While many critics and film historians have noted and lauded the references to cult automotive murder films in Quentin Tarantino’s “Death Proof,” few, if any, have mentioned the strong parallels between it and a film made by a very different sort of filmmaker.
The final third of “Death Proof” involves the following scenario: A trio of women in a borrowed car are terrorized and nearly pushed off the road by a madman in a dark, dirty muscle car. He chases them, crashes in to them, and tries to ram them off the road. The women, one of whom is a professional stunt-driver, turn the situation around by fighting back, both by hand (with metal pipes, fists, and even a handgun) and by car (by treating the madman to his own vehicular medicine.) The film concludes with their triumphant and sudden victory over the madman, who dies at their feet.
Thre and a half decades before “Death Proof”, a young Steven Spielberg began to get peoples’ attention with his made-for-TV film, “Duel”. The narrative in the 1971 film is paralleled strikingly by “Death Proof.”
Spielberg’s film begins with an every-man, driving alone through the desert. Without rhyme or reason, a mysterious madman in a large, dirty gasoline truck (big and ugly and intimidating enough to put any muscle-car to shame) appears to try to kill him. The rest of the film proceeds in the form of a strange, tense chase through the desert, in which the protagonist first tries to escape, then to hide, then, in a final desparation, to fight back.
Tarantino’s car chase sequences through much of the final act of “Death Proof” bear much resemblance to Spielberg’s earlier film. The chase is set in a semi-barren landscape that reflects the desert in “Duel.” The attacking vehicle is dark, grungy, muscular, and often shot from low-angle, emphasizing the menace it imposes. Even some of Tarantino’s roving tracking shots around the sides of the vehicles during the pursuit are reflections of Spielberg’s camera moves. A final sequence, with one car on a ridge, chasing another below it, is a quote not only of sequences in “Duel”, but of sequences in other Spielberg films, as well, including “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and even “ET: The Extra-Terrestrial”
Such visual and technical parallels between these films is surprising, considering the popular perceptions of both filmmakers – that Tarantino is dark, violent, ‘twisted’, and that Spielberg is youthful, optimistic, ‘cinematic bubble-gum’. A closer look at the differences between the films’ treatment of their respective subjects reveals that, in fact, popular perceptions of these two filmmakers might be somewhat reversed.
Tarantino’s film depicts a madman intent on killing three young, adventurous, sassy women. The women fight back in a car that is not their own, taking tremendous pleasure in the vehicular brawl (and we, through them, enjoy it as well). Ultimately, they are victorious in two ways: 1) They defeat and kill the madman who nearly killed them, and 2) they’re having the best time of their lives. When the film concludes, all three are jubilant, secure, and powerful. Hollywood’s happy ending.
Spielberg’s film, on the other hand, depicts an unidentifiable assailant intent on killing a wimpy, flustered salesman. He does not fight back, but tries to run, to avoid the confrontation, and we run with him, afraid of the fight, rather than relishing it. His victory is a very strange one. Although he has spent the entire film fighting for his own humanity (fighting not to be reduced to just another piece of desert roadkill – a hunted animal), the final act that brings down the beast also brings him down as a human being. He prances and cheers, more like an ape than a human, dancing above the open grave of his adversary. He has lost his car, his way, his business appointment, and all of the things that had made his life stable. What he has gained might be a certain self-awareness, but it leaves him alone, stranded on a desert cliff-top, with the sun setting, and with no civilization in sight.
Tarantino’s film is a vibrant celebration of the modern mythic victory, the heroic and happy triumph over a terrible, but ultimately pitiful evil. His villain whimpers not unlike the Wicked Witch of the West in “The Wizard of Oz” before his final demise. For Spielberg, the Bad Man at the end of the road is mythic in its own right, and dark, almost primal. There is no defeating it without losing, as well.
For Tarantino, “There’s no place like home” conjures images of happy bars or sun-lit fast-food places where the music is fun and the company is chatty. For Spielberg, in his parallel film, there may not be any place like home once all is said and done. The familiar highway becomes an unfamiliar menace, the defeat of which results in a regression to the beginning of things, to a prehistoric, primal shout under an open, evening sky.