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.
Last week I covered the first half of Quentin Tarantino’s two part epic Kill Bill, though I tried hard not to cover the obvious ground. The problem with covering a movie like that is its inherently unfinished, and so many of the points I wanted to make were going to be offset into this article. But again, I’m trying to make these more about the small thematic bits that stick with me more than talking about the movies themselves, because everyone knows these movies. So as we roll into the second, better Kill Bill movie, I want to recommend that everyone check out the first piece. And, of course, if you haven’t seen the movies: a) what is wrong with you? and b) get on that post haste.
Now back to the action, with the Bride rampaging through cinematic history.
Kill Bill vol. 2 (2004)
If Kill Bill vol 1 is about the joy of vengeance, of the sheer glee of carnage, then vol 2 is about the price one pays for violent methods. All revenge movies, and in fact most thoughtful movies about crime and murder in general, all end up reflexively back at this point: the seeds of violence are only ruin and more violence. And what Kill Bill vol 2 offers is less an action film and more an exploration of why these people ended up in such awful situations, and how they remain entrenched in this trap of death.
All of this is predicated on Bill, who shows up immediately and hovers over the entire movie as a specter of regret. Played by David Carradine, revisiting the Eastern mystic hippie cool guy roles that made him a cult star, Bill is introduced off screen playing the same flute he played in Kung Fu. Bill is a strange character, the head of this organization of assassins and real murdering monster, but when he comes onto the screen his quiet charm and careworn savagery manage to create a sense of someone who was once an embodiment of evil, but mostly seems sad and reflective now.
But it’s a front, and when he comes across Beatrix at the chapel getting married what appears to be a tearful, earnest farewell turns out to be the betrayal that kicked off the plot. It’s a moment of earnest communication, of these two people trying to say everything in what appears to be small talk, meaningful moments under the scrutiny of the oblivious. She tries to assuage Bill, who pretends that he’s not angry, and of course we all know what happens next. The guns, the blood, the bullet in the head and the baby revelation that kicked off the whole plot in the first place. But now we know what Beatrix doesn’t: she told Bill about the baby, and he saved it, and somewhere out there is the daughter Beatrix thought she lost, waiting for her.
So much of this movie focuses on fallout: the fallout of Bill’s poor choices, the fallout of Beatrix’s rampage through O-Ren and the Crazy 88 in the first movie, the past (only hinted at) between Bill and Budd (Michael Madsen) and Elle (Darryl Hannah). The three remaining people on Beatrix’s list have a past together, Bill and Budd brothers on bad terms, and Elle seemingly Bill’s woman after Beatrix took a bullet and dropped out of the scene. It’s one big unhappy dysfunctional family, trying to scramble to prepare for Beatrix. Bill is warning everyone to be ready for her, to prepare to fight for their lives.
It’s Budd then that really steals the movie in the second half with a deep sense of apathy towards Bill’s warnings. Budd is washed up, retired to a shitty RV and a worse job as a bouncer, spending his days drinking and regretting, a man who has seemingly given up on the world. Not that he’s outright ready to die, but he seems to understand in a way that nobody else in this group does that it’s the right thing for them to do. Budd knows he’s a murderer, knows that the final legacy of murderers is to kill until they die themselves, and casually tells Bill the actual truth of the movie:
That woman deserves her revenge. And we deserve to die. But then again, so does she. So we’ll just see, won’t we?
When Beatrix comes for him, then, he’s ready: ready to fight because it’s the respectable thing to do, because he knows nothing else, not because he has a burning desire to be murdered by this woman, even if he knows he wronged her. That dichotomy between knowing that one is in the moral wrong but carrying on with these learned behaviors of violence and killing is actually the full theme of the second half of this movie, culminating in the confrontation between Beatrix and Bill at the very end. Sure, there’s a big fight scene in the way, where Elle inserts herself into the picture and casually murders Budd, but there’s a deep sense the movie has that Elle is a speed bump, a ghost of what Beatrix used to be and has transformed past, someone to be pitied as much as she’s hated.
It’s only when she finally makes it to Bill’s surrogate father Esteban Viejo (Michael Parks under heavy make up and the influence of a drunken accent) that the truth becomes clear to Beatrix: the ease with which she’s made her way through Budd and Elle, the lack of resistance as she tracks down Bill, is completely intentional on his part. He’s waiting for her, expecting her to come for him, and Esteban knows that he wants her to be there so he can see her again. So she heads into this situation, aware only that Bill is ready for her, unaware that he’s ready for her with their young daughter BB, ready to upend her life with a surprise far more devastating than any ambush.
And its in that final confrontation that Kill Bill vol 2 unfolds the key truth of its story: that Beatrix’s quest for vengeance might be justified, but that doesn’t make it right. What Bill did was unforgivable, but that doesn’t imbue Beatrix with the moral right to exact her wrath on those who wronged her. Not just because that isn’t morally right, but because she uses it as a shroud to deny the truth: she was and is as bad as the people she was hunting down, and the murders she committed she did happily and without regret, relishing not just getting even but the simple act of taking a life.
And that’s ultimately what Kill Bill is about: Beatrix, having decided when she discovered she was pregnant to give up her life, realized finally and brutally that she never really could. She is exactly what Bill knows her to be: a monster, an assassin without peer, the human embodiment of honed death. And while she might try to run from that, it is only a lie, and only when she hears and accepts that she is a murderer can she come and claim her long-deserved vengeance and reclaim her long lost daughter. He needs her to grasp the truth, so that when she is alone, she has a clarity of purpose that she never had even when she was mowing down yakuza and punching her way out of coffins.
Once she does that, he basically gives her exactly what she wants. Does he lash out at her, attempt to kill her? Absolutely. But there’s a deep sense that he’s only being polite, making it easy for her by starting things from the first moment. He spends the entirety of the lengthy scenes talking drinking heavily, getting visibly inebriated as they lead up to the fight. He lets her get close, he lets her have her say and his say and waits until they’ve aired all the past that’s between them. And when it happens, the battle is short and sudden and brutal. He lashes out, she fights back, and the sword fight (including one of the most overt sexual metaphors in any sword fight ever) ends in a blink when she pulls out the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique.
It’s a moment of real regret when she realizes what she did basically on automatic, underlining his point about her innate fatal nature, that she is who she always was no matter how far she runs or how good she tries to be. And suddenly, her victory in hand, she’s overcome with a deep sense of loss. Tears in her eyes, she admits that she doesn’t like who she is, that her abilities are a burden that she doesn’t want and that she can’t be rid of, the fundamental inviolate part of her being that no amount of trauma or good intention can shake. Bill, in his last kind act, tells her the truth: she’s magnificent, and he loves her, and shame is something that only she can put on herself because nobody else dares. With that, he stands up and walks away and falls down dead, ready after many years to receive his deserved fate.
Beatrix walks away with BB, and together they live happily ever after. Beatrix isn’t unaware of what Bill did, and in the final moments of the film has her moment of catharsis as she thanks Bill for everything. And now, whole both in spirit and family, she’s ready to engage in motherhood in a very real way, knowing who she is and what she wants to do. She might not escape her past, but she can make sure that her daughter never endures this lifestyle. That requires more than her avoiding the truth of her being, but engaging fully with it, understanding it so she can prevent it from happening again.
Which leads us to an interesting hypothetical: Kill Bill vol 3. A non-real movie that Tarantino has spoken about multiple times, the concept for this third and final part of the Kill Bill story would concern Nikki, the daughter of Vernita Green from the opening of the first movie, training under a now-blind Elle to grow up years later and hunt down and take on Beatrix to gain vengeance. Tarantino has said he wants the actors to age naturally before he even considers it, and we have a few more years before that will happen (if it ever does). Maybe it’ll never happen. I remember when he was talking about The Vega Brothers.
But in many ways I hope it does. I feel like it’s the final, reflexive close to the loop of endless violence. Beatrix did awful things, but nothing was ever as close as when she thoughtlessly orphaned a girl in her quest to avenge her own loss of motherhood. It’s more than just vengeance at that point, it’s the ultimate inconsiderate perversion of her purpose. And if she had known, if she realized her daughter lived, would she have done it? Maybe not. But she did, and didn’t regret it, and callously offered that Nikki could come when she’s of age to try to seek vengeance.
If that does happen, it will be nothing less than fully justified. If Beatrix was right to do these things, then Nikki is even more right. If Beatrix was wrong, that error is one that causes repercussions, lives destroyed influencing others to destroy lives. The cycle of violence that she feared her daughter would get caught up in without choosing it she subjected on someone else, not stopping to realize she had done it. There’s no excuse. To repeat the words of Budd: We deserve to die. But then again, so does she.
So we’ll just see, won’t we?