Film discussion

The Woods are Lovely, Dark and Deep: ‘Death Proof’ 10 Years Later

If you were lucky enough to catch Grindhouse – Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror and Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof double-bill throwback to the cut and tethered reels of exploitation cinema back in 2007 – then you probably remember the kind of experience it was. For me, it was a slammed theatre filled with those who reviled in the lurid cinema so expressive in grindhouse-style theatres of the 1970’s, alongside those who grew up with Tarantino, never feeling the necessity to dive into the back catalogue of what made him tick.

No matter which camp you fell into, once the lights went down and the first faux-trailer went up for Rodriguez’s Mexploitation film Machete, everyone became a resident of Grindhouse. Dozens cheered, and even more smiled under the shadow casted theatre. This was something worth celebrating: the solidification of the old into the new pop canon, one that took cinema and subverted it with distorted sound, missing reels and fake trailers from some of Rodriguez/Tarantino’s closest pals, including Rob Zombie, Eli Roth, and Edgar Wright to name a few. The fact that so many different types of people came together under one roof to embrace a double-dose of sleaze that littered the marquees of theatres that once neared a dozen on 42nd street alone, in a town coined “Fear City”, is quite simply amazing.

Though it appeared that much of the audience were keenly unaware of the experience with multiple reports of people walking out after Rodriguez’s Planet Terror, seemingly unaware of a concept that, to be fair, has been uniformly dispatched decades ago.

“The double-bill format confused them, as did the fake trailers for non-existent films and the missing reels and scratchy celluloid,” Tarantino told The Guardian back in May of 2007, a mere month after the initial release of Grindhouse. Or perhaps audiences just couldn’t handle sitting in front of a screen for almost three and a half hours? No matter, Grindhouse opened 4th behind Paul Verhoeven’s WWII drama Black Book and the Ice Cube vacation-comedy sequel Are We Done Yet, pulling in a total of $25,422,088 worldwide. It fared so poorly in the states that U.K. cinemas decided to separate each film, a move that would allow Death Proof to be seen separately by those who were either unaware of its double-bill structure, or just couldn’t envision themselves in a theatre for more than two hours. Either way, the sweet cherry pie of exploitation indulgence was served to the hungry masses, eager to satiate their craving for Tarantino’s Death Proof, a seductive slasher flick poetically stuffed under the hood of a souped up muscle car.

While billed as part of a double-feature, Death Proof is very much Quentin Tarantino’s fifth feature film, and quite possibly his most powerful, despite his own criticism. Separating the drive-by stalking and vehicular slashing of our stunt man turned psychopath, aptly named Stuntman Mike by those who know him, is tireless dialogue that has very much become a trademark of Tarantino. Where his previous gratification came in the form of machismo rattled diner dialogue in his debut Reservoir Dogs and his polarising Canne’s sensation Pulp Fiction, Death Proof subverts these ideas by giving us entry into the dynamism between two groups of distinctly different women.

Our first group, led by Jungle Julia (Sydney Tamiia Poitier, daughter of legendary Sydney Poitier), patronise the local eateries of Austin – authentic eateries ‘Guero’s Taco Bar’ and ‘Texas Chili Parlor’ – celebrating the billboard success of Julia’s current radio show. Here we become third wheel to the convivial raillery between female friends, a sort of gathering of the colours seen in Reservoir Dogs. Along for the ride is Arlene (Vanessa Ferlito), the quintessential virgin, though she’s much more self-assured and independent in her demeanour than your average final girl; and that’s because she isn’t.

In one of the most scintillating moments in Tarantino’s career, our stunt man turned slasher man Mike – played on all cylinders by genre chameleon Kurt Russell – confronts an emotionally wounded Arlene, provocatively calling her Butterfly in an attempt to grab the wheel of his own aged and faltering masculinity, reciting the closing lines from a poem by Robert Frost titled ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’: 

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.   

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.   

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.   

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

With this seductive utterance, Tarantino treats the momentary weakness and female expression of independence as wholly male dominated; it’s both caused by a lack of male accompaniment and nudged into existence by the male gaze, ultimately exploited for its feminine vulnerability. Arlene’s own notion of independence acts as a kind of death wish, carried out in the form of a lap dance bestowed upon Stunt Man Mike, a sexual act of empowerment that places her and her friends in the quietus headlights of a skull emblazoned 1970 Chevy Nova. Sure, it isn’t sex, but its motions are sexual enough for Mike’s carnal craving, and it’s an act that fish tails within his own moral code.

Shortly after, we are introduced to another group of road-weary women; their esprit de corps matched only by Mike’s prowling weapon, its low rumble the film’s quintessential “Kill-Kill-Kill-Ma-Ma-Ma”. This group however, comprised of Hollywood grit – two of them, Kim and Zoe (Tracie Thoms and Zoe Bell as herself, real life Beatrix Kiddo stunt woman) – come from the all-or-nothin’ days of stunt driving. These are women who stem from a male dominated world of lights, cameras and thrills, their offices reinforced muscle cars that offer them the satisfaction of being death proof.

As we observe our group through the lens of Mike’s camera, each click marking a supposed notch on his belt – and I mean that literally, as each vehicular violence enacted matches an equally sexual satiation – we obtain an almost strict masochistic nature within ourselves; a common theme within Tarantino’s later films. We want something to happen, maybe not to these women, but with these women, as Death Proof is ultimately about the chase, the thrill and the gratification that comes from it.

Sitting shotgun to the empowering dialogue is the explosive and often abrasive violence that accompanies the nature of man. And Death Proof’s indulgence in brutality is some of the director’s most shocking and socially astute. Jungle Julia and her escorts are ripped apart, mangled by twisted, colliding steel that abruptly kills the rocking sounds of Dave, Dee, Dozy, Dicky, Mitch & Titch; Julia’s amputated leg bounces across hot asphalt, while Arlene’s face is defiled under the wheel of Mike’s vehicle in a sudden and commanding display of power. It’s a scene that happens just as quickly as it leaves, though it’s one that imprints itself into your retinas, replaying like a never ending reel of male aggression.

Even more powerful is our second group of victims turned heroines, who match Mike in both their hunger and adrenaline seeking, as after being left with their hearts in their throat and nerves on the dashboard, choose to enact a dish best served cold. “Fuck that shit! Let’s kill this bastard,” exclaims Abernathy (Rosario Dawson), the supposed final girl if they weren’t all final girls. And that’s exactly what a vehicular proto-slasher throwback needs; not one final girl but three final girls.

Living in a time when the rights of the common man brings out a deep-seated resentment, the imposed male aggression an unrest in women, standing tough and driving tall is an almost societal necessity. Like Frost’s snow-bound traveler – tempted to stop amidst the darkest beauty of the woods – we too must attend to our obligations as civilians during the darkest time of this year. While it may not have been the film people thought they wanted when it premiered 10 years ago, Death Proof is that reinforced poetic empowerment we as a people need now more than ever; because the world is lovely, dark and deep, and humanity has miles to go before it can sleep.

Where does Death Proof sit in Tarantino’s canon for you? Leave a message in the comments below.

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