Kill Bill: Vol. 1

Kill Bill: Vol. 1 ★★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

The first thing Bill asks — the first line of the film, actually — is “do you find me sadistic?” Of course, it’s really Quentin asking us, as we see Uma Thurman beaten up and covered in blood, if he is a sick geek for writing a four-hour, two-part film where she so frequently appears so. Many would answer in the affirmative. Indeed, he put Thurman — not just The Bride — through the wringer in this film, most famously exemplified in the car accident Uma suffered during production of this film. Quentin almost certainly didn’t take pleasure that Uma was injured, but he did disregard her discomfort with the stunt and do it instead of a stunt driver. His pleasure came from pushing her into realms past comfort in the pursuit of his cinematic goal. Before being shot, The Bride tells Bill she’s pregnant with “[his] baby;” certainly, the film is Quentin’s, and the process by which it was made is its conception, with all of the sexual symbolism that entails. (The Harvey Weinstein side of all of this reinforces that, but is just too sickening to go into further than that, and you know exactly what I mean just from this sentence anyway.)

Bill then admits that the carnage he’s just caused is him “at his most masochistic;” we have known that Quentin enjoys a bit of the ol’ cinematic ultraviolence, but the idea that making his films causes him pleasurable pain is, perhaps, a less considered notion. Yet it certainly seems true — it takes blood, sweat and tears to make a film, particularly with the amount of effort Tarantino puts in to control the creative process for one of his flicks; he, additionally, certainly seems to enjoy the process, not just for its end result but for how hard but ultimately fulfilling the work to get there is.

Thus the enjoyment of pain, perpetrated on others and the self, becomes a lens by which to examine Kill Bill, Vol. I on both sides of the fourth wall. There certainly is no end of sadism throughout the narrative: characters continually clearly take pleasure as they commit violent acts on each other. Elle Driver whistles as she works when she plans to poison the unconscious Bride and finish her off. Buck, apimping out The Bride’s comatose body, provides years of sexual gratification for himself and all those who gleefully rape her. The Bride herself, as she takes revenge, is certainly happy to do so, although we understand she is driven by a higher moral aim than simply pleasure.

There have been characters who enjoyed violence in Tarantino before — Mr. Yellow, most obviously. Jules was less obviously sadistic but availed himself of theatrical flourishes before executing his victims. Maynard and Zed are the epitome of sadism. But this film seems to enter Tarantino’s oeuvre into a new vista with how pleasurably action — that is to say, violence — scenes are presented to us. Tarantino is open that he wanted to make a film where he, primarily fêted for his crackerjack dialogue to this point, would “throw [his] hat in the ring with other great action directors.” Thus, the violence, staged more skillfully, is more enjoyable than ever. 

There is certainly true skill and ingenuity on display here — as a visual stylist, Tarantino had never operated at this level before. One of his greatest scenes, the anime sequence depicting O-Ren’s origin story, is an example of this; such a flourish is certainly not un-Tarantinoesque, but he had had to evolve over the last decade and change to pull it off. The same can be, and has been, said about the Crazy 88 fight, which is a whole different animal than his previous films’ depictions of gunplay and stabbing. With this new employment of violence comes a whole fuckload of blood, often spurting cartoonishly — the film contains more gore than his first three directorial efforts combined. The audience who relishes it certainly seem more sadistic than ever. If it is Quentin’s baby, they are at least a godparent or doting relative.

One must ask if it is possible to create such work without it being sadistic. Hattori Hanzo, who breaks his oath to never again create “something that kills people” because he is “philosophically… sympathetic” to The Bride, seems to represent this possibility. He says that a successful warrior must “suppress all emotion and compassion” when engaged in combat. But he represents something that The Bride and Tarantino alike can not ultimately achieve; even if she is one-track minded when in the fight, she is driven by emotion — a desire for revenge. Tarantino, too, just loves this shit too much to be some ascetic auteur. Anyone who’s ever listened to the man speak knows he could never.

But does this make his creation of Tarantino Films, and our enjoyment of them, inherently sadistic? The answer ultimately comes down to whether or not Tarantino’s films are as nihilistic and morally empty as many have accused them of being. Is it enough of a moral center that The Bride is “the good guy,” and kills a whole host of “bad guys” displaying varying levels of moral bankruptcy? Is it disqualifying that there are such pains taken to show the pain of death, characters squealing and bleeding as the knife twists their lives out? Could there be a way to enjoy the Crazy 88 sequence, as skillfully done as it is, without being powered in some way by a sadistic impulse?

I always prefer dialogue scenes to action (which is why Kill Bill was never near my favorite of his films, although there are some great lines), so I feel particularly impelled to answer in the affirmative. But I think that sadism is only part of the perverted impulse driving enjoyment of such scenes. We also, I think, are operating somewhat masochistically when we enjoy such carnage, subjecting ourselves to witnessing ultraviolence because we enjoy making ourselves sick from all the gore in front of our eyeballs. When The Bride spanks with her sword the one Crazy 88er she doesn’t slice up and tells him “this is what you get for fucking around with yakuzas,” perhaps that is the film’s message to us, that we deserve to be sickened for entering into this fucked-up compact with Tarantino. I don’t think it’s enough of a message to fend off accusations of nihilism, but I doubt QT is bothered much by them either way, so I won’t be, either. I’ll just say I don’t find him much more sadistic than the median human of the day— but maybe that’s because I’ve always lived in a world where Tarantino Films are perfectly normal spectacles.