Sunday, December 13, 2009

Kill Bill: Vol. 2

Just as Kill Bill: Vol. 1 closed with a reflective moment that pointed the way to its sequel, so too does Vol. 2 begin with a moment of self-reflexive peevishness to link it to its predecessor: The Bride drives in a car against a background that is clearly a rear-projection effect and speaks directly to the camera in a camp monologue that essentially proves that Tarantino can't even get to his film's title without a speech of some sort.

From there, however, Vol. 2 becomes a different beast entirely from its wacky sibling. It begins properly on the same segment that opened Vol. 1 and provides the full backstory of The Bride's near-death at the hands of her former colleagues. It's a brilliant vignette that shows a pregnant Bride rehearsing her wedding in a quaint chapel in Texas, with a gentle build-up from a nice but somewhat condescending reverend to Samuel L. Jackson's contractually guaranteed appearance in every QT film. The Bride goes outside for some fresh air and finds...Bill (David Carradine ) She doesn't seem frightened, and Bill, with his long hair and pipe flute, hardly looks intimidating. They hold a civil, even pleasant, conversation, Bill asking her why she's giving up her old life and The Bride describing how she's found happiness in this simpler life. Bill comes inside with her and she, in a misguided attempt to avoid trouble, introduces her former lover as her father. Tommy, the fiancé , asks "Dad" to give The Bride away, and immediately the scene takes a turn. Bill's tone of voice drops just enough to let us know that something's gone horribly wrong, and Tarantino pulls the camera outside the chapel in time to see the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad arrive with machine guns.

With this severe and tense opening, Tarantino balances the the pronounced Asian influence of the first film with a spaghetti western feel. Kill Bill: Vol. 2 is dusty, arid and punishing where Vol. 1 was sleek and raffish. In fact, Vol. 2's more campy moments directly involve martial arts segments, while the humor elsewhere is as dry as the desert where much of the film's action occurs. Tarantino moves from that chilling opening scene to the present, with Bill driving to a mobile home in the middle of the desert to meet with his brother Budd (Michael Madsen ), a broken-down sad-sack who works as a bouncer at a local strip club that is so empty his only task is to clean the flood-prone ladies' bathroom. The Deadly Viper Assassination Squad members we've heretofore seen had all found a certain contentment in their "retirements": Green lived the domestic life while O-Ren fought her way to the top of Japan's criminal underworld. But Budd's story has an air of tragedy, or at least would if he had any redeeming qualities. Bill hasn't spoken to his brother in years, and Budd says that he pawned his Hattori Hanzŏ sword when asked if he kept up his swordsmanship. We learn later that this is a lie, signifying two things: Budd, ragged and defeated as he is, has a fundamental threshold of dignity, and he knows that telling his brother he sold his sword signifies that their relationship is beyond repair. At last, the Tarantino gift for character re-emerges.

The influence of Westerns has of course been evident through both films primarily in the omission of The Bride's true name, going so far as to censor any spoken reference to it in Vol. 1. Tarantino slyly plays up the mystery of the (Wo)Man with No Name conceit, and by dumping the reveal of her identity -- Beatrix Kiddo -- in the middle of the film in an amusing aside, he cheekily subverts the idea that withholding a character's name makes him or her more dangerous. There are also a handful of shots that could sneak their way into a pantheon of great Western shots, such as a dissolve from a shot of the sun with perfect lens flaring into a slowly focusing profile of Beatrix, dirty and battered, shuffling her way through the desert looking sun-dried and weak but wired with pure rage, the fading sun surrounding her head like a terrifying halo.

Kill Bill in its entirety is, naturally, a personal film, given that it concerns a woman seeking her own brand of justice for crimes committed against her, but Vol. 2 feels that much more intimate. She's literally boxed-in when Budd springs a trap and buries her alive, and she reminisces about her time with cruel martial arts master Pei Mei (Gordon Liu, who also played the leader of the Crazy 88 in the last film), who pushes a younger, undisciplined Beatrix to the breaking point where up to now she was a formidable warrior. Tarantino reflects the constricted mood by constantly framing his characters inside the shot: as Beatrix sneaks into Budd's mobile home, he hears a noise and comes to the trailer's small window to scan the area. Pei Mei can punch through wood only inches away, each blow opening a new window, and a later flashback involving Beatrix realizing she's pregnant and being attack by a rival assassin group ends with the sent killer framed in a hole made by a shotgun blast before leaving.

Even the enemies have a closer connection to Kiddo. Vernita shared a mutual professional respect with Beatrix and O-Ren was likely friends with The Bride, but Budd is the brother of the lover who wronged her, while Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah) is the perfect foil for Beatrix. Like Thurman, Hannah is a tall, intimidating blonde , but Elle is a sadist where Beatrix has some level of humanity. The two women clearly hate each other, but they also share a begrudging respect for one another, and Beatrix brings out the only sense of honor in Elle: Driver poisoned Pai Mei for plucking our her eyeball for insolence and she hides a black mamba in a suitcase of money to kill Budd. She does this because she cannot stomach the idea of Beatrix, "the finest woman [she] ever met," dying in such a shameful manner at the hands of an oaf. (Blade Runner fans will also get a kick out of Elle's demise, as Hannah's wild thrashing matches her death scene in that film).

Shifting the focus from the blank desire for revenge onto the genuine characteristics and humanity of Beatrix requires Thurman to stretch out a bit from simply looking gorgeous and deadly, but she rises to the task with gusto. When she finally reaches Bill and finds her daughter whom she thought dead, Tarantino exhibits the most emotion he's ever allowed to be shown in one of his films as Thurman's doe eyes fight back tears. This scene, which opens the final bit of the saga, sets the stage for a serious rumination on revenge and violence.

In the scene preceding Kiddo's reunion with Bill and B.B., Beatrix visits an old Mexican pimp in a border town who knows Bill's whereabouts. More important that Bill's location, though, is what we learn about him through this man: as Beatrix notes in her narration, a young, fatherless Bill did what all fatherless children did and sought father figures. This pimp runs the border town with a militia of his whores' bastard children and mutilates the face of any prostitute who steps out of line, but he used to take Bill to the movies, where the little kid developed his first crush on Lana Turner that shaped his obsession with blondes. If Vihalo represents the sort of men who shaped Bill's youth, it's no wonder he grew up to be an insane, possessive killer. Indeed, he seems to have passed his sociopathy onto B.B., who watches bloody samurai films alongside her educational cartoons and admits to taking her goldfish out its bowl and watching it flop around before stepping on it. But she also contains some of Beatrix's morality, confessing that, after she killed the fish, she felt remorse for the first time.

B.B.'s presence in the film shows how the cycle repeats itself: Bill, in a brilliant speech comparing Beatrix and her desire for normalcy to Superman and his alter-ego (his real costume according to Bill), reveals his knowledge of Beatrix's psyche, and he knows that she enjoyed the thrill of killing even if he didn't force the answers out of her with truth serum. While Kiddo will offer love and support for B.B., she's so fundamentally outside of typical social norms that the child will be at least partially shaped by her mother's bloodlust. Furthermore, Tarantino's recent announcement of a planned third (and possibly fourth) volume concerning the desire for those left alive but wounded in some way by Beatrix seeking revenge and a fourth presumably focusing upon B.B.'s reaction to Vol. 3's outcome demonstrates how Tarantino is setting the child up to help continue the cycle of violence and vengeance and its all-consuming nature, a theme he revisited with Inglourious Basterds.

The end of the film, featuring Beatrix locked in a bathroom crying until her sobs turn into laughter, reminds me of the last shot of Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America, in which De Niro's character, aged and alone, crawls fatalistically into a bed in an opium den and the film freezes on his peculiar facial expression, his drug-induced smile potentially a sign of inner contentment following a preceding flashback or a haunting reflection of that flashback's insincerity and manufactured comfort aided by the opium. Beatrix cries for Bill, whom she still loves in some way, but she laughs because she won and reclaimed her daughter. But in that laugh is a hint of madness, an indication that she will never find normalcy in life and that she and B.B. are in for a potentially rough ride ahead. For the moment, however,Tarantino is content to give Kiddo her moment.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent review of an excellent film. I love how proficient Quentin is at both spaghetti western and asian-style cinematography. Kill Bill really blows people away by the contrasting differences between Volume 1 and Volume 2.
    Can't wait for the 3rd installment...wonder if Elle is gonna come back as an evil female Zatoichi..