Rare is a film of such purity as Kill Bill, and rarer still is a film of such purity that is never less than fully confused and unsure of itself. From beginning to end, Kill Bill is entirely the artwork of an unabashed enthusiast and filmmaker, but it is a deeply perplexed film, perhaps intentionally so, and perhaps to its unmitigated benefit. Purring like a kitten on the surface but deceptively self-critical underneath, Tarantino’s most violent film also has more to say about violence than any of his films. It is a work that is simultaneously enraptured in love with itself and tearing itself apart in disharmonious hate, and thus certainly his most fascinating, conflicted piece yet. This doesn’t make it necessarily better or worse, but it may make it his most worthwhile film, especially because it never once allows us the confidence of our views in it. We can’t even really be sure if Tarantino “gets” it, and auteur theory isn’t going to help us one lick, unless of course it’s there in the background reminding us that Tarantino just can’t make an uninteresting film– even when doesn’t have a clue himself. Kill Bill can’t make an argument that Tarantino understands his own particular brand of proudly filmic anti-film commentary on the nature of cinema and violence. It may be him missing the forest of his own genius for the crimson-red trees of flailing arms and heads. But what a forest. And what trees.
But how do we arrive at such wonderfully untempered, self-destructive complication from the broad strokes of “female assassin Beatrix Kiddo (aka the Bride, played by Uma Thurman) is double-crossed by fellow assassins as she tries to leave the assassin life to mother a child. She wakes up from a coma, her child dead. Thought to be dead herself, she sets out to kill those who thought they killed her”. Simple, but perfect as a clothesline for Tarantino to hoist his wanton playfulness onto, and a suitable body for him to massage pure filmic entertainment from. He ratchets his challenging visual composition up to 11. A lesser filmmaker might beget style-over-substance, but Tarantino’s greatest skill has always been to make style and substance one and the same. Even from the beginning, when we cut from the arch-grit of murdering Uma Thurman’s man character in black-and-white to Thurman’s body in hyper-stylized black-and-white shadow, Tarantino is already coiling around us. The shift from wheezing, naturalist black-and-white to starkly monochromatic, sensualist, stylized black-and-white enforces the contrast between naturalism and artifice. It lets us know her supposed death was artificial, and even when we see her laying still, we know it’s a false death, one designed to lull her killers into submission while she plots her revenge. Cool stuff.
Ultimately, it’s also style that saves the movie precisely because it’s style that tells the story. Primarily, the film takes up the spirit of ’70s martial arts films by letting action and reaction tell the story more than dialogue – it isTarantino’s least talky film, and thus the one where the visuals bear the biggest burden. As for visuals, let no one say Tarantino, who often dabbles in violence but not action, doesn’t know how to direct a fight scene. The film’s most singular and insistent sequence has Kiddo slither into the headquarters of assassin O Ren Ishii (played by Lucy Liu). What evolves from this isn’t simply a fight scene, but an ever-moving painting that deals in blood rather than oil or water. It is a decidedly playful scene, rooted in kitsch and camp and high-flying nonsense with little eye for reality, but it also hints at a surprising layer of respect for its cultural progenitors. Take for instance the way Tarantino stages the scene like a diorama in ode to Japanese tradition; it’s not quite Ozu we’re dealing with here, but it’s a nice touch.
The eventual showdown with Ishii herself is also the film at it’s most cartoon-like, covered in white snow as stilted, artificial movements convey a sense of timeless, mythic majesty and honor to their duel. It’s telling, though, that this is chronologically our main character’s first revenge killing (although it is not the first one we witness). The Ishii showdown is the Bride’s fantasy realized with the artistry she probably imagined in her head, but she still has four increasingly desperate kills left to go, each one bringing her that much more down to earth. The later ones are ragged and gritty as the luster of her quest has ended and gives way to a drive she can’t necessarily control but must, even against her will, fulfill. She hasn’t yet realized her own vengeance has consequences; she’s willy-eyed here, with a thirst for blood that we see in her eyes and her acidic smirk. She’s enjoying it here, but only here; the feeling doesn’t last long.
Speaking of which, the film’s best sequence, is the first fight to come in the film; a showdown with Vernita Green (Vivaca A. Fox), now house-wife extraordinaire, and a woman of silent strength and positioning to rival Thurman’s Beatrix Kiddo. They proceed to tear the house down; it’s a stylized fight (we can tell these are trained killers), but there’s a ragged, vicious, go-for-broke quality that makes us realize they know what the stakes are and will do anything to shift them in their favor. When they stop mid-fight to hold off as Green’s child returns home from school, only for the fight to continue once she goes to her room, the subtext couldn’t be clearer. Green, the assassin, murdered the Bride’s child, and now the Bride is going to leave in her wake a child without a mother. Beatrix talking to Green’s daughter afterwards, suburban destruction all around as Kiddo’s two lives – assassin and mother – converge, is one of the most difficult and uncompromising scenes the film has to offer, and it’s a stroke of genius on Tarantino’s part.
On the Green/ Kiddo fight: as they intersperse meandering, everyday suburban chat with the realization that one of them is about to die, Tarantino’s commentary on family and society, about what we’re capable of and about what is hiding just below the surface of our “civilized” exterior, is hardly subtle. But then subtle isn’t the point, for the martial arts films Tarantino is exposing weren’t exactly subtle. When Beatrix does her deed and Green’s daughter wanders in, unable to speak with cereal and blood intermixed on the floor, Beatrix responds coldly. We’re aware of how deadened Beatrix has become and how the film’s revenge-quest isn’t entirely in Beatrix’s corner, nor will it ever end ( we learn elsewhere that some members of the assassin squad were themselves victims of family violence in their own lives, as is Beatrix, and now as Green’s daughter is as well). When the film arrives at its sedate conclusion, the tone is not success or catharsis but melancholy and pointlessness; will Green’s daughter grow up an assassin herself and hunt down Kiddo, and what will this mean for Kiddo’s own future family prospects? Tarantino, ever the snake himself, binds the film with a layer of bile and self-critique, an expose of the nature of violence where the bodacious belies the worthlessness of it all. Tarantino’s framing in the Green/ Kiddo showdown, casually exposing the two to be one and the same and mirroring their figures without privilege to either one, draws into tension the entire idea of us ever rooting for the Bride or thinking of her as different from the assassins who fell her in the first place.
Now, this is absolutely a case of Tarantino getting it both ways, but for all his pretensions, he’s a master sequencer and his initially out-of-order film and its contradictions begin to fall into place. It is undeniably his best edited film (the dearly departed Sally Menke being one of the best editors of the modern era). In conjunction with fellow Tarantino collaborator Robert Richardson behind the camera masterfully changing grains and focuses to fit the needs of each precise stage of Tarantino’s tale, the trio does wonders to comment on each scene as it occurs both in the narrative sequence and in the film’s reorganized order. The aforementioned Ishii-Green flip-flop is one of the undeniable highlights, asking us to take joy in the comic-book Ishii killing after we’ve already seen the Bride destroy Green’s family life forever. We’ve seen her witness a youthful version of herself in Green’s daughter and discover the young monsters her revenge quest may breed over time. Except, as we know, the Bride hasn’t done this yet in her story; Green is to come after Ishii, but because Green’s killing is placed first in the film, our emotional stake in the Ishii killing is called into question. We know, but the Bride does not, that the Ishii killing feels emotionally clean to her in a way the Green killing will not, and Tarantino asks us to go from a dirty, complicated killing to comic book fluff. He asks us to feel remorse for a killing and then continues with something grandiose and stylized, and in doing so he implicates us in the film’s violence. He asks us whether we really want all of this cartoon violence to continue, knowing the effects it will have over time.
Things only grow in the film’s second half (Kill Bill Vol 2, as it is known formally), when the shit hits the fan and Richardson trades in the cool blues and green of Suburban living and the heated, fiery yellows and reds of his vision of cartoon Japan and replaces them with a dreary, lonely, muted Western brown. Where once the screen was populated with action and reaction and kinetic violence, now it is mundane and hopeless. Tarantino is accomplishing two things at once. For the Bride’s story, he is moving from the cartoon vision of martial arts cinema – stylizing the colors, mind you, to expose how fake and cartoonish it is in her mind- to the everyday quality of Suburbia she wishes to know as her own life, to the hellish emptiness of the barren wasteland that is the American West. For our story, within the context of the order of how we see the events, he is moving us from the everyday suburbs and heightening and building to the cartoon quality of the martial arts epic (asking us if we really like it so much now that we see the real consequences of it before-hand). Then, and only then, he moves us with the Bride to the limbo of Western after-life, bringing us down with her even as she evolves from playful avenger to single-minded, robotically cold beacon to inhumanity and loss of life. Tarantino evokes Western iconography as he does martial arts iconography to play with our emotions and our understanding of the genre.
And all of this without the sterling, biting conclusion between the Bride and Bill, the leader of the assassins. A masterclass in staging, blocking, and framing, the scene coaxes quiet spaces that linger and cut into the viewer’s flesh and never go away. The most memorable slice of dialogue in the film has Bill (David Carradine; avuncular, syrupy, and oily in equal measure) pontificate on Superman’s identity with multitudinous, throat-slitting implications for the Bride. The way Tarantino frames the two, along with the Bride’s daughter revealed to still be alive, blends soap opera family drama and martial arts tone poem with harsh results. The everyday dialogue between the three is given otherworldly power for how it both depicts this trio as an unconventional family and questions whether any of them – Kiddo included – could ever find a home in traditional family life ever again.
The finale of the film, cautious and careful, is an existential nail in the coffin of Kiddo’s life, driving home some of the ways in which Tarantino is unsure about the moral worth of the martial arts films he loves so, and specifically their focus on existential revenge as a moral good. The way he name-drops one of these films, and uses Kiddo’s daughter as his voice in doing so too, cuts with more force than any single moment in any of his films, relying on our knowledge of everything that has come in cinema’s past, in the past of this film, and everything that will come for these characters. The idea that the violence will stop, and that Kiddo’s daughter is ever safe from the violence of others, including the violence of her mother, and potentially the violence she will do when she grows up, is a frightening question mark Tarantino raises in the slightest, subtlest of ways. At what point will her daughter and Green’s now motherless child set their eyes on each other in the future?
One focuses so much on the structure and the violence of Kill Bill because the film has studied the martial arts and Western genres well, knowing how they preferred to delineate human emotions from quiet spaces and images rather than overpowering dialogue. This is the product of a person who is eminently confused about what to do with cinema, and he is lashing out with his mind in exciting, contradictory ways. On one hand, the fact that he uses these two genres – the martial arts film and, late in the film, the Western – to expose the troublesome nature of the genres makes the film a critique of those genres. What may be missed, and here is where things get really dicey, is that it is also a gesture of respect. The fact is, Tarantino can’t but respect these genres in using their own forms and mediums to self-complicate, by showing the ways in which Westerns and martial arts films can critique themselves, and by hinting at the ways in which other films in these genres have questioned themselves. Obviously, the fact that he does so much with a genre innately presupposes a love of that genre, and a respect for what kinds of stories it can tell, but it’s a knowing, difficult love. And a scary respect.
What does it say of a film that at once implies its own artistic mastery and its own moral tentativeness? Can we ever reconcile this tension? There’s a nastiness to Kill Bill’s fun, as though Tarantino knows he’s making us enjoy something we shouldn’t. He sets us up and lets us have our fun in spades before knocking us down again. Loving a genre and being scared of it is a dangerous beast, and Tarantino doesn’t necessarily break from this contradiction in exposing it. He is, after all, using the master’s tools to tear down the master’s house, to quote Audre Lorde, and critical theorists have yet to reconcile the morality of this tactic. If the large majority of the audience will only see the violence and not the self-hating criticism weighing down on it, Tarantino’s film cannot necessarily be considered moral. These are the trials and tribulations of a work dedicated to both self-love and self-hate, two pure thoughts that cannot co-exist, but can’t really exist without each other either. They would make a good filmmaker nervous about the message of her/his film. Tarantino is a great filmmaker, and he sometimes seems like he couldn’t care less. He’s just out to make a movie for conflicted people like him, and he does it in stupendous style. Kill Bill invites its own immorality, a boastful move, and maybe a necessary once.
One thing we can always say of Tarantino: he understands his films as objects, something most filmmakers don’t have the brashness to even hint at. And he wants to expose the problems with those objects, even when he’s just too darn in love with himself to fully succeed at it (a bigger problem with Django Unchained). We should thank him for his impeccable craft. For the way his films are confused about what they think toward the world, and for the way they invite this confusion and even expose the ways in which they are confused, well I don’t know what to think. Nor do the films. Kill Bill is ultimately too excited to be itself, too much into its own mojo, to ever truly indict itself at the groundwork level it ought to. Yet perhaps that is the point; a work without a clear intent, or without a definitive perspective, a work afraid to commit, to expose its own intricacies and difficulties without falling back on the fun it has simply being itself. This is undeniably a limit, a failure if you will, but it’s also an accidental success at exposing the limits and possibilities of cinema. Kill Bill can’t ever be the film it wants to be. It doesn’t know what it wants to be. But damn if it isn’t provocative while it’s busy not knowing.