“There’s something intrinsically cool…something intrinsically more painful about beautiful women being abused that way, all right?” Thus spake Quentin Tarantino in a recent interview about his new film, Kill Bill, Vol. 1. One of the most influential filmmakers of the 1990s, Tarantino attained fame with a trailblazing and hyper-ironic mix of humor and violence in two films, Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994). With Kill Bill, the second half of which will be released in February, Tarantino, whose films have provoked numerous mediocre imitations, proves that only he can one-up himself. Kill Bill achieves what seemed impossible. It is a more intense and more astonishing fusion of the comedic and the violent, a cornucopia of bloody revenge, a celebration of violence not just as entertainment but as a sacramental feast for the intellect, a “catharsis of bloodletting” that Martin Scorsese has described as a central function of film in our time.
Beyond the intellectual excitement of the torturing of the bodies of pregnant women; beyond the simultaneous affirmation of female empowerment (actress Vivica A. Fox thought it was “great” that the women “were in control of our own little world”); beyond the homage to Japanese anime, samurai movies, and spaghetti westerns; beyond all this and through all this, there is Tarantino’s giddy obsession with blood–splattered blood, oozing blood, gushing blood. On this subject, his enthusiasm knows no bounds: “Japanese blood is the prettiest. It’s like nice, and it has a scarlet redness about it.” Chinese blood is “like Kool-Aid almost.” And American blood is “more syrupy kind of stuff.”
With its fascination with the aesthetics of violence, its varied soundtrack, and its rapid interspersing of brutal violence and light comic touches, Kill Bill resembles Natural Born Killers (1994), a film for which Tarantino originally helped write the script but from which he removed himself entirely after a dispute with Oliver Stone. Deprived of Tarantino’s macabre playfulness, NBK became an incoherent combination of over-the-top violence and heavy-handed Stone moralism about contemporary society. By contrast, Kill Bill is thoroughly coherent, perfectly executed, and without a hint of morality.
It is true that Kill Bill is organized around a revenge plot which itself is understood as an enactment of the samurai code of retaliation. Indeed, it is precisely the eastern elements in the film, not just the samurai plot but also the stylistic devices of Japanese anime, that makes Kill Bill something more and other than its predecessors, Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. Uma Thurman plays the bride, a pregnant woman left for dead at the altar by five members of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad. The film, which resembles Pulp Fiction in its violation of linear time-sequence, focuses on the bride’s realization of her plot to seek revenge on the squad, with Fox’s Vernita Green as the first to feel her wrath.
The film makes an attempt at developing a logic of samurai revenge. The bride states early on, “It is mercy I lack, not rationality.” Rational revenge involves a willingness to kill “even Buddha himself…that’s the truth at the heart of battle.” But the bride occasionally stays her ruthlessness; moreover, mutual respect and honor surface in the final battle scene with O-Ren Ishi (Lucy Liu), a member of the Viper Squad and an Asian crime lord. After the bride eliminates a group of warrior servants of O-Ren, she prepares for direct combat with O-Ren, whose character Liu invests with a magisterial and chilling authority. O-Ren smiles and asks: “You didn’t think it was going to be that easy?” The bride pauses, smirks, and admits, “Well, actually for a minute there I did.” To which O-Ren responds, “Silly rabbit,” a statement the bride completes, “Trix are for kids.” The ensuing battle, shot mostly in black and white, between the bride and a horde of warriors contains a countless variety of dismemberments and murders. The bride now faces O-Ren, who first mocks her as a “silly Caucasian girl” who “likes to play with samurai swords” but, as the fight intensifies, quickly apologizes for such ridicule.
The two women face off in soft snow under moonlight and against the background of a beautifully landscaped plot. This is but one of many stylized, orchestrated sets, the upshot of which is to turn the entire film into a vehicle for the aesthetics of violence. For example, Tarantino deploys a sort of CSI effect, wherein bullets are shown in slow motion tearing into bodies; he highlights the end-over-end trajectory of an ax that comes to rest in an opponent’s skull; and he is ever attentive to blood, which appears first as oil, then as paint, and finally, in cascades, as discolored rain water.
Tarantino thus turns unremitting violence into a sort of religious spectacle, a liturgy that appeals as much to the intellect as to the imagination. Since the 1980s, filmmakers, especially in the horror genre, have sought to overwhelm the imagination of viewers with a magnification of evil, a fact humorously captured in the self-parodies of the horror genre in the Scream trilogy. But Tarantino is doing something more and other than simply competing for the title of most violent director. He is, as he recently said, in the business of making viewers aware of precisely how the films work on them. Following Kill Bill’s art and action–from humor to excruciating vivisection back to humor–forces viewers to “turn on a dime” and switch emotions. Kill Bill is so stylized and so ironic that viewers cannot help but be aware of how the film is working on them.
Now, Tarantino is to be credited with forcing on his viewers a cognitive awareness of his film’s liturgy of blood. The question is whether the surface irony is sufficient to justify the willing suspension of moral judgment, not moral judgments about the film’s hypothetical causal effects on the behavior of already deranged adolescents but the indispensably moral element we bring to any work of art. The options in this case seem fairly clear. We can, as most critics have, simply enjoy the ride and fawn about Tarantino’s remarkable skills at working an audience or we can watch with increasing revulsion and a mounting sense of anger at the direction of “great” filmmaking in our time.
–Thomas Hibbs, Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Culture at Baylor University, is author of Shows About Nothing. Hibbs is also an NRO contributor.