Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Guest Review: Kill Bill (2003)

By T-Rav

In discussing Pulp Fiction last year, several of us remarked that Inglourious Basterds was our least favorite of Quentin Tarantino’s movies (as opposed to Pulp Fiction being perhaps our favorite), for several reasons but mainly having to do with its glorification of mindless violence. The two Kill Bill movies, which I shall treat here as a single entity, fall somewhere between those other works of his. They’re fascinating films and a lot of fun, but there’s a certain emptiness to them, and I’m not sure if this was intentional or unintentional.

** spoiler alert **

Kill Bill is the story of Beatrix Kiddo, aka “The Bride” (Uma Thurman). Kiddo is an assassin for a man we only know as Bill (David Carradine), a powerful and vicious crime lord. Upon learning she is pregnant with Bill’s daughter, Kiddo tries to flee, but he puts a bullet in her head and leaves her in a coma. Upon awakening from that coma four years later, and believing she has lost the baby, Kiddo embarks on a path of vengeance against Bill’s henchmen (or rather, his henchpersons), and finally against Bill himself. But there’s a small wrinkle: Their daughter, B.B., did in fact survive, and is now being raised by Bill, who seems to be a very doting father. This twist radically alters the way in which we view the movie.

Much of what made Tarantino’s early work so captivating is repeated to great effect here. As with Pulp Fiction, the story is told out of order, with extended flashbacks throughout and jumping from the middle of Kiddo’s rampage back to the beginning. In this case, it’s not so clear whether this was done to make a point or to have a dramatic fight when necessary, but either way, it works. Another critical strength is the amount of time devoted to character development.

The people we meet in Kill Bill are not your typical gangsters or hit men. They all give the appearance of being well-educated, can be frequently found philosophizing about various matters, and while they’re frequently in fights to the death, there’s no sense that they and their opponents hate each other. We see a lot of superficial courtesy and even respect. For instance, Bill allows Kiddo to find him at his hacienda, not only so she can meet their daughter, but because it’s nobler to have a face-to-face confrontation than to try to pick her off with a sniper or a car bomb. The use of flashbacks also allows us to see how these characters began and matured over time, and as the story is revealed piece by piece, we get drawn to these people. In fact, I would venture to say that these are some of the best-drawn characters in any work by Tarantino.

Another feature repeated and made into a great strength is the unexpected quality of the showdowns. We get some mesmerizing swordfights and brutal martial-arts violence, but we also get some surprise endings to these battles. For instance, in her fight with fellow assassin Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah), everything suggests Kiddo will have to chop off her head or run her through with her sword to stop her. Instead, she suddenly plucks out Driver’s eye and crushes it. As her other eye was plucked out in the past, this leaves Driver blind and helpless; Kiddo leaves her to thrash about in a rage. And in her final confrontation with Bill, she kills him not with a weapon but by poking the pressure points on his heart, causing it to explode—but only after he’s had time to button his coat and walk out onto his lawn, thus allowing the father of her child a dignified, “clean” death.

These are all positive qualities. But there’s something wrong with the movie nonetheless, which I attribute to the lack of a moral center.

Now, it might seem that Kiddo is the logical moral center/protagonist, since the movie revolves around her, and she’s seeking revenge against the people who left her for dead and (so she believes) caused her baby to die. While this does inspire a lot of sympathy, consider some of her actions along the way. The very first person we see Kiddo in battle with is another of her would-be killers, Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox), who she manages to kill—in front of Green’s young daughter. This, after Green expressed remorse for her actions and in vain asked Kiddo’s forgiveness. It doesn’t seem to matter to Beatrix whether or not her attackers are sorry or trying to turn over a new leaf (and not all of them are); they deserve to be punished, and she’ll carry that punishment out regardless. In the finale, she doesn’t hesitate to kill Bill even after finding out her daughter is alive and that Bill, whatever his crimes, has been a loving father to her.

To be fair, this story would probably end the same if everyone’s roles were reversed. But that’s precisely the problem—the “hero” and the “villains” have virtually identical moral traits. Theoretically, Kiddo could easily have been involved in someone else’s cold-blooded assassination and become the object of someone else’s revenge. To be fair, the whole point of her leaving “the life” is to give her daughter something better; otherwise, though, there’s nothing about her that sets her apart from her enemies, and when you don’t have that kind of clear-cut difference, it’s hard to root for the protagonist.

Moreover, consider how the movie ends, and what Kiddo’s wrath has left in its wake. She has her daughter back, sure, but she’s also deprived poor B.B. (who doesn’t really know her) of her father, and killed others left and right. Nor does she show any regret for her actions, telling Green’s now-motherless daughter, “I’m not sorry. . . Grow up, and if you still feel like killing me for what I’ve done, I guess I’ll see you then.” Pretty callous, not to mention nihilistic. I suppose it’s possible that Tarantino was trying to subtly criticizing this sort of behavior; early on, one of Kiddo’s trainers warns her that “Revenge is not a straight line—it’s a forest,” one it can become impossible to find your way out of. But given the movie’s efforts to make her the heroine, it’s hard to tell what he was going for here.

Kill Bill is a fun movie to watch, and in its details it’s very well made. But thematically, it’s definitely weaker than Tarantino’s early films, thanks to its lack of a clear protagonist and its glorification of violence for violence’s sake. And anarchy is hard to celebrate.

32 comments:

T-Rav said...

I probably should have put up a spoiler alert warning or something. Oops.

Joel Farnham said...

T-Rav,

I think it doesn't have any moral center because they were hired assassins. Private mercenaries, unaffiliated with any country. The best in the world. There could be no moral center.

The only amoral person was Elle Driver. She killed without provocation. She had no compunctions about killing Beatrix Kiddo. She only stopped because Bill told her to stop. She managed to kill Pai Mei because he took her eye out. She killed Bill's brother over Kiddo's sword and a million dollars. While he lay dying she talked about the "gargantuan" level of poison coursing through his veins. The only people she respected were Bill and Kiddo.

And if you remember, while Kiddo was being nihilistic and callous with Vernita Green's daughter, she didn't know her daughter even existed. It occurred to me that Vernita could have at some point joined forces with Kiddo to get Kiddo's kid back. It would have been a temporary thing, but Vernita chose instead to kill.

In fact, until she knew she had a daughter, she was just this killing machine with no future. In point of fact, once she knew she was pregnant, she had a future and started to believe in something greater than herself. Quitting the business, without looking back, she endeavored to create a life separated from the unique world she had lived and reveled in for years.

At the end, Bill could have given up the daughter, de-escalated things, could have apologized, could have gone down on his knees and asked for forgiveness. These would have been out of character for Bill, but he could have done it.

And she used "Pai Mei's five point palm exploding heart technique" not in anger, but in self defense. Bill would have surely killed her.

No moral center? I take that back. What could be more moral than a mother whose baby was taken from her and presumed dead. The mother went on a vengeance spree. At several points, each and every one of her "victims" could have told her about her daughter being alive and helped her. They didn't. They died or were horribly mangled. Sofie Fatale, Elle Driver and some of the Crazy 88's come to mind.

Hattori Hanzo is the only one to help Kiddo and by only creating for her a sword which could cut God. To be fair, that is only what she requested.

ScottDS said...

It's funny... I've still only seen the first part. I liked it very much (they had me from the Klingon proverb) but I guess I've never been in a rush to finish it. I suppose if I see the second one, I might as well re-watch the first one, too.

I'm sorry, I just don't have much more to add at the moment. :-)

T-Rav said...

Joel, there is that angle to it, and I did take that into consideration when writing this. But I stand by my argument.

It's true that Kiddo could claim self-defense in a couple cases (sort of), and that in the end, she's a woman more sinned against than sinning. But she leaves no doubt about her thirst for slaughter. Take Vernita's death. Shortly afterward, we hear a voiceover which goes something like, "When in combat, the warrior has no time for mercy or compassion; he must kill whoever stands in his way." Green didn't tell Kiddo about her daughter (although it's not clear she knew herself), but she did ask for forgiveness; it's very clear to me, though, that Kiddo had no intention of showing anyone mercy.

As for your question, "What could be more moral than a mother whose baby was taken from her and presumed dead," that's partly my point. This gets into all sorts of questions as to how far vengeance is justified. I don't have time to get into all that, but surely you would agree that this unchecked rage can be spiritually as well as socially and physically damaging. Lest we forget, the only person in this movie who causes a mother and child to be permanently separated (by death) is Kiddo herself.

Did these people deserve punishment? Yes. But that doesn't necessarily put Kiddo on the side of the angels.

T-Rav said...

Scott, that's cool. :-) I have to rush off in a minute anyway.

In spite of my moral qualms, like I said, the movies are very well done, and parts of them I get a real kick out of.

tryanmax said...

I doubt Quentin had this in mind when he created "The Bride," but I can compare the character's mixed-up morality to that of Dorian Gray. (It doesn't hurt that I just finished watching that.)

Kiddo's morals are constantly shifting according to the situation. When she believes she has something to live for (a child), she make a very conscious attempt to be good. As soon as that motive is taken away, she goes headlong into wickedness. When it returns again, she wants to be good again, but her years of wrongdoing have warped her morals to an unrecoverable state.

Of course, the outcome of each story is vastly different, but we are left to consider Vernita Green's daughter as a future nemesis to Kiddo.

AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav, I put up the spoiler warning. Oops.

Nice article, I agree. I'll be back with more thoughts soon. :)

Joel Farnham said...

T-Rav,

I never said she was an angel. :-)

Consider this, prior to her child, Kiddo is akin to Ronin, the leaderless Samurai from Japan. Her moral compass is what her titular leader decided, Bill. After finding out she is pregnant, she changed. She decided to give up her childish ways and ephemeral pursuits in order to raise her baby in an appropriate setting. Bill and his Ronin took that away.

All Kiddo had left was a burning vengeance and superb killing skills. Most people would have curled up and died. She chose not to.

AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav, Excellent analysis. I agree that something is missing from this film and I personally think what is missing is having a character to relate to. The whole revenge angle doesn't interest me much because it's not like Kiddo was a nice person to begin with. Indeed, this is little more than a story of two co-conspirators turning on each other.

At the same time, there isn't much I find redeeming about her character itself. And the whole bit with the child feels like an attempt to shock the audience, but feels forced to me.

I thought Tarantino's first couple films were brilliant. They were very subversive in many ways. Indeed, they made us laugh at things we shouldn't have laughed at and then made us feel bad about it. But he's begun a slide toward violence for the sake of violence with no fascinating little twists or turns. I can see where he wanted Kill Bill to be more like his first couple, but it really wasn't, it was the beginning of his slide into violence for the sake of violence.

I guess we'll see if he turns it around or not?

Joel Farnham said...

Andrew,

I hate to burst your bubble, but Tarantino didn't make Kill Bill to be more like his first couple. They didn't have outright violence in them. You saw the effects of violence, but did you really see a guy cut off an ear?

Tarantino set out to make the "ultimate revenge movie" and spectacularly achieved it. And I never was sympathetic to any of his characters. I mean I could never put myself into their place.

T-Rav said...

Okay, and finally I'm back!

tryanmax, that's an interesting comparison. I haven't read or watched Dorian Gray extensively, so I can't say too much about that, but it's worth thinking about. Is there a point at which you've become so fundamentally bad (and I'm not saying Kiddo ever reached this point) that you can't come back? I have conflicting thoughts about it.

Yeah, I would say that if this story were extended far into the future, Kiddo will be made to pay for her killing of Green. This is the problem with sheer vengeance: You leave a trail of bodies and broken lives behind you. If Vernita's daughter does come after her someday, she'll have become as morally warped as Kiddo is, and it's all her fault. Plus, you just know there's going to be "that conversation" someday when B.B. gets old enough to be asking awkward questions about what happened to her daddy. It's a mess, happy ending or no.

T-Rav said...

Joel, again, I agree that Kiddo is justified in seeking justice, but I don't know that the way in which she goes about it makes her a heroine. All of these people deserved to die, no doubt, but remember, they didn't actually kill her daughter. She thinks they did, of course; but are you still justified in killing people if you only think they did something bad?

Of course, this is also dodging the point that Kiddo probably doesn't think of it in terms of justification. Everyone's outside the law here, so if she kills them, no harm no foul. All of which is to say, if there is a heroine here, it would be Kiddo. On that I'll certainly agree. But she's on the same moral plane with her victims here, which is a difficult place for a good protagonist to be.

T-Rav said...

Thanks Andrew!

I never thought the reveal about her daughter was forced, but it is a bit troubling plot-wise. What made Kiddo think that she'd lost the baby in the first place? I didn't see a scar on her abdomen, but if there was one, that could just as easily suggest C-section (which is probably what happened). And if, as Joel says, this was basically an open secret among the objects of her wrath, why didn't anyone bother to tell her her kid was alive? The setup seems a bit odd.

AndrewPrice said...

Joel, I agree that this was an attempt to make the ultimate revenge film, except the ending with the daughter is an attempt to make this more like his earlier films and I think it makes the whole thing incongruous.

AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav, I meant forced in the sense that it really didn't fit the rest of the story, i.e. there's no evidence supporting it. And I think it was an attempt to introduce an emotional twist into a story which really doesn't fit in the story. Either she's a cold-blooded killer looking for revenge or she's a mother, she really can't effectively be both. And trying to change her character at the last moment, just felt to me like he was reaching for something to lift the movie... but it didn't.

T-Rav said...

Andrew, I guess that's possible. It didn't really seem out of place to me, and I think the movie would have been weaker if it was just a straight-up revenge story--that would reduce it to just Kiddo in fight after fight with her enemies and no real resolution at the end. Which isn't too different from how it is anyway, but oh well. But it's not a big deal to me.

LawHawkRFD said...

About the only thing I liked about either movie was the Andean flute music in KB II. I guess I could be classified as a non-Tarantino type.

T-Rav said...

LawHawk, I agree the flute music is pretty nice. I also like the rocking Mexican number at the end (at least I think it's Mexican). They should have had a Peruvian flute band, though, not Andean. ;-)

DUQ said...

I actually enjoyed these a lot. I didn't like how he brought them out as two movies, but now that they are together, they are quite good. They have a lot of cool scenes and moments that I like. Do I care about Kiddo? Nope. She's my least favorite character and I can't really root for anyone. But I enjoy the film purely as a well-shot Kung Fu film.

T-Rav said...

DUQ, personally I thought that if anyone was a sympathetic character in the movies, it would be Lucy Liu's O-ren Ishii, who became an assassin after seeing her parents murdered as a child. You can maybe halfway root for her, at least in the flashbacks, and the scene where she takes over the Tokyo crime organization is pretty awesome, not gonna lie.

Glad you enjoyed them. I don't want to seem too down on them, because if you're just looking for entertainment, they do have plenty of that and I can enjoy watching them, too.

DUQ said...

T-Rav, She's the one I would see as sympathetic too. In strange way, I also see Michael Madsen's character as sympathetic because he's clearly full of regret but is trapped by what he's done -- although he's also an evil bastard and keeps doing evil things.

AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav, It might have been weaker, but it also might have been more pure. Look at a film like Crank which was surprisingly entertaining simply because it had such a truly narrow focus.

But in any event, I'm kind of lukewarm on this one. I despise Inglorious Basterds, so it's in a league by itself, but after that, I see this as his weakest.

T-Rav said...

DUQ, agreed on Madsen (Budd), but I never really got him. He admits he deserves to die for what he did, but rather than face up to it, he ambushes Kiddo and buries her alive? What gives? Breaking someone's brother's heart isn't exactly a hanging offense, last I checked.

T-Rav said...

Andrew, I guess that's possible. I haven't seen Crank so I'll have to take your word for it.

Yeah, Inglourious is completely off-kilter morally, even if it is about killing Nazis.

ellenB said...

I thought the Japanese parts were exceptionally well done, both the training and the fight with the Lucy Lui. The rest was ok, but not great.

T-Rav said...

ellen, I'm kinda of the same opinion. The first one is generally better, especially the showdown with the Crazy 88s and then the fight with Liu. Apart from the ending, I'm not a huge fan of the second one.

ellenB said...

T-Rav, I liked that whole scene. I thought everything about it was well done. I'm not a huge fan of the second party either.

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Great review T-Rav!

The films are entertaining enough if I only watch it for the fight scenes which were well done.

Other than that, I couldn't bring myself to really care about anyone in it so I don't often watch it.

Tarantino has flashes of brilliance sometimes but he's not consistant.
Hopefully he'll learn that most folks really don't wanna see movies of violence for violence sake.

He has the potential to make great films and he should go back to his roots and stop with the crazy nihilism already, IMO.

I will say Kill Bill was much better than his last film, where he went completely off the rails. Ugh.

T-Rav said...

Thanks Ben!

Yeah, that's pretty much how I feel about it. Tarantino's early work was much better, when it seemed like there was a moral point to his stories. This isn't entirely nihilistic, but it lacks any such moral, so I put it at the halfway point among his movies. And yes, the last one would be at the very bottom.

Anonymous said...

All I know is that I love watching Uma Thurman in that yellow jumpsuit....I love the fight between her and Luch Liu,,,,these movies are one of my guilty pleasures, like my bottle of Michael Collins Scotch; ....Uma Thurman is hot, hot, hawt......
Sincerely, Critch

T-Rav said...

Dear Critch,

Eh, she never really did it for me. She does look fairly nice in this movie, though. Glad you enjoyed watching her. :-)

Tennessee Jed said...

Rav - been away, so I just saw this now. Nice job exploring the themes and lack of moral clarity issues. I think one thing you said made a difference for me: "much of what made QT's earlier work so captivating is repeated here to great effect." That is true. I wanted to love these as much, but just didn't. At the time they were released, I chalked it up to his having set hiw own bar impossibly high, but there may have been other forces at work.

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