It sounds like a strange comparison, but Tarantino, in one way, reminds me of Spielberg, in that his movies are always thematically quite dense. Death Proof, like, say, Jurassic Park, features a strong theme that resonates down to the smallest of details, from broad story outlines to the tiniest of gestures.
The theme of Death Proof regards the control of sexuality -- who has it, who doesn't, and what they do about it, and the introduction of the theme begins even before the titles. As I mentioned the other day, two groups of women are presented in the narrative, superficially exactly the same but, in their actions, dramatically different. This difference is hinted at with the opening animation, which is intended to look like an old-timey "warning label" for 1970s drive-in audiences and features a cuddly kitten who jaunts merrily through the jungle and then, suddenly, in a moment of fear, transforms into a dangerous panther. Both groups of women in Death Proof look a lot like those cuddly kittens sauntering through the jungle of male desire, but only the second group transforms themselves in their moment of fear into a pack of dangerous panthers -- much to the surprise of their antagonist.
The titles then present the major conflict, visually -- the first part of the titles are shot from the point of view of Group 1's protagonist (or team leader, anyway) Arlene, as the car she's traveling in ambles into town for her visit with her friends, and the second is shot from the dash of Stuntman Mike's car as it hurtles murderously toward its destiny. (Interestingly, the first shot is from Arlene's point of view, but the second is not from Mike's -- the camera sits to Mike's right, in the center of the dash, almost as if it is actually the car's POV. This resonates with the way that the girls of Group 1 don't personify their car, while Mike cannot do anything but.
In between the two sections, we meet The Famous One of Group 1, Jungle Julia, who exists in a very Tarantino-ish state of grace: she's young, she's beautiful, she's sexy, she's single, she's famous, she has her own place, and she's free to spend her afternoons sitting around her apartment, which is strewn with hip pop-culture ephemera, doing bong hits. Into this edenic moment crashes Arlene, who has arrived with Julia's friend Shanna. Arlene's immediate issue is that she badly needs to pee, instantly introducing the theme of control. And one could say, well, but bladder control and sexual control are two completely different things, but then Lee, the Famous One of Group 2, goes out of her way to mention that her new boyfriend has a fetish where he likes to watch her pee, so the line, as far as Death Proof is concerned, is not so clear.
So Arlene, Shanna and Julia get into Shanna's Anonymous-o-bile and head downtown. What does Arlene want? Arlene wants to spend some time with her old friends at Shanna's father's lake house, with no boys allowed. That is, she wants to achieve some kind of sisterly state of grace, free from the predations of men and the tensions that spring from male desire.
The trouble is, male desire is everywhere in Arlene's world (even out at the lake house, where Shanna's father is prone to show up to "check in" on her and her friends), and the obtainment and management of it occupies her mind every minute of her day. The only things Arlene and her friends talk about is who they are seeing, what they are "letting them do" and where they are cutting them off. Sexual favors keep Arlene in a state of constant anxiety -- is she giving her swain too many, not enough, is she leading him on, is she pushing him away, and so forth. Even when the subject changes to things other than boys (eternal questions like "Who's holding?" for instance) male desire keeps inserting itself (pardon) into the situation -- the women don't want to depend on the boys for pot, because then they would "owe" them something. Shanna's love life isn't discussed that much in Death Proof (aside from her lecherous father), but both Arlene and Julia regard male desire as a minefield of give and take with nothing joyful about it. To contrast, Julia from Group 1 says that she would gladly have sex with Shanna's father if it meant she could have his lake house, while Abernathy from Group 2 recoils in horror from the notion of having sex with a manipulative man in order to obtain his house.
(On another note, both Shanna from Group 1 and Kim from Group 2, both drivers, curse blue streaks but also consider themselves religious and chastise their friends for "blaspheming.")
The plan for Group 1's evening is to get something to eat, hang out in a bar, flirt with some boys, then head out to the lake house. Mike enters the narrative as they go to eat -- he cruises by the restaurant as Arlene smokes outside. Arlene notices Mike's car -- she could hardly do otherwise -- and the beat sets Arlene's major story into motion. She senses that she has some kind of date with Mike in her future, even though she can't quite guess the nature of that date, which further heightens her anxiety.
Because while Arlene wants to have an idyllic vacation with her sisters, she also desperately craves male desire. Her craving of male desire frightens her, which leads to her imposing strict controls over her sexual relations (she regulates casual hook-up Nate down to the exact minute). Julia is the trophy girl of this team, not only because she's famous but because she has succeeded in controlling male desire in a way that Arlene has not -- she's "played the game" and exploited her desirability in order to make it to the top.
At dinner, Julia springs a surprise on Arlene -- she has set up, via her radio show, a prank: the first man who buys Arlene a drink and recites to her some Robert Frost, she must grant a lap dance. Arlene is appalled, and at first glance it's easy to see why: Julia's prank seems cruel and spiteful. And yet, as it is soon explained, what Julia is actually giving Arlene is a gift -- a gift of sexual control. A lap dance, for those who have not experienced one, has very specific rules: the man must remain completely stationary, the woman has all the control. The man is not allowed to touch the woman in any way she does not want to be touched. Julia, the alpha girl, wants to show Arlene how to turn herself from a victim of male desire to a victor over it -- she knows that Arlene craves male desire, now she's giving her the tool to properly exploit it.
As Group 1 leaves the restaurant, we see Mike in his car across the street with the women's photographs attached to his sun visor, and Tarantino takes a moment to show Mike putting eyedrops into his eyes. At first I thought this was some sort of comment on Mike's "vision," or perhaps his lack of emotion (he must use artificial tears) but the beat actually links to another one, later on, where Mike feels the need to sneeze but cannot. Mike, we see, is unable to produce either tears or mucus, and it doesn't take too much more thought to guess what other bodily fluids he lacks.
Act II of Part 1 (Death Proof has two halves of three acts each) then takes the women to the bar for an extended sequence of hanging around. And here we see that Julia, for all her authority on the subject of control of male desire, is hung up with some guy who isn't going to show up for their date. Warren, the bartender, maintains absolute control over his establishment in a paternal sort of way -- when he brings you a drink, it is incumbent upon you to drink it. ("Warren says it, we do it" says someone.) Again, male desire insinuates itself into Arlene's life in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.
Arlene goes out onto the rainy porch (smoking again, speaking of uncontrollable desire) and sees Mike's car in the lot. Now she knows that Mike is following her, and senses the frightening power of the man who could drive such a death machine. Her reverie is jolted by Nate, who is about as powerless as a guy gets: he's a literal whiner who Arlene has wrapped around her little finger.
Inside the bar, the guys who have been hanging around with the women conspire as to how to best get them drunk enough to get them to break their "no boys" rule out at the lake house. It's pretty much a by-the-book paranoid fantasy of how Arlene thinks men act toward her, calculating exactly what chemicals are required to bring their dates to a state of irreversible desire.
Mike then makes his big entrance, wolfing down a plate of nachos while the guys at the bar make fun of his age. He eyes the women in the corner with an evil eye, which gets the attention of Pam, a blonde whose date has stood her up, which makes her a complete strikeout in the arena of male desire. Mike, posing as the perfect gentleman, offers to give Pam a ride home, and even proves that he is 100% sober. And one is reminded that a stuntman's life is all about control, the slightest miscalculation or slipup can mean instant death.
Lanna, Group 1's designated driver (and connection) shows up, and Pam dishes on Julia to Mike, filling in the details of what we've already guessed: Julia is a man-eating social climber who has pushed uncounted women out of her way as she's marched to her current position of fame. Is Julia a monster, or is Pam merely exhibiting sour grapes? Mike, for his part, pretends he doesn't even know who Julia is, in spite of the billboards of her all over town and the photographs of her he has attached to his sun-visor.
Mike may be the holder of power in Death Proof, but in another regard he is utterly powerless -- he struggles against the one force all humanity struggles against in vain: aging. As storied as his career is, his art is invisible and the shows that he worked on are long gone and never that well-regarded to begin with (I, myself, have heard of every show Mike is supposed to have worked on, but I've never seen a single episode of any of them).
Julia's famous-director boyfriend doesn't show, which crushes her, and Arlene is devastated that the night has come and gone and no man has come to her for the lap dance she was dreading. Mike steps into the breach, as it were, recites the Frost and requests his reward. Mike's desire, or at least his car (which amounts to the same thing, as Mike's car is his penis substitute) is powerful enough to frighten Arlene, and force Mike to turn his request into a threat. Arlene has the choice of either rejecting Mike's demand, which leaves her vulnerable to his desire, or granting it and thus giving herself control over his desire.
She summons her courage and gives Mike the lap dance, thinking that she's mastered her fear, gained control over her anxieties. What she doesn't know is that, for Mike, his date with Arlene is just beginning.
As Act III of Part 1 begins, Arlene rejects the boys and heads off, triumphant, with her sisters for their idyll at the lake house, Mike takes a moment with Pam for some exposition about his death-proof car. And we see that Stuntman Mike is so obsessed with control that he cannot produce tears, he cannot sneeze, he will not drink and, most important, he believes that his car will grant him immortality.
(And, his car is his penis, which is not unrelated -- most men gain immortality through producing great work or through fathering children. Mike has failed to produce great work, and I think it's fair to say that he has also failed to father a child.)
The above image is the single most horrifying in Death Proof. Mike, who we know is a stalker, and who we know is up to no good regarding the protagonist, turns to the camera and smiles, as if to say "See? Easy as pie." He invites us into his pathology, makes us partners to his crimes. On a first viewing, the shot provokes a laugh because finally, we see, somebody has an agenda. We've been waiting forty minutes or more for the "plot" of Death Proof to reveal itself, unaware that, all along, the plot has been present in the story of passive protagonist Arlene and her anxiety regarding male desire.
The women of Group 1 drive on down the road and obtain the same kind of state of grace as Julia enjoyed at the top of the show: relaxing in their world, in control of their destiny, free of male desire. Julia even has the power to make the radio play the song she wants by calling the station and making a seductive demand of the presumably male DJ. (This last plot-point hearkens to 1971's Vanishing Point, where the protagonist has an almost supernatural relationship with a blind DJ as he drives toward his destiny, and which figures prominently in Part 2 of Death Proof.)
Stuntman Mike, meanwhile, 45 minutes into the movie, finally reveals his pathology, murders Pam with his car/penis, and races out to catch up with Group 1 on their way to the lake house.
Mike finishes his date with Arlene by driving head-on into her car, killing all her friends and, quite graphically, running over her face. (It makes sense that Arlene, the one most concerned about control, is the only one wearing a seat belt, which does absolutely nothing to protect her from Mike's overwhelming desire.) The deaths of all the women are horrifying, but Tarantino adds the romantic element of Arlene closing her eyes as Mike's car plows into her, rather as though she were accepting his kiss at her doorstep at the end of a romantic night.
In Part 2, Mike will pursue the women of Group 2 and discover a panther where he expects a kitten.