Do you find me sadistic?” These words, spoken by the character Bill (David Carradine) in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. 2, could have been uttered by Tarantino himself. Of the violence perpetrated on and by female characters in Kill Bill Vol. 1, Tarantino gushed, “There’s something intrinsically cool…something intrinsically more painful about beautiful women being abused that way, all right?” Tarantino’s sadism in KB2 is manifested less by the overt violence inflicted on his characters than by the pain his seemingly endless, dramatically bloated, and verbose narrative inflicts on viewers.
The second volume brings to a close the quest for vengeance undertaken by Beatrix Kiddo (Uma Thurman), an assassin working for Bill whose attempt to escape into domestic bliss is rudely interrupted at the altar by Bill and his squad of killers. With a bullet in her head and her unborn child ripped from her womb, Beatrix is left for dead. When she comes out of her coma, she sets herself–as she wryly puts it in the opening of KB2
–”on what they call in movie advertisements a ‘roaring rampage of revenge.’”
The hyper-self-consciousness of this line is vintage Tarantino. A number of scenes in KB2 work quite effectively. The opening flashback to the El Paso church, where a pregnant Beatrix prepares for her wedding, is remarkable for its cinematography and dialogue. For sheer claustrophobic terror, nothing rivals the live burial of Beatrix at the hands of Bill’s ruthless brother. A fight scene between Kiddo and the one-eyed Elle (Daryl Hannah) is as entertaining as anything in KB1. Aside from these scenes, though, the dialogue in KB2 is bloated and Tarantino’s trademark pop-culture references, dull. To Beatrix’s question “When will I see you again?,” Bill responds, “That’s my favorite 70s soul song.”
One is left principally with an impression of Tarantino’s sheer self-indulgence as a filmmaker. There are scenes, characters, and styles of cinematography in KB2 that call to mind the films of David Lynch. Tarantino’s penchant, for example, for strong vertical camera angles fosters viewer disorientation. But Lynch’s forays into the bizarre (Lost Highway, Blue Velvet, and Mulholland Drive) are far more creative and pack a much greater punch than Tarantino’s latest.
There is a real falling off here from previous Tarantino efforts. One can have serious reservations about Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction and still appreciate Tarantino’s care with dialogue and editing of scenes. These films are lean, crisp, and expertly paced. Every scene counts; every phrase of dialogue is measured for effect, dramatic or comic; and the pop-culture references are memorable for their humor and for the disturbing incongruities in mood they create. Recall Pulp’s Sam and Vincent discussing the European Big Mac and Arnold the pig, or Dogs’ torture scene set to Stealers Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle.”
In KB1, Tarantino achieved what seemed impossible; he outdid himself in the aesthetics of bloodletting, introducing ever more artistically complex means of depicting blood streaming from arteries and severed limbs. Yet Tarantino was not breaking new ground here: He was simply competing with his previous films. As has always been the case with Tarantino, his most creative moves are parasitic efforts, taking traditional genres, turning them inside out, mixing them with pop culture references, and suffusing them with doses of explicit violence. In Kill Bill, he plays off westerns, Kung Fu films, and the classic revenge plot.
In the course of this film, Uma Thurman’s character becomes transformed, first into a vengeful killing machine, and then into someone who transcends violence and recaptures her maternal instincts. Tarantino’s public image has in recent months followed a similar trajectory. He has become a sort of pop-culture puppy dog, appearing recently not only on the late-night talk circuit, but also as a guest judge on American Idol, where he was terrific. Although he still speaks like a teenager on speed, he cannot help, at least at the prompting of Rolling Stone magazine, waxing poetic about Uma Thurman as his muse:
It’s just this cool connection that happened while we were doing Pulp Fiction. I mean, von Sternberg had Marlene Dietrich, Hitchcock had Ingrid Bergman, Andre Techine had Catherine Deneuve. It’s a special bond that I’m proud to have, and hopefully, one day, people will reference me and Uma like they do the others. But the thing about it is, it just kind of is, and there are certain things I don’t really want to understand subtexturally. I just want it to be and do.
That’s right, he said “subtexturally.” In the same Rolling Stone interview, Tarantino describes KB2 as “much more emotional and much more tragic, with much more depth” than KB1. So, it seems that KB2 is a sort of Jackie Brown to KB1’s Pulp Fiction.
But this film lacks the emotional range and sympathy of Jackie Brown, Tarantino’s most underappreciated film. Indeed, it is hard to see Beatrix Kiddo’s return to family life as more than silly sarcasm or dark humor.
With the arrival of KB2, it is clear that Tarantino has no more tricks to play. He not only has nothing to say; he has nothing left to do either. The conclusion is unavoidable: Tarantino has become boring.
–Thomas Hibbs, an NRO contributor, is author of Shows About Nothing.