Death Proof: Tarantino’s Most Underrated Movie (And My Favorite)
When I was studying film (both undergrad and postgraduate), professors loved having everyone introduce themselves with their favorite movie. I’ve had to sit through countless 20-year-olds extolling the virtues of Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick (someone noticed the use of sound in The Shining — how groundbreaking), and I would, half-wryly, announce that one of my favorite movies was Quentin Tarantino’s 2007 film Death Proof.
Rarely did anyone in the room know what film I was talking about, but sometimes the professor would smirk and, with a raised eyebrow, say, “Really?”
Death Proof is one half of the Grindhouse double feature masterminded by Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez (yes, of Spy Kids and Machete fame). These two directors wanted to pay homage to exploitation cinema, which was a genre of low-budget film most popular during the 1970s.
Subgenres included sexploitation, biker films, Blaxploitation, Carsploitation, slasher films, and many others with action-packed, sex-driven themes. Films like Night of the Living Dead (1968), The Last House on the Left (1972), and the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) are examples of exploitation cinema that made it into the mainstream, while Pam Grier found fame in films such as Foxy Brown (1974), Coffy (1973), and even Tarantino’s 1997 Jackie Brown — another ode to exploitation cinema.
These films were mostly screened late at night and were often packaged as double features (cue the Rocky Horror Picture Show intro song). They were never meant to be artistic, per se — directors were under no impression that they were making the next Citizen Kane. Instead, these films were meant to titillate. They were B-movies, and their themes of violence, sex, and science fiction, were evident even in their posters. They were intended to be cheap, late-night thrills.
The B-movie genre has existed since the dawn of film (one might even argue that B-movies were the first movies — often watched for pennies at nickelodeons, starring winking women in swimsuits), but exploitation cinema stands apart from its predecessors. The genre’s very name indicates its raw, primal, and often disturbing nature. And, for the record, I think that’s why it came about in the 1970s: Exploitation cinema was the product of a society that struggled to grapple with the Vietnam War, the drug-addled hippie and post-hippie years, and the racial tensions of a society reeling with the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Major cities were a mess in the 70s. Trash lined streets, racially motivated violence ran rampant, and the prevalence of sexual assault spurred the anti-rape movement. And while films like Taxi Driver (1976) and Saturday Night Fever (1977) peeled the mask of propriety off places like New York City, few films did the same for Los Angeles…
…until exploitation cinema.
In short, exploitation cinema was a manifestation of the darkest elements of the American psyche in the late twentieth century. Art is, after all, a mirror held up to society.
“Grindhouses” or “action houses” were the mostly drive-in theatres that showed exploitation films. When Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez met, they quickly bonded over their mutual appreciation for exploitation cinema and lamented the death of grindhouse culture, and that’s when they decided to work together on films like Four Rooms (1995), From Dusk Till Dawn (1996), and, of course, the Grindhouse duo.
The 2007 Grindhouse films are split into two short features: Planet Terror, which was directed by Rodriguez, and Death Proof, which was directed by Tarantino. While the former focuses on the science fiction and horror elements of the exploitation genre, Tarantino’s contribution fixates on cars (carsploitation). Both films, of course, are quite violent, and both nod at sexploitation via the depictions of their leading ladies.
Exploitation cinema was gross much of the time. Especially towards women. Films like Women in Cages (1971), and The Big Bird Cage (1972), and Big Doll House often showed women in exploitatively sexual situations — scantily clad, committing sexual assault against other women and often being assaulted themselves by men. Meanwhile, rape-revenge films like I Spit on Your Grave (1978) were extolled as feminist by their fans, but any female empowerment suggested by these vengeful plots is unequivocally undone by the voyeuristic, gratuitously long rape scenes that precede the women’s revenge.
The bottom line is that women never really win in these films. They only ever commit violence while dressed in tiny dresses, with their cleavage out, or in their underwear, and any revenge they achieve is only enacted after they’ve been brutalized onscreen.
This is where “Death Proof” comes in.
Tarantino, who I will (pretty controversially) always champion as a feminist, understood that the gender and racial dynamics of exploitation cinema were deeply problematic. And while he retains the graphic violence that both grindhouse and he, as a director, are known for, Death Proof’s ladies win at the end of the day (and they keep their clothes on).
Furthermore, the women in Death Proof are a far cry from the women of sexploitation cinema. Yes, they’re attractive, and yes, they talk about sex, but their dialogue is inflected with the nuance of a writer who is aware of how women talk and act when they’re alone. Tarantino’s characters are silly, fun, intelligent, talented, and bold, talking about everything from music to their jobs to men. They are not whipping and/or caressing each other like the characters in a women-in-prison film.
And, perhaps most importantly, their attacker, Stuntman Mike (played by Kurt Russell) is vilified and identified as a pervert throughout the film. There are both overt and covert feminist themes throughout this film, even as grimy grindhouse staples (i.e., dismemberment, car crashes, an extended lap dance scene) find their way in the film.
Criticizing the Critics
Critics’ biggest complaint of Death Proof seemed to be its lengthy dialogue. Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian, for instance, disparaged the film’s “long, long, long stretches of bizarrely inconsequential conversation.” Opinions like this one, however, seem ill-informed and poorly researched. Tarantino is a notoriously dynamic writer of dialogue, and he pointed out in his director’s commentary that he included intentionally mundane dialogue as yet another ode to grindhouse cinema. In particular, he draws attention to a scene in which the sheriff and another police officer theorize about Stuntman Mike’s motives. In the days of drive-in grindhouse cinema, these were the scenes during which moviegoers would use the bathroom, get food, or talk to each other.
Other reviewers, like the BBC’s Anna Smith, complained that Death Proof is too faithful of an homage to exploitation cinema, taking on too many of its thematic and structural flaws. But would it really be an homage to exploitation cinema if all of those flaws were absent? It is exploitation cinema, after all. I’m not entirely sure what reviewers like Smith and Bradshaw expected, and I have gleaned nothing valuable from their reviews other than the fact that they, as individuals, don’t seem to enjoy the genre that Tarantino is honoring here.
Death Proof is not for everyone. I know that. It is a movie lover’s movie — or perhaps, more accurately, a movie history lover’s movie. To dismiss it without contextualizing it is to miss the point entirely (and, mind you, I fell in love with this film before I knew anything about exploitation cinema. So it is possible).
Finally, to watch Death Proof is to open one’s mind to the films that inspired Tarantino to make all of his films. It’s a tribute; an act of love. And if it’s raw for that reason, then that’s something to be appreciated rather than derided.