While scoping out a dirty dive bar, Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell)—an aging Hollywood workhorse, who drives around in his “death proof” muscle car and knows how to hide his intentions behind a Chelsea smile—finds himself confronted over the legitimacy of his career. The bartender, Warren (Quentin Tarantino), vouches for Mike to the much younger woman he’s taken a foreboding liking to in the meantime, Pam (Rose McGowan). But Pam doesn’t totally buy Mike’s story. She senses something weird about the guy from the get-go. She especially doesn’t buy it when Warren himself can’t come up with any of Mike’s stunt work credits, despite Warren confirming to Pam and the other ladies he’s hanging on that Mike here is a bonafide legend.
So, Mike tries to prove himself. He puffs his chest and confidently begins listing off the titles of projects and name-dropping actors. His tone says that anyone ought to rightly identify them. But the girls just look at one another, stupefied.
“Do you know any of these shows or people I’m talkin’ about?” he finally asks them after a pause, exasperated.
They shake their heads and say, no, they don’t. Mike is clearly frustrated, but he doesn’t lose his cool. He’s still collected and charming enough to woo a woman into giving him a lap dance later on, and giving Pam the ride home that will unknowingly be her last. He’s disappointed, but it’s something that happens. You can tell that he’s used to it. He’s used to recognizing, if not accepting, that his time is surely over. That he’s nothing to these beautiful girls but a living fossil. What else is there to do but kill them?
This scene is one half of the key to unlocking the violent, perverted heart of Death Proof. Tarantino’s most personally reviled film, which turns 15 this year, is in part about the aging Hollywood machine and the young women who disappear within it. It’s a sleazy, psychosexual slasher that intentionally double-features alongside Robert Rodriguez’s sci-fi/horror Planet Terror. The two were presented as one under the banner of Grindhouse—a term used to describe the now-extinct theaters which purveyed exploitation cinema during the 1970s—complete with trailers helmed by other exploitation-loving director like Edgar Wright and Rob Zombie for other (fake) filthy exploitation films.
Tarantino considers the 2007 film to be the nadir of his oeuvre (though, in the context of the discussion, it’s clear he doesn’t necessarily consider it to be an objectively bad film, but a low point when compared to the rest of his work). It’s true, that when stood up against cult favorites and Oscar-nominated fare like Inglourious Basterds, Pulp Fiction and Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, Death Proof is, on the surface, outclassed.
For a director who prefers his work indulgent and sprawling, it’s an 87-minute micro-film, just as macabre as any of his others but considerably simplistic by comparison. It follows two groups of unsuspecting women and one killer pervert, the latter’s murderous intent never explicitly revealed for those who need it spelled out. Michael Parks’ Ranger Earl McGraw uncovers it in part, when the first group of women dies in a gruesome car “accident” caused by Stuntman Mike. Earl knows in his heart of hearts—though he resigns that there’s little evidence to prove it—that this was intentional. He hypothesizes to his questioning partner, his son Edgar (James Parks), that the motive behind the murder is sexual: It’s “probably the only way that diabolical degenerate can shoot his goo.”
Indeed, Mike’s killing is very much a sexual act. He adores the women he’s murdering just as much as he loathes them, because he is desperate to be desired by them. But to women like Pam, and Arlene (Vaness Ferlito), and Julia (Sydney Tamiia Poitier), Stuntman Mike is a joke. He’s not good-looking enough to be deserving of a lap dance from Arlene (though she relents, clearly pitying him), and he receives taunting laughs from her and Julia at the idea of Pam sleeping with him when he leaves to give her a ride home. Therein lies the second half crucial to Mike’s psyche: His killing is also an act of resentful defiance. He rages against the impotence of his own cultural relevance. Mike represents the past pushing back against the present, the corrupt ways of Old Hollywood fighting for their spot among the Hollywood of the present how it always has—by evading justice through power and exploiting the system. Mike, who got his job in Hollywood through family connections, represents the system itself. Women are expendable, sexual objects at the whims of dying, powerful perverts.
But Mike meets his match with the second group of women he pinpoints as his next victims: Four friends and, to his ultimate detriment, film industry players just like him. Kim (Tracie Thoms) and Zoë (Zoë Bell), stuntwomen themselves (Bell being Tarantino’s own regular stuntwomen), Lee (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), an actress, and Abbie (Rosario Dawson), a hair and makeup artist. At Zoë’s behest, they track down the seller of a 1970 Dodge Challenger—prized by Zoë and Kim due to being the same model and color featured in the 1971 film Vanishing Point—at the same time that bloodthirsty Stuntman Mike is tracking them down, too. Abbie persuades the seller to let them test-drive the car unsupervised because Zoë wants to play a game called “Ship’s Mast,” where one person straps themselves to the hood of a car while another drives at high speeds. It’s a scenario almost too good to be true for Mike. The girls put themselves in harm’s way, handing themselves over to him on a silver platter. All Mike has to do is pull the trigger.
But these women are a little sturdier than the first batch. They endure Mike’s obscene vehicular abuse, Zoë having lost her grip on the straps and made to cling on the hood of the car itself for dear life. When the two cars finally veer off and hit the brakes, Mike jumps out, giving Kim her chance to pierce him with a bullet (“The world I live in, a bitch need a gun,” she explains to her disapproving friends early-on) and turning the tables on the old psychopath. With Mike speeding furiously away from them, the predator quickly becomes the prey, as the girls hop back in the Challenger to hunt Mike down and finish him off—which they succeed in doing. It’s articulated in a cathartic concluding beatdown in which each of the three girls takes a turn walloping the son of a bitch, until Abbie delivers the immensely rewarding final kick in the teeth.
Tarantino is fond of telling stories about women getting revenge on abusive men, like in Jackie Brown, Kill Bill, Inglourious Basterds and even, in a way, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. Perhaps they are each one piece in a puzzle of internalized culpability made most explicit with Death Proof, but Death Proof is his only film to act as a clear metatextual allegory for the corrupt industry Tarantino works in and benefits from. As Nick Newman pointed out, Death Proof could be seen as Tarantino’s first revisionist history: A film where the women in the film industry take power back from the immoral, influential men who control it (and are even depicted as being guilty themselves of throwing their own under the bus to get ahead, which Kim, Zoë and Abbie do to Lee, leaving her as an implied sexual offering to the Dodge Challenger seller). Tarantino has undoubtedly benefited from these men, and has arguably been one of them, too.
And whether conscious or not, Stuntman Mike is most terrifying in the way that he can’t help but read like a singular amalgamation of monsters like the Weinsteins—who have produced most of Tarantino’s films—who use and abuse women out during power trips born of insecurity over their impending obsolescence. Men, like the Weinsteins, like Tarantino himself, who allow the well-being of women like Uma Thurman (who, it should be noted, is stunt-doubled by Bell in both Kill Bills; Bell, who is coincidentally put the most in harm’s way in Death Proof’s near-fatal car chase) to be an afterthought.
Stuntman Mike receives his just desserts, but women had to unwittingly sacrifice their lives so that others could one day do what they could not. How many women before Arlene, and Julia, and Pam, and Shanna had to die so that one man could finally suffer? It makes sense why Tarantino would view the film as so low among the rest of his filmography—it’s the only one where he allowed his guilt to bubble to the surface.
Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer based in middle-of-nowhere Massachusetts. Her work has appeared at Little White Lies, Film School Rejects, Thrillist, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more, and she writes a bi-monthly newsletter called That’s Weird. You can follow her on Twitter, where she likes to engage in stimulating discussions on films like Movie 43, Clifford, and Watchmen.