By Nelson Carvajal and Andreas Stoehr | Press Play January 4, 2013 at 8:30AM
Withhold information, then release it. Set up expectations, then subvert them. Tease, then gratify. This is how you construct an epic. This is how Quentin Tarantino, block by block, builds up Kill Bill. It's disorienting at first. The story starts in medias res, and you have to stop and ask yourself, "Who is this woman? How did she get here?" Then you wait a long time for any real answers. But that's Tarantino's game. That's how he draws audiences into his vision, makes us crave more detail, makes us really feel the size of the story. He wields information like the Bride swings her Hanzo sword: aggressively but precisely, every expository word dropped just where it needs to be. Because as Tarantino is well aware, few moviegoing phenomena are as pleasure-inducing, as viscerally satisfying, as the one we call a surprise. Confusion, then clarity. That two-step process is the key to Kill Bill's thrills.
The most obvious technique by which Tarantino sets and springs these traps is also the one most closely identified with his name: nonlinear narrative. Reservoir Dogs, Jackie Brown, and Pulp Fiction each employed those loops and curlicues from present to past and back again to an extent, but here it's magnified. Volume 1 alone jumps with wild abandon across a span of four and a half years, and even travels back decades for "The Origin of O-Ren." So we get a series of revenge narratives—O-Ren's, the rape-revenge tale of Buck and the Bride, the vengeance she extracts from Vernita Green—nested inside one another like Matryoshka dolls, illustrating Hattori Hanzo's adage that "revenge is never a straight line. It's a forest." The Bride's lost there, and so are we, wandering from one intertwining cycle of violence to another, trying to pick up clues and context as we go along.
Let's zero in on that fight with Vernita, the suburban homemaker. First and most obviously, it's a fight. It's audience-sating spectacle. But it also undercuts expectations by ending abruptly just after Vernita suggests that "we have ourselves a knife fight." It throws us off balance. Then it uses Vernita's daughter to suggest that although this particular fight may be over, the Bride's vendetta is starting a wildfire. Finally, it flashes two unexplained details across the screen: the name "O-Ren Ishii," scrawled in pen but crossed out, and the words "Pussy Wagon" emblazoned on the back of our heroine's flamboyant yellow truck. Their respective meanings are as yet unknown to us, but they imply a recent, bloody past. This, all of this, is what critic Jim Emerson describes as the movie "teach[ing] you how to watch it." In this short vignette, we learn that although Kill Bill may be action-packed, its action will be morally and structurally complicated. And we learn that, as the saga grows more and more textured by detail, we won't necessarily understand how all those details fit together. Explanations lie buried in the Bride's past, as well as in her future.
Another device Tarantino uses to tease us while easing us into each new portion of Kill Bill is perhaps his most traditional: the title card. Both movies are punctuated by them, demarcating narrative borders with their suitably oblique chapter headings. "The Blood-Splattered Bride," for example, or my personal favorite, "The Man from Okinawa." So suggestive, so tantalizing, telling us just enough about Hattori Hanzo without telling us anything at all. It reminds me of Tarantino's own short "The Man from Hollywood," or one of his major inspirations, Leone's "Man with No Name." Or farther afield, the film Vivre sa vie by Tarantino's idol, Jean-Luc Godard, which employs similar intertitles but to more overtly Brechtian ends. The phrase "The Man from Okinawa" is so taciturn that it sets a stage without spoiling any of Sonny Chiba's surprise, revealing that he isn't just a man—he's the man.
This strategy pays off heavily when we actually meet Hattori Hanzo. Although he's posing as a buffoonish sushi chef (like the Bride, who's posing as a clueless tourist), that title card has primed us to see Hanzo as a crucial, enigmatic figure. And sure enough, their mutual ruse wraps up the second she starts speaking fluent Japanese. No matter how thoroughly they change their appearance or lifestyle, every one of Kill Bill's warriors remains a function of their messy, blood-soaked past, a past now embodied by the resurrected Bride. So for the viewer, the story becomes a daisy chain of revelation and revenge; a 4-hour epistemic quest tackling questions like "who?" and "why?": Who was this person in a past life? Why did they hurt the Bride? How, in the end, will she kill them?
As each of these mysteries is stripped away, we get closer and closer to the absolute truth, which lies deep inside the Bride's relationship with Bill.
The climax of Kill Bill Volume 1, "The Showdown at the House of Blue Leaves," is as gargantuan as melees get. Dozens of bodies lie dismembered; O-Ren Ishii lies dead. It's all so huge, so satisfying, that even if Volume 2 were wall-to-wall carnage, there'd be no hope of topping it. So instead of trying to one-up all this swashbuckling and spilled blood, Tarantino delivers a pay-off that goes beyond action. He doesn't go bigger; he goes deeper, down into the relationship that prompted all this grisly revenge in the first place. Because the longer secrets go untold, the more potential energy they gather. For two hours now, we've been wondering: Who are these people, really? What's the Bride's real name? What does Bill look like? Our sustained curiosity supplies Volume 2 with its power.
Normally, seeing an actor's face is no big deal. But the pains that Tarantino takes to shoot around David Carradine in Volume 1 give his performance as Bill a halo, an aura of mystery. They turn him into what film sound theorist Michel Chion describes as an "acousmêtre": a being who derives power from being heard but not seen. And they root him in the tradition of other such masterminds: Bond archnemesis Blofeld, Inspector Gadget's Dr. Claw, and Charlie from Charlie's Angels. So we're forced to judge Bill from Carradine's soft, silken drawl alone—until, that is, he's introduced in the flesh through a visual nod to John Ford's The Searchers. Now, seeing the history etched into Carradine's weather-beaten face, we know we're getting close to the heart of the story; we can sense our proximity to Kill Bill's real, deep truth. After being hidden for so long, that face has an impact.
Contrast this with our introduction to Tommy Plympton, the Bride's fiancé. No fanfare, no impact, he's just there, played by makeup artist Christopher Allen Nelson in one of the saga's least stylized, least memorable performances. He has a few lines, but the only one that really stands out is "I guess I just believe in living dangerously" because it's so thick with unknowing irony. While alive, he's only defined through his relationship to the Bride, and after his death she doesn't mourn him. His only real significance is that he's so absolutely normal. He's never killed anyone and has no connection to the Bride's past. This alone, this lack of mythical back story, makes Tommy the ideal husband for the Bride and father to her child. He's her ticket to a stable, conventional life, the same kind pursued by Vernita Green, the same kind derided by Bill. Onscreen, he's a cipher. But symbolically, he's the opposite of Bill and a representation of this hypothetical future.
But no matter how fast and far you run, the past will always catch up with you. This is the moral of Kill Bill, the thematic basis for its labyrinthine chronology. Every act of violence, we learn, has a cause somewhere in the past and an effect somewhere in the future. Nothing is isolated. By killing Vernita, O-Ren, Buck, Elle, and Bill, the Bride thinks she can tie up all of her loose ends. But she never anticipates the loosest end of all: her daughter. B.B. is Volume 2's last-act bombshell, and her presence turns the Bride's last, titular objective into a complex, emotionally fraught showdown. If her grudge against Bill was about hate, no matter how intense, it would be much easier to deal with, but here Tarantino pulls a heartbreaking reversal: it's actually about love. It's about the Bride's moral obligation to kill the love of her life for the sake of her daughter. She has to sever all ties, cut herself and her daughter free, because that's the cost of a terminally impossible relationship.
Now all questions have been resolved. All these layers of mystery and secrecy have culminated in the Bride's single, poignant point: "She deserved to be born with a clean slate." That one desire, to bring B.B. into a world away from Bill, triggered all this plotting and bloodshed. This is the real pay-off Tarantino gives us, bubbling up from beneath the sheen of "cool," of fight choreography and stylization and homage. This is the real catharsis of Kill Bill. I don't often think of Tarantino's movies as being especially wise or profound, but I do think he gets relationships. Whether we're talking about Mr. White and Mr. Orange, Max Cherry and Jackie Brown, or Bill and the Bride, I think he understands how we invest ourselves in the people who are worst for us. The people who will hurt us. The people, metaphorically or otherwise, we may someday have to kill.
Nelson Carvajal is an independent digital filmmaker, writer and content creator based out of Chicago, Illinois. His digital short films usually contain appropriated content and have screened at such venues as the London Underground Film Festival. Carvajal runs a blog called FREE CINEMA NOW which boasts the tagline: "Liberating Independent Film And Video From A Prehistoric Value System."
You can follow Nelson on Twitter here.
Andreas Stoehr was born inside the Arctic Circle, has a BA in Cinema and Media Studies, and has written about film somewhere or other (especially on Pussy Goes Grrr and Twitter) since 2008. Passions include comics, dessert, and Marlene Dietrich.