Kill Bill: Beauty and violence


The story is all too simple. The characters are all too stylized. And the dialogue is all too sparse. However, Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, Vol. 1 reminds us of exactly why Tarantino is so highly regarded in the movie industry. In what is easily one of the most violent movies ever made, Tarantino creates a breathtaking landscape in which art and violence coalesce into one unforgettable aesthetic experience.

The movie’s premise hardly goes beyond its two-word title. Uma Thurman plays The Bride, a former assassin whose boss, Bill (David Carradine), viciously attacks her at her own wedding. Bill and his gang of assassins, the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad (DIVAS) – played by Lucy Liu, Daryl Hannah, Vivica A. Fox and Michael Madsen – manage to put a bullet in The Bride’s head after killing her husband and her seven wedding guests in an El Paso, Texas church. Four years later, the Bride miraculously emerges from a coma and swears revenge on her former boss and his minions.

Comparisons with Pulp Fiction inevitably surface while watching Kill Bill, especially since Tarantino and Thurman occupied the director’s chair and actor’s chair, respectively. Fans of Pulp Fiction will pick up on echoes of Mia Wallace’s description of the “Fox Force Five,” a failed television show about a group of women assassins (“Fox, as in we’re a bunch of foxy chicks. Force, as in we’re a force to be reckoned with. Five, as in there’s one, two, three, four, five of us”). However, Kill Bill is something completely different.

Pulp Fiction was a movie about a mobster culture imbued with a sense of morality that in some ways resembled our own. Good deeds of loyalty were rewarded; bad deeds of betrayal were punished. Within the mob’s world of cold-hearted death-dealing, there was room for ethics and even a twisted spirituality. We could relate to these horrible characters in a non-trivial way, even though they were killers.

Kill Bill is not concerned with mobster morality, nor does it allow us to relate to its characters. Plot and characters serve as the thin skeleton that supports Tarantino’s single-minded focus on violence. Its graphic excess might seem at first glance to be purely gratuitous, merely indulging the sick fascinations of social miscreants. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In fact, Tarantino manages to do precisely what Alex de Large was trying to do in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange: he presents violence as a form of expressive art. We watch in wonder and awe, not horror. Intellectually, we should be horrified by what we see. But the violence is so physically graceful, visually dazzling and meticulously executed that our instinctual, emotional responses undermine any rational objections we may have. Tarantino is able to transform an object of moral outrage into one of aesthetic beauty. Moreover, like all art forms, the violence serves a communicative purpose apart from its aesthetic value.

In one standout scene, The Bride is confronted with a band of Crazy 88 Fighters – 88 men and women who serve as the bodyguards of O-Ren Ishii, one of Bill’s cohorts. As The Bride skillfully slices and dices her way through all 88 fighters – a sequence somewhat reminiscent of Neo fighting the clones of Agent Smith in The Matrix Reloaded – we get a sense that she is using them as a kind of canvas for her expression of revenge. Much like an artist who expresses herself through brush and paint, The Bride expresses herself through sword and blood.

The grace and composure of Uma Thurman, Lucy Liu and Vivica A. Fox are really what make this movie work. Regal in appearance and amazingly deft in their physically demanding roles, the women also succeed in imparting a genuine sense of humor to their characters. This stroke is pivotal, for it suggests that the violence they perpetuate is less a sign of moral reprehensibility than a gesture of self-realization.

The movie appropriately ends with a cliffhanger, as Vol. 2 will be released in February of next year. Presumably, Vol. 2 will bring the Bride’s quest to an end and reveal Bill himself. But even if Vol. 2 were never released, Vol. 1 is such a groundbreaking aestheticization of violence that it could stand firmly on its own. That said, if the sequel is anything like its predecessor, then Kill Bill will establish itself as one of the most brilliant aesthetic achievements in recent film, elegantly blurring the distinction between beauty and violence.

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