In my younger days as a film critic for both the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the UWM Post, I once gave glowing reviews to writer/director Quentin Tarantino’s fourth and fifth films (which I will review as one text for the sake of simplicity) Kill Bill: Vols. 1-2 (2003-2004). Re-watching the films over the past five years, particularly in the wake of Tarantino’s Grindhouse entry Death Proof (2007), my original impression has begun to diminish. While I admittedly enjoy myself for the bulk of those four-plus hours, I’ve found that the film’s excesses (temporal length, graphic violence, style more generally) grow thin after awhile. While I don’t despise Kill Bill as I do Death Proof, I don’t have the affection for it that I do for his first three films. At least, from my present perspective as a more seasoned film scholar and critic, not as deeply as I once did.
While Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994) held a candle for the crime genre and Jackie Brown (1997) kept one burning for blaxploitation, Kill Bill (henceforth KB) takes its inspiration from just about every other “low” genre you can think of: kung-fu, samurai, spaghetti western, even anime. That, I feel, is ultimately a factor in its failure. If you recall, in my retrospective review of Pulp Fiction, I described how Tarantino’s preference for the postmodern, specifically cinematic homage, held the possibility of becoming pure spectacle. As I noted, film critic James Wood wrote in his review of Pulp in The Guardian that Tarantino’s postmodernism created a film “stripped of any politics, metaphysics, or moral interest.” While I disagreed with Wood’s argument in the case of Pulp, I began to sympathize with his observation while re-watching KB but we’ll get to that shortly.
As many of you are no doubt aware, both those who have and those who haven’t watched KB, the story is, at its most basic, a revenge tale. The saga begins with a stark black and white image of the Bride’s (Uma Thuman) battered and beaten face as we hear the voice of the off-screen Bill (David Carradine), who relays to the pregnant Bride a simple statement: “Do you find me sadistic?…No Kiddo, at this moment, this is me at my most masochistic.” We hear Bill cock of a pistol and, just as the Bride utters, “Bill, it’s your baby,” she is shot in the face. Yet, Bill’s bullet did not kill the Bride; it just placed her in a coma, leading her to believe she lost her unborn child, which, of course, only multiplies her desire for a vengeance quest. This is what the bulk of the films’ four-hours are spent on; the quest to, as the title suggests, eliminate Bill along with his team of assassins: O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu), Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox), Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah), and Bill’s brother, Budd (Michael Madsen). Of course, it doesn’t hold well for Bill and his team that the estranged Bride was formally his best assassin, provided with both extensive martial arts training by Chinese master Pai Mei (Gordon Liu) and killing steel by Japanese swordsmith Hattori Hanzo (Sonny Chiba).
The film’s revenge plot finds its main source of existence in the aestheticization of violence. We watch as the various characters slice off one another’s limbs with samurai swords, gauge out one another’s eyeballs, turn each other into human Pez machines, shoot one another with shotguns and, in one case, utilize the “Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique.” Tarantino delivers this violence in an over-the-top, cartoonish fashion (sometimes literally, as is the case with O-Ren Ishii’s background) by pumping up the gore, flipping to black and white, using backlit silhouettes, etc. As this description suggests, KB is, for the most part, a collage of carnage, cinematically rendered with as much stylistic variety as the kills themselves. Sure, there’s a tonal balancing act going on: Volume 1 trades in characterization for action set pieces while Volume 2 trades set pieces for characterization. Yet, I’ve begun to find Tarantino’s motivation for this break, specifically the use of two films, suspect.
Re-watching KB, I couldn’t help but ask myself why the story needed to be told in two films, over the course of over four hours. I like the film’s epic quality, I even like the tonal shift from the first film to the second, but couldn’t these qualities have been achieved in roughly three hours, maybe three and half, consolidating two films into one? Personally, I find the split seemed much more like a technique on behalf of the film’s producers and distributors, Bob and Harvey Weinstein, to maximize profit. In this move towards commercial success, Tarantino sacrificed artistic potency. For instance, why have the Bride fight the Crazy 88s at the House of Blue Leaves? The sequence isn’t nearly as surprising or engaging as her battle with Vernita Green and its excessive length not only diminishes the affective power of the violence but also undermines the anti-climactic duel between the Bride and O-Ren. Do we need to see Budd’s interactions with his boss? Couldn’t the background of O-Ren in the animated sequence have been shortened? Why do we really need the scene with Esteban Vihaio (Michael Parks)? Given all these shaggy ends, I have no reason to believe that KB needed to both to be four plus hours and separated into two films. Tarantino could have condensed and the result would have been more powerful and effective in nearly every respect. He could have even kept the severe shift in tone, executing it in a more economical way as Stanley Kubrick (Full Metal Jacket) often did.
I also take issue with some of the moments of characterization in the film. While I find the relationship between Bill and the Bride, particularly as portrayed by Carradine and Thurman, quite emotional, perhaps even standing in second-place to the relationship between Max and Jackie in Jackie Brown, the one character who always confused me was Elle Driver. In particular, her betrayal of Budd always strikes me as a misstep; completely out of line with her other actions throughout the film. As you might remember, Elle betrays Budd after learning that he has buried the Bride alive. Her reasoning? “The biggest “R” I feel is Regret. Regret that maybe the greatest warrior I have ever known, met her end at the hands of a bushwhackin’, scrub, alky piece of shit like you. That woman deserved better.” Yet, if you recall, this is coming from the same woman who was furious when Bill told her not to euthanize the comatose Bride with a Kevorkian cocktail in the first film because, as Bill says, “We owe her better than that.” Did Tarantino get confused somewhere in the creation of his gargantuan (I always liked that word too) epic, jumbling the motivations for one character with another?
Criticisms aside, as I stated at the beginning of this endeavor, I do enjoy watching KB. It’s a mess, one of Tarantino’s weakest, but still has some intoxicating moments such as the suburban fight with Vernita Green, the trailer duel, and the touching final moments between Bill and the Bride. Yet, Tarantino’s ability to supply us with strong characterization, as seen in Jackie Brown, is lost in the excessive spectacle and running length of KB. KB marks the beginning of a Tarantino who has become lost in the vortex of his own obsessions, providing surface with few moments of depth, films stripped of any politics, metaphysics, or moral interest. While Andrew Sarris’ auteur theory posited that a director’s preoccupations mark the presence of a unique voice, Kill Bill only aids Pauline Kael’s rebuttal that sometimes these preoccupations can become the mark not of a unique voice, but of a director’s limitations.
Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. He has previously written for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and UWM Post and is the 2008 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.