Notable Festivals: Cannes (Out of Competition)
Director Quentin Tarantino returned to cinemas with a vengeance with his 2003 hit, KILL BILL: VOLUME 1. A scant six months later, he capitalized on the film’s shocking cliffhanger ending by releasing the finale to his blood-soaked saga, KILL BILL VOLUME 2. Originally conceived as one epic film, an initial 4-hour running time prompted Tarantino to split the film in two—an inspired decision, considering that the second half of KILL BILL is radically different in tone and style than the first.
Audiences with expectations of another high-octane blood bath were shocked to find themselves watching a different kind of film entirely—a slower, more somber movie that put a priority on dialogue over action. The Bride must have killed upwards of forty people in VOLUME 1, but her body count in VOLUME 2 can be tallied on one hand. Audiences were understandably disappointed by what they deemed a lackluster conclusion to a brilliant set-up, but they fail to see a richer, more personal film that eloquently carries the Bride’s bloody quest to a satisfying, emotionally resonant close.
Shifting the action from exotic Japan, Tarantino brings us back to the western deserts of California and Mexico as The Bride closes in on the last few names remaining on her Death List: burnt-out strip club bouncer Budd (Michael Madsen), treacherous and one-eyed assassin Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah), and the big man himself (David Carradine). Along the way, we find out more about the circumstances of Bill’s original attack on our hero’s wedding party that began this whole story. Most importantly, we learn that The Bride’s unborn baby, thought lost in the wake of the wedding rehearsal massacre, is alive and well— a fact that complicates The Bride’s desire to kill Bill, given that he’s the father.
Uma Thurman continues her scorched-earth performance as the Bride, with VOLUME 2 requiring her to convey startlingly real vulnerability while still retaining almost-biblical levels of courage. Her evolution from cold-blooded killer to fierce lioness protecting her cub is the film’s heart and soul, creating a surprising dramatic resonance amidst all the bloodshed. And along the way, we find out her real name—Beatrix Kiddo. I’d say you can’t make that shit up, but Tarantino clearly did.
The late David Carradine is a revelation as the film’s eponymous target. Heard only in voice in VOLUME 1, Tarantino chooses to reveal his weathered visage in spectacularly anticlimactic fashion. Carradine plays the sadistic boss as a warmly paternal poet. It’s easy to see why The Bride once loved him; Bill is intelligent, cultured, and– despite his criminality– very fair. His actions in massacring The Bride’s entire bridal party, while undeniably cruel, come from a place of honor that supersedes his relationships. It’s the mark of a man with integrity and conviction—the kind of man you wouldn’t expect to be the chief antagonist.
Carradine, who featured in a variety of kung-fu films that Tarantino cites as huge influences, had largely fallen out of the public eye when he was cast as Bill. Much like John Travolta or Robert Forster before him, he became blessed by the Tarantino Effect, whereby aging character actors experience a career resurgence after working for the director. Unlike the others, this resurgence manifested itself in a general awareness and newfound respect to his long career, but didn’t really result in getting more high-profile work. It’s very possible that he might have, but sadly Carradine passed away in 2009 before he could really capitalize on it. His performance as Bill is probably the best career capstone and farewell anybody could ask for.
Michael Madsen– in his second performance for Tarantino after RESERVOIR DOGS (1992)–was barely alluded to in VOLUME 1, but VOLUME 2 allows us to experience his Budd character in all his burnt-out, redneck glory. Essentially a recluse living out of a trailer in the desert, Budd has forsaken the assassin lifestyle and brings in a meager salary as an underappreciated strip club bouncer. Madsen breathes palpable life into his performance, his withdrawn eyes channeling a fundamental regret and weariness. He relishes the opportunity to ham it up in a gross mullet and a beer belly, but he still hasn’t lost his dangerous, sadistic edge. Despite looking nothing like Carradine, Madsen makes us really believe that he is Bill’s brother.
Daryl Hannah continues her devious, eye-patched performance as Bill’s current beau and arguably the deadliest member of the Viper Assassination Squad, Elle Driver. She gets a fantastic, no-holds-barred fight sequence with The Bride in Budd’s cramped trailer, and she plays up her insidiousness to the requisite cartoonish degree. Hannah doesn’t seem to do much acting these days, but it’s easy to see why Tarantino wanted her in the film. Despite her playing someone far from her type, she embraces every challenge and really puts all of herself into the role.
Michael Parks also returns, albeit as a completely different character than the Texan cowboy cop he played in VOLUME 1. This time around, he’s completely unrecognizable as Esteban, an elderly Mexican pimp and father figure to Bill. I remember being absolutely shocked when I learned that it was Parks buried underneath some incredible makeup. He’s easily characterized as the Texas lawman archetype, but he has a startling range that further lends credence to my personal theory that character actors are the most legitimately talented kind of actors.
This is further illustrated by Tarantino’s recurring guest stars, who continue popping up in small roles and cameos in his films, regardless of how big of a name they are. Sid Haig, who appeared as a judge in JACKIE BROWN (1997) turns in another small cameo here as the bespectacled bartender of Budd’s nudie bar. Tarantino mainstay Samuel L. Jackson appears as Rufus, the blind piano player caught in the unfortunate crossfire of Bill’s wrath during the Bride’s wedding rehearsal. We don’t even see Jackson’s face in the film, so it says something about Tarantino in regards to the respect afforded to him by his actors that they’ll show up for what essentially amounts to a walk-on voice role despite being internationally-known stars.
Stylistically speaking, KILL BILL VOLUME 2 turned a lot of people off when it was released. After gleefully taking in the frenzied bloodbath of VOLUME 1, they were shocked to find that Tarantino had chosen to make the concluding entry so drastically different. Since both films were shot at the same time, VOLUME 2 retains many of the main visual conceits as VOLUME 1: Super 35mm film negative source, dramatic 2.35:1 anamorphic aspect ratio, a brightly-hued color scheme and book-like chapter designations to divide up big sequences. However, if VOLUME 1 represented the East with its Japanese stylings, than VOLUME 2 is full-on Sergio Leone West, placing the bulk of its action in dusty California, Texas, and Mexico.
Despite its drastic departure from VOLUME 1’s presentation, the structure of VOLUME 2 reveals it to be very much of the same mind. The non-chronological order of sequences is retained, as are the stylized compositions that have come to characterize not only the series itself, but Tarantino’s aesthetic as a whole. Take, for instance, the sequence where The Bride trains with ancient martial arts master Pai Mei (Gordon Liu). One shot in particular shows The Bride and Pai Men practicing their kicks, silhouetted against an expressionistic red background. This mirrors, as well as contrasts, a similar shot in VOLUME 1, where the silhouettes of The Bride and her Crazy 88 adversaries are set up against a similarly-expressionistic blue background. This illustrates how each film is really half of a whole, with one thematic through-line running across both of them.
Tarantino continues utilizing various camera techniques that are emblematic of the genres he is paying homage to, most notably the quick rack zooms that have become associated with pulpy grindhouse films. Ironically enough, the film’s best moments come when he stops moving the camera altogether and lets the characters do the heavy lifting. Halfway through the film, The Bride is captured by Budd and buried alive. This terrifying scene is one of the strongest moments in Tarantino’s entire career, and he does it all by simply and subtly evoking the very real horror of being buried alive. He throws the image into complete darkness, letting his creative sound design drive the tension in the scene. As each shovel-full of dirt lands on top of The Bride’s coffin with a horrifying thud, we feel hopelessness and utter fear set in. It’s pure brilliance on Tarantino’s part, making for one of the most harrowing, unforgettable cinematic experiences I’ve ever encountered.
The music also takes a decidedly different tack than VOLUME 1, opting for a spaghetti western sound to reflect Tarantino’s arid and dusty images. Interestingly enough, the film isn’t as loaded with pre-recorded needle drops as its predecessor—which means that for the first time, Tarantino is making substantial use of original score, provided by fellow filmmaker and friend Robert Rodriguez. Rodriguez does a great job emulating Morricone’s sound, enough so that the difference between score and Tarantino’s well-placed Morricone source tracks is hard to discern. VOLUME 2’s ties to its predecessor are further solidified by the inclusion of a few Blaxploitation/funk tracks, but for the most part VOLUME 2 is very much its own beast.
Tarantino’s characters continue to be an exceedingly verbose lot, with filthy mouths to match their creative wits, a tendency for those of the female persuasion to not wear shoes, and an-almost meta awareness of pop/film culture. This is most easily seen in Bill’s climactic monologue where he espouses the theory that Superman’s alter ego of Clark Kent is really his critique on what he perceives to be a weak, ineffectual race of life forms.
Another moment is the film’s beginning, which seems to achieve multiple layers of meta in its presentation. In the sequence, Thurman is driving to kill Bill, and she’s talking directly to the camera. That’s one layer of meta, the 4th wall-breaking that Tarantino loves to do. Her dialogue is basically re-capping the events of VOLUME 1, but said in such a way as if she just came from the movie herself—she even references critic quotes from the trailer. Now that’s two layers of meta. Finally, no effort is made to conceal the old-school rear projector technique that throws up a moving background behind her as she speaks. At this point, I’ve lost track of how many layers of meta we’re dealing with here. The important thing is that it works.
There’s a lot of other stylistic conceits I could list here, like characters being shown in profile, long dialogue sequences building up to violent outbursts, professional criminals clad in variations on the black suit/white shirt aesthetic, long tracking shots, etc. Tarantino’s style is one of the most well-known in all of cinema—so much so that I feel like I’m insulting your intelligence by even writing it here. His style has been more or less established since day one, and each film builds on it according to the demands of the story.
Many are divided over which volume of KILL BILL is actually better. Personally, I find them so different that it’s hard to compare them. If I had to choose a favorite, however, it would be VOLUME 2. In my eyes, it is the stronger film because the substance, and not the style, is driving the plot forward. It’s one of the most subversive films Tarantino has ever made. A VOLUME 3 has been rumored for years, tentatively featuring the exploits of Vernita Green’s daughter as she seeks out the Bride for her own vengeance, but given how Tarantino regularly speculates but never follows through on sequels to his films (nothing ever did come of that Vega Brothers film, I highly doubt a VOLUME 3 would ever come to fruition.
I would be remiss to mention the cut that combines both films into a semblance of Tarantino’s original vision, titled KILL BILL: THE WHOLE BLOODY AFFAIR. Currently unavailable on home video, this rare print premiered at Cannes and has been shown in arthouse theatres across the country (most notably at Los Angeles’ New Beverly Cinema, which Tarantino just so happens to own). I’ve been curious to see this four hour cut, which reportedly contains a longer animation sequence and restores the color to the Massacre at House of Blue Leaves sequence. It seems to me like THE WHOLE BLOODY AFFAIRwould be the superior version of either film, but who knows if I’ll ever get to make that conclusion.
KILL BILL VOLUME 2 finds Tarantino at the apex of his “Tex-Mex” phase, with his closest collaborator (outside of editor Sally Menke, of course) being Robert Rodriguez. The film is Tarantino’s own personal zeitgeist, where his tendency for homage and imitation reaches its zenith. The KILL BILL saga is the biggest thing he’s ever done, and he pulled it off with obscene style. Literally no other person could dream up what Tarantino did here, and the result is a piece of pop culture that helped to define the Aughts, just like PULP FICTION did for the 90’s.
KILL BILL: VOLUME 2 is currently available on high definition Blu Ray from Buena Vista/Disney.
Produced by: Lawrence Bender, Bob Weinsten, Harvey Weinstein
Written by: Quentin Tarantino
Director of Photography: Robert Richardson
Production Designer: David Wasco
Editor: Salley Menke
Original Music: Robert Rodriguez