By: Sara Brinkac, Peak Associate
Content Warning: Death Proof deals with acts of gruesome violence towards women. Death Proof also includes mass violence surrounding cars and car crashes.
I’m often told that Death Proof was a write-off in Quentin Tarantino’s career. However, one quarantine evening, I was faced with nothing to do, so at the suggestion of my roommate, I reluctantly watched the one Tarantino film I had avoided for many years. Well, that evening I learned two things: 1) Death Proof is a great, action packed movie with a kick-ass female cast and 2) I need to start listening to different people.
Released in 2007, Death Proof was the second half of the double feature Grindhouse by Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino. The aim of Grindhouse was to create an aesthetic similar to the slasher B-movies of the 1960s/70s. With fake concession stand promotions, ad parodies for other sleazy horror films, and intentionally missing reels and damaged film, the two directors worked hard to recreate a four hour B-movie house experience.
Following Rodriguez’s Planet Terror, Death Proof takes the genres of 70s slasher and Gearhead movies then twists them into a uniquely Tarantino-esque revenge plot. The film features a deeply unsettling ex-stuntman named “Stuntman Mike” (Kurt Russell), who has a penchant for vehicular homicide and fulfills this craving through the stalking and killing of women with his “Death Proof” car. The first act follows three women with great music taste as they spend a night out in Austin, then ends with their brutal murders and your jaw on the floor.
At this point in the film, I became worried. From the blatant exploitation in the opening parody ads to the female characters who initially seemed concerned only with men, I was growing increasingly disappointed in Tarantino. Although I was hopeful that he would only borrow from the slasher aesthetic, it seemed he was fully encapsulating the problematic tradition of placing “sexy” females on the screen only to get brutally murdered. However, two things kept me hanging on. First, this group of ladies seemed to hold more weight than your average female action movie. Although they talked of men, they did not rely on them. Their substance as characters was based on who they were, not what they did for males (both on and off screen). Second, was Tarantino’s stellar reputation for satisfying revenge plots.
The second act kicks off with a new group of females, and the terrible taste of Stuntman Mike lingering in the viewer’s mouth. The four friends consist of actress Lee (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), makeup artist Abernathy (Rosario Dawson), and two stunt women, Kim (Tracie Thoms) and Zoë Bell — who plays herself and performs all her own insanely impressive stunts.
This second half of Death Proof passes the Bechdel Test with flying colours. These friends are straight-talking, quick-witted, and refreshingly independent. They are the perfect ensemble to turn the tables on Stuntman Mike, and boy do they ever. The final 20 minutes of the film builds up to an exhilarating car chase and a mission of revenge that had me standing on the couch shouting with excitement. Never before had I felt so satisfied seeing women in film getting their just desserts. Not to mention the 100% authentic stunts (performed by women! Not men in wigs!), which added an extra layer of grittiness to the final car chase. The film ends with a once idolized murderer of yesteryear reduced to a blubbering mess, and thanks to Kurt Russell’s fantastic performance, the viewer is able to bask in every glorious second of it.
While Death Proof may not be in the running for “Best Tarantino Film,” it is still undoubtedly a strong piece that stands on its own. Whether the downfall of Death Proof was due to the majority of male viewers finding the female cast unrelatable or because it was buried at the end of a four-hour double feature released in uncomfortable theatres everywhere, we’ll never know. However, one fact remains, Death Proof is an incredibly enjoyable 127 minutes with amazing female leads and the best car chase scene this century has seen to date.
As of May 22, 2021, Planet Terror and Death Proof are both available to stream on Netflix separately.
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