Feeling Raw About It
You don’t know the name of the Bride (Uma Thurman). You do know that she’s the number one killer in Kill Bill Vol. 1, that she used to be called Black Mamba, back in the days when she killed for Bill (David Carradine), as part of a crew called the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad (DiVAS). You know Bill tried to kill her in Texas, that she was pregnant at the time, that it was her wedding day. But you don’t know her name.
It hardly matters. The Bride has awakened from a four-year coma, and spends the duration of Kill Bill hunting down and killing her enemies. That is the plot and that is her character, distilled and intangible, singular and unfathomable. Indeed, the Bride is offered as a kind of essence of cinema, the vital baseline of vengeance, meticulous brutality, balletic violence, and urgent, endless tragedy. Granted, the concept is as abstract and pretentious as any Tarantino has conjured, but in practice, Thurman is so utterly physical in her every moment on screen that you can’t help but feel for her.
Just what you’ll be feeling is up for grabs. The Bride is alternately a hard case and vulnerable, cunning and exquisite—as each of these attributes are connected, both in girls’ myths and girls’ experiences. She first appears—following an epigraph that seems cute, but also lays out the film’s aesthetic and thematic focus (“Revenge is a dish best served cold—Old Klingon proverb”), in a tight black and white close-up, her face bruised and welted, slick with sweat and blood. Bill (mostly off camera, his hand only visible) leans down to wipe her cheek, tenderly. “Do you find me sadistic?” he asks, then asserts, “There is nothing sadistic in my actions… This is me at my most masochistic.”
Cut to opening credits: “The Fourth Film by Quentin Tarantino” (in case anyone’s keeping count). While it invites you to link Bill with the maestro QT, to see similarities in their campy malevolences, Kill Bill doesn’t so much preempt criticism as overdetermines it. If Tarantino identifies with his girl protagonists (he tells the New York Times’ Mim Udovitch, “It just hurts more to see two women fighting”), he also famously fixates on fundamental genre conventions (spaghetti Westerns, blaxploitation, kung fu, grindhouse), as these produce expectations and visceral pleasures. This combination of elements—sensational women and sensational violence—results in a loopy, bricolagey vision that does occasionally hurt.
As its title announces, the new movie is knowingly, gloriously violent, a series of fight scenes functioning as dance numbers in a musical—they build as much character as the film will allow. Tarantino explains it to Vibe‘s Harry Allen: “An action sequence well done on film is like listening to a symphony. And when the symphony builds up to a certain point, it explodes. That’s why you go to the symphony” (November 2003). And that’s why you go to an action movie, to thrill to the art. Even if the rationale sounds self-serving, the point is raucously illustrated in Kill Bill, which features one “explosion” after another (limbs hacked off, blood gushing, heads soaring through the night air); this series of climaxes is punctuated by occasional, exceedingly delicate pauses in the action, as well as and RZA’s perfect, sinuous score.
While her rhythms are surely accelerated, the Bride recalls the Man With No Name, in anonymity, reluctance, and relentlessness. At the same time, she is fundamentally different, compelled by the loss of her baby and gender-specific violations that lead to precisely calculated paybacks, haunted by regret even as she exacts her justice. And so, when the Bride wakes from her coma in a hospital and learns her comatose body has been pimped out by a scuzzy orderly (Mike Bowen), apparently for years, retribution is swift and horrifically fitting; afterwards, she drives off in his cheesy yellow mini-pickup, the Pussy Wagon.
Breaking her quest into nonsequential chapters, Vol. 1 has the Bride visiting vengeance upon two (out of four) Vipers. Her first stop in the film (though the second on her list of targets, crossed off with colored pens) is Pasadena, home of Vernita Green, formerly Copperhead (Vivica A. Fox) and currently mother to a four-year-old. Ferociously cut and choreographed, the throwdown is briefly interrupted by little Nikki’s return from school. Quite literally, they’re frozen: the yellow school bus pulls up, the child gets off and trundles up the walkway, equipped with her animal-shaped backpack, framed by the window just behind the women, paused.
As the girl steps inside (“Mommy, I’m home”), the combatants hide their shiny knives behind their backs, the camera low behind them to underscore the battle’s fallout: shattered glass, smashed furniture, splattered blood. Vernita sends Nikki upstairs (“Me and mommy’s friend have grown up talk to talk about”), and the women briefly pretend civility before the fight ends, horribly, the body left sprawled on the kitchen floor for the child to contemplate. Though the Bride insists, “Your mother had it coming,” she allows that the costs of killing can be severe: “When you grow up, if you still feel raw about it, I’ll be waiting.”
The point is reinforced in the story of another adversary, O-Ren Ishii, a.k.a. Cottonmouth, Chinese-Japanese-American head of Tokyo’s yakuza underworld. Rendered in spectacular anime by Production I.G., this chapter shows O-Ren’s originary trauma, hiding under her parents’ bed during their grisly murders, her mother’s blood dripping onto her face, each red drop sealing her own vengeance trip. When she grows up to be Lucy Liu, O-Ren takes on minions, including the chilling Sophie Fatale (Julie Dreyfus), the Kato-masked Johnny Mo (Gordon Liu), and especially, the schoolgirl GoGo Yubari (Chiaki Kuriyama), whose skills with a mace ensure the Bride’s excruciating pain during a 20-minute showdown at the House of Blue Leaves.
The film’s fights are choreographed according to Japanese and Chinese forms, by Sonny Chiba (who plays ninjitsu master Hattori Hanzo in one chapter) and by the ever-innovative Yuen Woo-Ping, with attention to stylistic differences that will only be meaningful to those who know. This is surely a crucial part of Kill Bill‘s kick, its visible display of affection for the hardcore fans who, like Tarantino, appreciate (even lust after) such particulars. At the same time, it works as the sort of film it emulates, fragments, and pieces back together, a genre picture that loves its surfaces.
And in still another way, it works as a breakdown of movies-as-culture, especially the bodies that remain integral, even despite animation and digital effects. This is a movie about bodies, about what hurts them on screen and in viewing spaces. Ripping off and rearranging moves, ideas, and codes from seemingly countless sources, Kill Bill is a careful film that looks glib, a nuanced film that looks shallow. Violence fills up its flamboyant facade, but the Bride’s pulse beats just below.