evidence to prove he killed anyone although the police are suspicious. They tell him to leave Texas and he moves on to Tennessee, where the film resets like a video game and starts again, although this time it’s definitely 2007, not 1975. The film scratches and editing errors are gone. The fashions are more contemporary. And although Stuntman Mike is on the prowl again, this time he has no idea what’s coming to him.

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The second group of girls he stalks are different. They’re more self-assured. They’re tougher. They’re skilled and smart and know what they’re doing. One is a stuntwoman (Zoë Bell, playing herself). The others are a stunt driver (Tracie Thoms), a makeup artist (Rosario Dawson) and an actress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). All are more than familiar with the world of film and some of them love and respect the same things Stuntman Mike does. But they’ll never know. He is too busy trying to kill them.

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Now here’s your last warning as far as spoilers are concerned, because believe me, this is the kind of film I wish I could see again for the first time. If you don’t want to know how Death Proof ends, I recommend you stop reading, sit down with the film and see what happens yourself.

That these girls survive Stuntman Mike’s attack is one thing. What I didn’t expect was for them to decide that they’re going to immediately turn around and give him a taste of his own medicine. This turn of events is more like the Tarantino I know. His message rings loud and clear: “Don’t ever, ever, fuck with women. Ever.”

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If Death Proof came out today, I wonder what the online reaction would be. The vindication of its ending is powerful, but like the popularity of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, this year’s Mad Max: Fury Road and even Tarantino’s Kill Bill films you have to remember it’s a product of the male imagination.

Does that discount it as a whole? Absolutely not. However Death Proof is written in a way that is undeniably male because strength is measured by the violence and humiliation a woman can wield. As Kim (Thoms) runs Stuntman Mike off the road she shouts insinuations of anal rape- basically emasculating a man in the most horrible (and male) way possible. If this had been written and directed by a woman it might not have been written that way at all.

Aside from that the way the girls take Mike down is one of the most thrilling, funny and over-the-top sequences I’ve seen. It’s no coincidence that it ends with a freeze frame of joy then immediately segues into April March’s cover of Serge Gainsbourg’s “Laisse Tomber Les Filles.”

The title roughly translates to “Stop Messing Around With Girls.”

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