Part 2 of Death Proof begins with the "Psycho scene," where an "authority figure" declaims, for the audience's benefit, the subtext of Part 1 -- Ranger Earl McGraw tells us what we've already grasped, that Stuntman Mike is a dangerous psychopath who crashes his "death proof" car into women's cars for his sexual gratification. The scene is a gentle dig at Psycho's famously inept coda, but Tarantino adds a couple of icky layers to it: first, he includes Dr. Block, a character from Death Proof's co-feature Planet Terror, and gives her a weird, violent reaction to kindly, wizened Ranger McGraw, a reaction that can only be appreciated by watching the other movie (Dr. Block having her own problems with men). Then, after McGraw has finished his spiel on Stuntman Mike and his sick pathology, he announces that he'd rather follow the Nascar circuit than investigate Mike's crimes, placing Mike's MO in the broader context of a national malaise: there are millions of people who find some level of gratification watching stock cars smash into each other.
Now, it's 14 months later and the movie almost switches protagonists. Stuntman Mike pulls into a convenience store in Tennessee in his new car, a Charger, and happens upon Group 2, a passel of women who strongly remind him of Group 1: there's a Famous One, a driver, and One In The Back Seat With Her Feet Up. Since his experience with Group 1 ended so well, Mike is strongly attracted to Group 2, mistaking their superficial similarities for sameness.
Because, while Group 2 shares a lot of characteristics of Group 1, there are fundamental differences in them. First of all, they are all employed, and thus are markedly less dependant on men for their sense of well-being. Second, the driver, Kim, is no carping Shanna, with a leering father and not much to do -- she is, importantly, a stunt driver, a fact that Mike would have done well to discover before deciding to pick on them. Kim, in addition to literally having Mike's old job, also drives a muscle car and, in addition, carries a gun: that is, she has stolen Mike's power, and wields two penis substitutes to his one. She's got him out-matched before the match has even begun, and the narrative hasn't even brought in its protagonist.
Two Kill Bill references. Click to enlarge.
Just as the women of Group 1 lose themselves in the music of the bar's jukebox, Lee, one of the more "modern" women of Group 2, loses herself in the music on her iPod -- a more subtle form of empowerment. The women of Group 1 must bend to the paternal whims of Warren the bartender to get their groove on, but the women of Group 2 can take their favorite tunes on the road with them.
While Group 1 has an alpha female, Group 2 has a slightly different dynamic: Kim is more like a mother, who drives the car, buys the groceries and makes the rules. When Zoe shows up, Kim becomes a husband to Zoe's wife. While the women of Group 1 seek only sisterhood, Group 2 is has a more fluid, shifting sense of family roles.
Mike scopes out the women of Group 2 and peels out when they "make" him. Abernathy and Lee snigger after him and chide him for his "little dick," when obviously they don't know the half of it.
Abernathy goes into the convenience store to get money and buy fashion magazines (Lee is in the new issue of Allure, an analogue to Julia's billboards in Part 1) and Tarantino makes a point of showing her getting money out the ATM -- this woman is dependant on no boyfriend or lecherous father for her kicks.
(There's an odd moment between Abernathy and the convenience store clerk, who sells high-end fashion magazines "from his own collection" under the counter. I'm guessing the clerk is meant to show a different sort of male in the Death Proof world, one obsessed with fashion and more "female" than male -- not a patriarch like Warren, a hillbilly scumbag like the Jasper to come or a sociopath like Mike. The sad thing is that Abernathy originally sees the clerk as the threat, even though he's secretly an ally, and dismisses Mike as a wet firecracker.)
Group 2 pick up Part 2's protagonist, Zoe, at the airport, unaware that Mike has already marked them for death. Zoe, like Kim, is a stunt performer, something Mike has plenty of time to learn (he eavesdrops on their lunchtime conversation for at least ten minutes) and, the complete opposite of Part 1's Arlene, has no interest in male desire. Rather, she goes straight for the source of Mike's power: a 1970s Detroit muscle car. Her desire to drive a while 1970 Challenger because of its role in Vanishing Point is key to why she lives and Arlene dies -- while Arlene (and Abernathy, and Lee) spent their adolescences watching Pretty in Pink, Zoe (and Kim) apparently hung out in second-run houses watching action-exploitation movies. What Death Proof suggests is that this detail, in and of itself, means the difference between life and death. Watching Vanishing Point and its ilk has prepared Zoe for an encounter with Stuntman Mike, while Lee's brainless appreciation of Pretty in Pink condemns her to being thrown to the proverbial lions.
(In Group 1, Julia climbs over men to become famous, but Group 2's Famous One, Lee, notably dates "downstream" -- it's Abernathy who's angling for the hip young director, movie-star Lee is dating grips and electricians. One exploits male desire for gain, the other toys with men for pleasure.)
In the diner (interestingly, Part 1 begins in the afternoon and heads into a late night of partying, while Part 2 begins in the early morning after a late night of partying and heads into the late afternoon), Abernathy tells a story of "Zoe the cat," who takes death-defying falls as a matter of routine and comes through without a scratch. This is both a useful bit of exposition to explain how Zoe survives her initial encounter with Mike, and an interesting note that lends another aspect to the phrase "death proof." Mike, the impotent, washed-up stuntman, must spend time and money on his car to give himself the illusion of immortality, but Zoe seems to have it as a matter of birth -- she is blessed. I also note that she, unlike all the other women of Death Proof, never mentions any male relationship in her life -- she is not scheming to land a director (like Abernathy and Julia), nor dallying with crewmen (like Lee), nor wrecking homes (like Kim). She is her own woman.
Which does not mean that she is sexually frigid. No, the surprising thing about Zoe is that she, like Stuntman Mike, fetishizes 1970s Detroit muscle cars. We learn that she doesn't merely want to drive the Challenger, she wants to "do Ship's Mast" on it: that is, she wants to lie spread-eagled on the hood while Kim drives fast down a deserted road. This has obvious sexual significance for Zoe (and implies that she is secretly, or not so secretly, in love with Kim) and makes her a weird kin to Stuntman Mike. If not for his hatred of women, Mike and Zoe might have made a perfect couple -- he could have driven the car while she rode on the hood, and both would end up satisfied.
(For what it's worth, the plot of Vanishing Point involves a hopped-up speed freak who puts himself on a pointless (sorry) suicidal rampage from Denver to San Francisco. Although it's a good movie, I can't find many points of comparison between it and Death Proof, except the desire for self-annihilation via car-crash.)
In Act II of Part 2, Zoe takes her posse to Jasper, the most stereotypical "man" of Death Proof: a leering, unkempt, uneducated, slovenly hillbilly named Jasper, who is suspicious but easily fooled. She deals with Kim to play Ship's Mast on the Challenger while Abernathy schemes to be taken along on the ride by whoring out the unconscious Lee to drooling scumbag Jasper. So, mid-way through Act II of Part 2, Abernathy plays a trick on Lee, just as Julia had played a trick on Arlene in Part 1, the difference being that Julia's trick is intended as a gift and Abernathy's trick is intended as a trick. Abernathy even hypes Lee's sexual prowess to Jasper, lying to him that she's a porn actress who will give him anything he wants. This is the most shocking, discomforting aspect to Death Proof, and Tarantino doesn't let the audience off the hook. We don't cut back to find out that Lee is secretly a kung-fu master or that she can talk herself out of Jasper's predations, or that Jasper is secretly a gentleman and Rhodes scholar who wishes only to share with Lee his collection of American poetry (which would bring us back to Frost). Tarantino even makes it a sick, uneasy little joke that poor Lee wakes up and finds the enormous, grinning, slathering Jasper towering over her. For Zoe to pursue her car-related sexual gratification, there must be a sacrifice, and that sacrifice is Lee. And yet we can't lay the blame entirely at Zoe's feet, because Zoe and Kim specifically wanted to leave both Abernathy and Lee behind to deal with Jasper, and we can see that Abernathy is smart enough to at least take care of herself. No, Abernathy betrays Lee in order to be one of the "cool kids," to participate in Zoe's and Kim's sex game. The fact that that sex game is joyful and electrifying instead of sick and terrifying doesn't make Abernathy's betrayal any less difficult, but Tarantino seems to be willing to let that question of "how far have these women come?" linger after the credits. And Abernathy has further to go before she, too, becomes a monster.
Narratively speaking, why does Abernathy even need to come along on Zoe's and Kim's trip? I think it's to be an audience surrogate, to witness third-hand the unique relationship Zoe and Kim share. We don't know that what Zoe and Kim are doing is weird until Abernathy's face registers that it's weird. And so, as the Ship's Mast game gets underway, Abernathy is appalled and terrified, but then, when the joy of it becomes apparent, Abernathy's fear turns to ecstasy, as she sees a whole new horizon of sexual gratification open before her. Just as the women of Group 1 find their state of grace zooming down an empty road with no boys and the music cranked, the women of Group 2 attain their state of grace via a car, a car with a stunt performer on the hood, being driven by a woman carrying a gun. Kim and Zoe, Abernathy sees, have found a way to live by completely circumventing men altogether -- they merely co-opt men's tools of power, their sexual signifiers, for their own use.
Maybe that's why, when Mike attacks Group 2, he does so from behind instead of from head-on (since he sees them as closer to being men than women). And maybe that's why, after wrecking their car and driving them off the road, he's prepared to let it go at that. Maybe Mike doesn't feel the need to kill Group 2 because he sees them as equals and has developed a respect for their practices -- he sees that they are enlightened as to his radical sex life.
Whatever his state of mind, Kim has other ideas, and another sexual signifier, up her sleeve, and shoots Mike in the arm. And for me, the funniest moment in the movie is when Mike pulls off the side of the road to tend to his wound, howls like a toddler with the pain and screams "WHY?!" Mike is utterly baffled as to why these women would try to hurt him after what he had just done with them.
Death-proof Zoe miraculously survives her run-in with Mike without a scratch, as chipper and unfazed as could be, and with great joy in her expression, suggests that the bunch of them go give Mike a taste of his own medicine. She grabs her own penis-substitute from the side of the road (a metal pole) and, for Act III of Part 2, the women of Group 2 proceed to get medieval on Mike's ass, so to speak. And yet, in spite of Kim's sexualization of their encounter, the long, second chase of Death Proof doesn't feel like an extension of Mike's pathology -- Tarantino is careful to make it feel joyous and comedic, almost a lark, an expression of great release after a buildup of such tension.
Once Group 2 gets Mike cornered and dead to rights, they remove him from his death-proof car and show him how death-proof he really isn't. "I didn't mean anything!" wails Mike, an outrageous statement in context, almost as funny as "WHY?!" Group 2, led by doesn't-need-men Zoe, are able to encounter Mike and give him what he deserves, while Group 1, led by needs-and-fears-men Arlene, never had a chance.
Tarantino ends the movie at their moment of triumph, then, a few seconds later, adds a horrifyin coda. The women of Group 2 have meted out justice, but now Abernathy, the betrayer with the biggest sexual hang-ups of Group 2, uses her formidable foot (the same foot Mike was fetishizing in Act I) to bash in his face with a stunning axe-kick. To bring Mike to ground is laudable, but Abernathy pushes justice too far and becomes a murderer. That Tarantino just kind of tosses that in as a grace note is stunning, and points to Tarantino's whole aesthetic -- you could say that Death Proof, like every Tarantino production, is "only a movie," meaning that it doesn't take place in the real world, but only in a kind of movie-world, but Death Proof takes great care to make the lives of its characters seem very real, the greater to heighten the tension when events turn surreal. What happens to Abernathy after the credits is anyone's guess, but, like Lee's situation in the back woods with Jasper, Tarantino wants you to keep thinking about it after the movie's over.
Of course, Tarantino is not one to let a foot of film go to waste, so he includes yet another signifier in the credits. Where today's video machines have "color bars" for the editor to assess hue and saturation, film used to come with a color pallet at the head of the reel, and these pallets invariably came with an image of a pretty girl's face, so that the color timer could accurately judge flesh tones, and Tarantino punctuates the credits of Death Proof with a number of these images. The point he's trying to make, I think, is that film, like Mike, also seeks to objectify and capture women, that that is partly its very purpose. Like Mike's grin in Part 1, the credits of Death Proof slyly implies, its messages of empowered women aside, that the viewer has just participated in something dedicated to reducing women to objects.