Welcome to Directed Viewing, the weekly series where I take a look at a director’s filmography—one movie at a time. If you haven’t been following along so far, you can find a big explanation of the whys and wherefores on the handy table of contents I built just for that purpose, including links to all the prior seasons.
We’ve been taking a look at the movies of Quentin Tarantino for the past month, and we’ve finally reached the movie that I feel is the obvious jumping on point for my peer group and younger. Pulp Fiction obviously made a huge cultural impact when it hit, but it was ultimately something of an ‘arthouse’ success. Kill Bill, on the other hand, exploded outward into pop culture, influencing music and style in ways that I feel are just now really becoming obvious. For people who were born in the late 80s and early 90s, it’s the first Tarantino movie that people were old enough to see in a theater. And that it came out after a lengthy directorial hiatus, and a long build up, certainly didn’t hurt. Simply put: Kill Bill is a huge movie, not just structurally but in terms of influence.
Which leads to an interesting problem: I want to talk about both volumes as separate things, but I really feel like everyone knows these movies up and down. What’s a guy to do? Well, hopefully dig deep into considering the broader implications of these movies specifically as part of Tarantino’s filmography, though as entirely separate entities that come to wildly different conclusions. It’s not going to be about the movies themselves so much as what they represent. Everyone on board? Good.
Kill Bill: Volume 1 (2003)
The reality is, Kill Bill is predicated on a joke. All the way back in Pulp Fiction, Uma Thurman’s character talks about a pilot of a show she was on, the infamous Fox Force Five, about five sexy secret agents with specialties who would go on adventures. Charlie’s Angels with more of a team bent. But it’s the kind of idea, even explained lamely in the movie, where you find yourself nodding and saying “That sounds dumb, but I’d probably watch that.” And that’s exactly what Tarantino created with Kill Bill, a movie version of this idealized action-team, though time shifted to a point where they’d already broken apart and one of their number was setting out to get revenge.
What’s interesting is how much the movie still holds onto that top-down hierarchy of action. The Bride (Uma Thurman) was obviously a highly placed member of the team, perhaps the best member of the team, up until the point that she betrayed Tarantino’s Charlie-turned-zen-master in the sadistic, iconic Bill (David Carradine, who we’ll talk about mostly next week). He was the one who ordered her execution, carried out by the people who worked with her (or under her), before he shot her and put her in a coma. When she wakes up, then, it’s to that pecking order she returns to, even shifted as it is due to Tarantino’s typically fractured narrative. First comes the youngest: the upstart O-Ren Ishii who went off to play Yakuza, then Vernita Green, living an idealized American dream type scenario as a homemaker, and then onward into the people who were still hanging around Bill years later.
This leads to this movie being decidedly women-heavy compared to the next movie. From the two members the Bride goes after, to O-Ren’s henchwomen in Gogo Yubari and Sofie Fatale, to the lengthy scene with Elle coming into the hospital to put the Bride down: this movie is almost entirely about women beating up on other women, usually at the command of men. Bill, seen only as a hand and a voice, commands things from some distant place. Most of the fodder the Bride cuts through are cookie cutter men, barely people much less obviously gendered (and wearing Tarantino’s recurring black suit, to boot). And the only meaningful man involved in violence is Buck, the rapist/pimp who deserves special mention because it’s the one time that Kill Bill breaks out of its Shaw Brothers/spaghetti western vibe to tackle a brief section of a third, left-field influence.
The thing with Buck is interesting because it’s the only time that the Bride is sexualized in the entire two movies. Kill Bill is often referenced in the same breath as a lot of exploitation and trash classics, but honestly even compared to the rest of Tarantino’s filmography it’s a nearly sexless movie. Part of that has to do with the focus on the Bride, a character he wrote with Uma Thurman and undoubtedly bears the stamp of her influence to make sure she remains as completely singular in her goal as any male action hero in similar genre fiction. It’s refreshing how much the movie doesn’t deign to put her in those situations, which makes the scene with Buck all that more singular, an homage in score and shooting style to the gritty 70s rape-heavy exploitation that Tarantino has always been very up front is part of his cinematic background but has happily not put to film (yet, knock on wood).
That moment, then, deliberately casts a sharp relief on the lack of sexuality that the Bride encounters in the rest of the film. Even someone like Budd, to speak briefly of things in Volume 2, with Michael Madsen’s typically threatening screen presence, doesn’t relate to her in that way. She is asexual, stripped of motherhood and thus her sexuality, turned into something more/less than human by the tragedy she underwent until she’s forged as an avatar of vengeance, inhuman in the violence that she visits upon others even when they’re simply those that get into the way. Look at poor Sophie Fatale, who did nothing more than exist in the wrong place in the wrong time and got her arms chopped for the trouble. Her retaliation is wildly out of proportion to what she suffered, but that’s part of the form and how she prefers it. The movie smartly never apologizes for it, even when it becomes the focus of the second volume.
But it is interesting that the movie equates the loss of motherhood and loss of child as a loss of humanity and identity as a woman. It’s a viewpoint that I feel in many ways is out of keeping with Tarantino’s other films, generally light on kids or motherhood feelings, but perhaps informed by Thurman’s contributions based on her own parenting experiences. Which is why the finale of the movie comes as such a sudden shock to the system, when it’s honestly on paper a ridiculous, melodramatic twist. We’ve spent the entire movie operating under a set of assumptions that are never called into question, obfuscated by weird things like the mystery of the Bride’s name (a protracted MacGuffin that I feel only exists to misdirect from the real truth, especially after it’s so quickly dropped in volume 2) in order to get us complacent.
It’s not just us: the Bride also identifies as less than human, someone who had everything stripped from her until she was simply a being that existed for a single bloody purpose. And she achieves that purpose at any cost, even doing the reprehensible. There’s nothing that the Bride does in both movies that is as awful as the sudden, senseless murder of Vernita Green, perpetuating a cycle of violence that drives apart with fatal trauma another mother and daughter, much like had happened with her. We don’t have the context to start with, and it’s good that we don’t, because if we had known what she was about and why she was pursuing this vengeance at that point it would be unforgivable. It still is unforgivable, but only in the way that only becomes clear when you consider the broader implications of unpacking the timeline of the movie. One has to know all before one can see the connections, the impacts of the choices these characters make. And the Bride’s quest for vengeance, as pure as it is, rides into the second film with us knowing more about her than she does, preparing us to learn a whole variety of truths as the explosion of violence ends and the really harrowing reality of her task becomes clear.