Deathproof- critical analysis (UNBOXED SPOILERS A GO GO!)

I was a film student, and writing about films is fun for me. Plenty of you are going to say “Well, a film is just entertainment” and that may be true. But this is what I do for fun so I’m gonna do it anyway. I just watched Deathproof and want to get my rough thoughts about it out. None of this is polished and there is tons I never brought up, but let’s see what you guys think.

So QT has an obsession with exploitation films. They are a complicated genre. On one hand they give narrative power to groups that previously didn’t even appear in films. And often these are strong characters, willing to kick butt when needed. On they other hand exploitation films, well, exploit. And they portray these groups in broad ridiculous stereotypes, and characters often comply happily with the very power structures that exploit them.

But, exploitation films are fun. Some of us have fond memories of them. How do we make sense of our gut instinct to enjoy these films and admire their strong characters with our intellectual understanding of how regressive they can be? Well, if we are QT we make movies that use these long dead genre stereotypes to make new movies where the once exploited characters take charge of the narrative.

Deathproof tells two distinct stories. The first group of women who get killed, and the second group of women who do not. Let’s look at the first group. The first thing that struck me was these women talk a lot about sex, but they don’t seem to enjoy it. They seem to gain their pleasure from giving or withholding sex- hence the “we can make out for six minutes” thing, the “no boys at the cabin” thing and the “I’m just getting a ride home” thing from the girl who seems to be playing the “Good girl tease”. This is interesting considering that in so many films the women who do have sex are the first to die. I guess in this story the lap dance would be the critical transgression. And that lap dance happens because the girl is soooo concerned with what the guy will think of her, even if it’s directed like she is making a powerful choice of her own. A lot to think about there.

The women are friends, but they don’t seem to like each other much. They seem to betray each other easily and even the “good girl tease” lets loose a lot of nasty stuff. I also don’t know what to do with the name of “Jungle Julie” (or whatever her name was). So obviously racist. And so obviously using sexuality to get stuff (fame, free drinks) Hmmmm. Anyway, I think this half of the movie is about the old way of doing things. The films and genre conventions we knew in the past- where women were scheming vixens that used sex to tease men and get free stuff and were killed off in the end. This is really betrayed by the sheriff, who posits that “it’s some kind of sexual thing.” Heh- kind of like the whole genre!

The second story is the women who survive (and beat the crap out of the killer). The most striking thing is that Zoe isn’t beautiful. She is a normally attractive person- getting older, not perfectly proportionate and has a funny nose. In this movie full of beautiful women and plenty of T and A, she looks like she came from Mars. And Zoe is playing herself. This is really Zoe’s story. Stuntman (who kills pretty girls) versus reality- the stuntwoman. One thing I love is how Zoe hangs out with all these drop dead beautiful women and it never comes up. They act totally natural together. It’s an interesting contrast from the backbiting female relationships in the first story. I find it fascinating that not a single critic I read brought Zoe up when mentioning how much this film focused on beautiful women.

Zoe is a lot like the weird anachronism setting (half 70s, half modern- theoretically believable but still confusing.) I think the setting like that is to show that these old conventions and stereotypes are still with us in modern movies. Anyway, I love how her not-model-pretty looks don’t come up and don’t play an overt narrative role. It’s just there and we viewers are just supposed to accept it even when it doesn’t feel right.

Sex is a big theme here, too. These women seem more in touch with what they want from sex, though they still play games. Anyway, it seemed more real to me. Less of a game about getting men to want you, and more about having sex and enjoying it on your terms. Except the girl who got left behind with the car-owner. I feel like she is kind of a stereotype that is being abandon to another stereotype. The viewer doesn’t even wonder how she fares because none of these people ever really existed to begin with.

The final showdown is a pretty obvious metaphor. The stuntman symbolizes both the director and the part of us that enjoys carnage in grindcore films. The stuntwoman is reality- she’s a real person. She looks real, and she’s the one doing the real work in movies. This is the story of how she took over the film, and by extension the entire genre. Her killing the stuntman and reclaiming the film is also about reclaiming the genre, allowing us to enjoy grindcore films with an understanding that they have a new significance.

Anyway, just some toughts

Nice analysis, but because QT and Robert Rodriguez were so open with the behind the scenes stuff in Grindhouse, a lot of your analysis is off the mark. QT and RR did a lot of that stuff because it was convenient, not because it meant anything.

But still, a good read.

This review of “Grindhouse” sums up my feelings exactly:


Reading is a different process than writing. And if a piece of art says something, even if the artist wasn’t consciously aware of it, it still says that thing.

(ETA: Obviously, exactly what QT consciously meant is an interesting discussion. But it doesn’t necessarily negate what he ended up communicating.)

But it’s one thing to say “This is my reading” and another to say “So-and-so is saying this”. One is strictly a personal opinion while the other is a bit of projection, imparting your interpretation as the (“director’s”) interpretation.

Sometimes, it’s neither here nor there because often (especially with older movies) the director never said much about his methods or intentions. But when the director is on-the-record (and not being playfully evasive or disingenuous, like Hitchcock could be), it’s simply critical arrogance to allege what the Director “meant” when the Director has very clearly said he didn’t. That doesn’t mean the reading is “wrong”–if there is enough visual and thematic evidence, it’s perfectly fine to make the case for the film. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that is was what the director was intending, and the attribution of such is closer to an actual misstatement than merely a differing of opinions.

I agree. Both discussions are valid, but the distinction should be clear.

I find it helpful, though, to remember–as an artist myself–that I don’t have a more perfect grasp on my own subconscious than any other human being. And, further, that I’m not always successful communicating what I want to communicate with a piece of art. Still, it communicates something, intended or not, and that’s worthy of third party analysis.

Exactly. This goes with along with even sven’s analysis of Zoe. Zoe’s looks were never a part of the reason why she was chosen for the role and her looks have no bearing on the story or any of the themes of the movie. She was chosen solely because QT was seriously impressed with her stunt work on Kill Bill. And the oppurtunity to do Death Proof’s signature stunt “for real” with an accomplished stuntwoman who would also be playing the character was the whole point of Death Proof.

Every other interpretation is a fun exercise, but nothing more.

–Rorschach was onto something, in other words.

I did an exercise in photography 101, way back before they invented photography. It was one of our first, most elementary assignments: photograph paper with black and white film. An exercise about light and shadow and shades of gray. I took a bunch of paper, tore it up into big chunks, twisted and crumpled those chunks, and took hundreds of photos of them in various positions, with various light angles. As I was going over the resulting photographs, I noticed one that looked like a face. I went back through them all, and found 6 photos that included–entirely accidental but vivid nonetheless–sculptural representations of human faces and forms.

Obviously, the discussion of what QT meant to say in DP, versus what he actually ended up saying, is not the same as seeing faces in paper or Jesus in a pancake. But I think the “consumer” of a piece of art should have a certain confidence in what he gets out of it, and not have to prove that it was intended for it to be valid. Again, objectivity vs subjectivity should be noted as part of the discussion, but like I said, Rorschach was onto something.

I’m not quite the person you are looking for but I love the movie. I love the dialogue of both sets of women. The action scenes were fun and it was great they mostly were real and not all CGI. The idea of a stunt woman playing herself in the situation was as good as the few characters that crossed-over between the two films.

I like your take on the movie even sven. If it wasn’t what Tarantino was going for it should have been.

I would have enjoyed Quentin Tarantino doing the remake of Death Race 2000 instead of the hack that got it.


I agree. Nonetheless, the disparity in looks does, in fact, communicate something.

Eh, i think Zoe is way hotter than both Rosario Dawson or Tracie thoms, making her at least the second hottest in the group.

One thing that’s interesting, even sven, and I wonder what you make of it is the professions of the women. In the first “Jungle Julie” is a radio personality, and that’s where her fame stems from. Only, as a radio personality, her looks aren’t that important. Yes, her sexuality is exploited for ads (the billboards specifically), but ultimately, it’s possible to listen to her every day and not know what she looks like. Whereas the second group of women were all involved in the movie industry. Which, I admit, is obviously partially for convenience–that’s how they know Zoe–but I think there’s a lot more to it than that. And the fact that they’re all involved in the move industry causes all sorts of meta tension. Especially in regards to what you identify as the “reality” of the movie, which is Zoe herself. I like the dichtomoy of an actor playing a real stuntman, while a stuntwoman plays at being an actress in order to portray a stuntwoman–so that she can finally be seen.

I saw this last night (for the third time) and I must say that I respectfully disagree with Mr. sven’s OP for a number of reasons:

  1. Stuntman Mike never talked to the second group of women, so the idea that they were being “judged” somehow on their approach to sexuality doesn’t really work because the judge doesn’t know how Zoe, et al, get laid.

  2. The most striking thing about the second group isn’t the “fact” that Zoe is demonstrably uglier than the others (which I don’t see at all, but beauty:eye:beholder and all that), it was that, like Pepperlandgirl said above, the second group of women were far more professionally capable of beating Stuntman Mike at his own game. Had he realized the other driver was a current professional stunt driver and was packing heat, he likely would have picked easier targets. They also weren’t drunk and high.

The sex stuff is merely to keep the audience interested while sitting through 60 minutes of girl-talk, waiting for the car chase. It’s a classic motif of exploitation films: have hot girls in skimpy outfits gab a lot about sex because that’s all your budget allows: no-name actors and actresses who are likely your friends, two, maybe three cars to wreck, and film.

At least that’s my interpretation of it.

I liked this movie but I immediately noticed that the dialogue didn’t really seem like a group of women talking to each other. It sounded like…well, a Quentin Tarantino movie. Which is fine, that’s what I paid for. If I want to hear real women talking I will eavesdrop on the bus for free.

But I think the first group of women were supportive of each other, the backbiting was really all talk, sort of a “signifying” thing. They always acted supportive. They were protective of Butterfly, providing her with a way out of performing the lap dance for a guy they didn’t like.

The Rose McGowen character (the “good girl tease”) was not their friend, she already disliked Julia from when they knew each other in school. But they seemed to be genuinely friendly to each other in the end when they parted ways in the parking lot (apparently whatever caused this turnaround was lost in the missing lap dance reel).

I was struck by the way the second group left the cheerleader girl (who was still hungover and only semi-concious) alone with that lascivious redneck, and implied that she would perform sexual favors. They were leaving her in a genuinely dangerous situation and joking about it. No woman I know would do this to a friend.

I like Tarantino but I wouldn’t say he has a knack for getting into the minds of women when he writes. But he does provide some powerful roles for them to play so good on that.

And I also didn’t think Zoe was less attractive than the other women. She was the one most of the guys I know were getting worked up over, though I think it was more for her stunt work than her looks.

I can see the point that Zoe Bell isn’t girly girl, fou fou pretty, but she’s smokin’ hot to me. That whole self reliant, can be ready in 5 min, I don’t care if I broke a nail bit works for me.

I interpret the cheerleader character not as a real person, but as a representation of how women are often portrayed in exploitation films (and gender roles in general.) The rest leave her passive ass behind and take control of narrative.

In the process, the audience feels some things- starting with “this is normal” to “they can’t leave her like that” to “well, I guess they can and it kind of makes sense” and ending with a little mini-realization about why the felt the things they did about this scene. Making your characters do things that are discordant with the narrative can be a powerful but tricky way to pull the audience out of the film for a bit of meta-commentary.

This echoes my interpretation of “Kill Bill” with Bill as the director of the movie, and the Bride as the history of women’s exploitation in film.

Maybe faces in the clouds, but in film nothing is an accident. Even if you made the most random film you could think of using the first five people you met set in your living room, it’d still say something about you and the times you live in. Even a paint-by-numbers painting turns out different by different people.

Anyway, yes, he chose the stunt woman for her talents. But he also chose to dress her in a tee shirt and normal make-up and surround her by gorgeous women dressed to the nines. I have no special insight into QT’s mind (FWIW, I don’t even like his films- they are too chatty for me) but I have heard some of his own comments on women in films and exploitation dramas, and I read the critical essays he has certainly read and seems to be directly responding to. The truth is probably somewhere in between “this is a completely random movie” and "this is a carefully crafted meta-commentary on the entire history of film.

But thinking about it passes the time, right?

Im sorry but i just don’t see where you are getting this. The hot girl was wearing a cheerleader outfit, the other stuntwoman was dressed much like Zoe and Rosario Dawson had a simple dress on, i just don’t get Zoe as the ugly duckling of the group at all.

Or it could be because Death Proof and Live Free or Die Hard were both filmed at the same time and Mary Elizabeth Winstead (the cheerleader in Death Proof and Lucy McClane in Live Free or Die Hard) was left behind because the actress wasn’t available to go with them.

I’m sorry, I just don’t find any depth in QT’s movies. I like them, but everything is either a reference to something else or done because it looks cool or done because that’s how the budget worked out.

Although personally, I think it would have been hilarious if the movie cut back to the cheerleader during the credits and she was chasing him through the woods with a knife.

They were all wearing t-shirts and jeans except for the cheerleader.

Fair enough, but I think it would have worked better as symbolism if it hadn’t been so wrong and distasteful and contrary to the “girl power” themes when taken at face value. I never got to that point where “it kind of makes sense.” It is one thing that always bugged me about the movie.

That would have been awesome!

But Rosario had a Prada belt!

I’ll never understand the appeal of these designer items. It looked just like something you could buy at Sears.

Shouldn’t a zombie thread be about Planet of Terror, not Deathproof?

I saw *Grindhouse *when it was first released. I loved the concept, but the actual expression…not so much. I thought that there were enough lousy movies made in the 70’s that we really didn’t need another one or two lousy 70’s movies made in the 2000’s. I was disappointed by Grindhouse. *Planet of Terror *seemed suitably over-the-top for the exercise, but it was not a genre that I really enjoy. *Deathproof *was too faithful a copy, to my mind.

I think that analyzing Quentin Tarantino’s statement regarding women’s exploitation films and the exploitation of women in films is something of a lost cause, because *Deathproof *is too consciously a copy of the 70’s women’s exploitation films to make any statement about anything outside of the films. The original 70’s exploitation films could be viewed in a number of different ways, because their creators were very un-selfconscious about their films, and so you could look at what the films said and also what they said about their creators. Since there is an additional level of artifice to Deathproof, it seems to me that much farther removed from QT.

Or maybe not. I am certainly not a film student.