NB: This op-ed contains some spoilers for Death Proof.
Death Proof gets a bad rap in the Tarantino oeuvre. Tarantino himself has said it’s “got to be the worst film I ever make” (too late: The Hateful Eight is out now). But 10 years after its release, it feels newly prescient and relevant with its story of power dynamics between men and women, and the danger of toxic masculinity.
The film tells the story of two groups of women and ex-stunt driver Mike who stalks and then murders (or attempts to murder) them in horrifying car crashes—using his car, which is rigged up like the stunt cars of old to be “death proof.”
From the baking hot American South setting, with its tequila bars and late night summer rainstorms, to the winding dusty car chases that throwback to the ’70s car movies with which the film is so obsessed—Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, Vanishing Point—the film revels in a history and tradition of car movies and grindhouse exploitation flicks, while creating a new benchmark for the canon.
Death Proof is hard to pin into a chronological timescale. Its infatuation with the car movies and grindhouse cinema it harkens back to gives it a ’70s feel, an effect exaggerated by Tarantino’s filming techniques.
The reel is deliberately damaged, with scratches appearing across the screen, occasional skips, and even a section which falls into black-and-white, like an old VHS tape; meanwhile, the Americana scenery and typically excellent Tarantino soundtrack give it a timeless atmosphere.
At the same time though, Rosario Dawson’s make-up artist character references working with Lindsay Lohan, and in a gas station the camera lingers over a magazine rack featuring, among other contemporary celebrities, Kristen Dunst dressed up as Marie Antoinette from the 2006 film.
The first decade of the 2000s was a strange time, usually mocked for its fashion and the cultural dominion of white sitcom hits like Friends. The political atmosphere – half frozen in post-9/11 fear and half uplifting in the slow and steady rise of President Obama – felt very decisively pre-feminist, before the internet era of activism, angry millenials like me, and Beyoncé’s “Run The World (Girls)” kicked into gear. Into this odd mire, Death Proof sank without leaving much of a trace.
But now, in 2017, Death Proof feels like it has a lot to teach us. Death Proof is at once pessimistic—you’re not going to find a good guy in this film, let alone the hope for gender equality to come—and fiercely victorious: if they can’t find a good guy, the women in this film can kill the bad ones.
At a time when Trump’s election seems to show that the general public doesn’t care about sexual predators, when for every push the feminist movement makes there come new stories of abuse and disdain, Death Proof’s bleak mood and its violent end is a relief. Trump is the President of the United States, but Stuntman Mike’s murdered women are revenged. Death Proof’s complicated, contradictory relationship with women, men, and power now feels like an important way to access freedom, solidarity and hope.
And it does so by creating a revenge fantasy that is so rooted in reality it stops feeling like a fantasy at all.
It would be untrue to say that Death Proof is a film that does not perpetuate the male gaze. In fact, Death Proof is infatuated with the male gaze. But Tarantino understands the male gaze is a construct, and a deliberate one, and the film interrogates and complicates that troubling eye.
The male gaze in Death Proof is a destructive one: though the first close up of Arlene’s feet with her anklet and her carefully painted toes is titillating, the shot occurs again and again, and by the time Rosario Dawson props her feet out the car window only for Stuntman Mike to stroke a lingering, creepy finger against them, the image is distinctly frightening.
It’s a movie that uses the way the male gaze appreciates women’s beauty to show the way the male gaze is also possessive, unnerving, and destructive, linking it explicitly with gore and violence.
Besides which, the women in Death Proof never entirely fit the idealized image of sex and sin that Stuntman Mike’s gaze wants to force on them. Arlene’s crotch is shown in an intimate close up before we even see her face — but it’s as she runs desperately up the stairs, shouting, “I gotta take the world’s biggest fuckin’ piss!” Later, when Arlene gives her incredible lap dance and climbs up onto Stuntman Mike’s chair, the shot is made oddly sweet by the sight of her cheap flip-flops.
The women in Death Proof are hot, and both they and the male characters are aware of it; they’re also real, and their reality threatens to knock Stuntman Mike’s perception of sexiness off-balance.
There’s a Margaret Atwood misquote that frequently makes the rounds: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” In Death Proof, we see this in actuality. The relationship between Arlene and Stuntman Mike plays out as a perfect deconstruction of heterosexual power dynamics. “Do I frighten you?” Stuntman Mike asks, male bravado and insecurity butting heads as he adds, almost tragically, “Is it my scar?”
“It’s your car,” Arlene tells him: the car that has been following her and her friends all evening and that will, very soon now, kill them.
The conversation between Arlene and Stuntman Mike is a struggle for the upper hand, for the most security, and the dynamic shifts from frightening—we, the audience, know that Mike is dangerous and not to be trusted, and Arlene knows this too—to sexually charged and back, until the lines blur and it becomes hard to tell what is scary and what is hot. Death Proof revels in this overlap, pointing to all the danger and power dynamics inherent within heterosexuality.
Leering, sociopathic, and powerful, Stuntman Mike is both a familiar and compelling grindhouse villain. He is terrifying, from the first low purr of his car, with his carefully chosen not-quite monologues and the backstory that no one quite believes. Giving a girl a ride home, he delivers one of the low-key scariest speeches on the screen, smiling pleasantly:
“Which way are you going, left or right?… Oh, that’s too bad. Because it was a 50-50 shot on whether you were going left or right. You see, we’re both going left, and you could’ve just as easily been going left too, and if that was the case, then it would have been a while before you would’ve started getting scared. But since you’re going the other way, I’m afraid you’re gonna hafta start getting scared — immediately.”
But Death Proof also pulls back Mike’s carefully calculated threat in order to reveal the kind of man who would torture and murder women: a weak one. Mike’s weakness and cowardice is signaled early on in strange moments of discordance. After the first unnerving shot of his eyes, he awkwardly puts in eye drops; later, he pauses a sexually charged conversation with Arlene and her friends in order to sneeze, and at the bar we see him bristling at the contempt of young men.
Finally, once and for all and in an incredibly satisfying manner, in the second half of the film Mike meets his match. Trying the same trick of “vehicular homicide” out on a new group of women, Mike makes the mistake of targeting two stuntwomen drivers who recover from his attack, chase him out onto the road, and mercilessly beat him to death.
And from the exact moment when the tables turn, when Tracie Thoms’ character first shoots at him, grazing his arm, Mike reveals his true nature: a sniveling coward. Death Proof’s pay off lies not just in the fact that he is beaten, but that in being beaten he reveals himself to have been a bully all along.
An effective bully, a dangerous bully, but a bully nonetheless who cannot take, even a little, what he dishes out. It’s not a reach to see a reflection of this in Trump whining that he won’t go to the UK until the public promises not to protest his arrival, or in the yelping outrage of Neo-Nazi Richard Spencer getting punched.
Death Proof offers dire warnings about masculinity that may have passed under the radar in 2007, but are unnervingly apt right now. In 2007, our focus wasn’t so keenly trained on the power dynamics between men and women, in the ways women had to navigate a world dominated by men.
But Death Proof seems to understand the claustrophobic struggle we’re watching play out now, between new bounds in and appreciation for feminism and the chauvinist backlash against it.
Trump’s presidency came about in direct opposition to the hope for the first female president of the USA; the rise of the Alt-Right has come about as feminism enters a new phase of popularity. It’s inevitable that a time with great advances comes with crueler, more menacing opponents.
The “three steps forward, two steps back” rule never seems so exhausting and unfair than when you so desperately need the steps forward. But Death Proof understands this, and despite the trauma and violence of the male gaze that it enacts, the film is a glorious, dangerous celebration of women, and what women can do when our backs are against the wall.
Best of all, Death Proof finds an optimistic ending within its pessimistic outlook on gender. Tarantino’s men are not to be trusted, he warns. But they can be beaten.
Want to brush up on your Tarantino knowledge? Read up on his background and best works here.
- Author: Mikaella Clements
- Lead image: Dimension Films