Once Upon a Time in Tarantinoland: ‘Kill Bill’ Is a Visually Explosive Love Letter to Cinema

Kill Bill Movie Essay - Quentin Tarantino Film

Imagine following up a smart, subdued crime thriller with a film where a woman in a bright yellow tracksuit spins on the floor, chopping off yakuza limbs to the sound of The Human Beinz’s 1968 hit single “Nobody But Me.” That’s a pretty big pivot, wouldn’t you agree?

When Kill Bill: Volume 1 was released in October 2003, it was Quentin Tarantino’s first picture in six years (his first three films all came out within a five-year span), and expectations were high. Jackie Brown shows Tarantino in slightly unfamiliar territory — the film was restrained, more “adult,” with less wise-cracking and pop song-dropping. Perhaps Tarantino’s next picture would follow the same mold, moving even further away from the pop-culture craziness and violent excess of Pulp Fiction? Nope. Kill Bill features Tarantino at his most indulgent and most insane, but it’s a hell of a fun movie — and it’s not without heart or complex emotional exploration.

Note: I’ll be discussing Kill Bill as one film, which was Tarantino’s original intent before Harvey Weinstein insisted he break it into two volumes. Damn studio meddling.

A Love Letter to Cinema

That Tarantino would go on to direct Death Proof, one half of the 2007 double feature Grindhouse with Robert Rodriguez, isn’t surprising in retrospect. Tarantino’s a grindhouse aficionado and an obsessive fan of kung-fu and spaghetti westerns, two genres which he borrows from heavily in Kill Bill. His previous films had been influenced by grindhouse cinema — e.g. Jackie Brown specifically references 70s blaxploitation films — but with Kill Bill, Tarantino doubled down on the whole “I’m going to cram genres I love into this movie” approach. Kill Bill is a comicbook made real. Sure, there had been a bit of violence in his previous films, but it was small-scale. Bruce Willis blowing away John Travolta in Pulp Fiction. Tim Roth bleeding to death in Reservoir Dogs. Kill Bill ups the ante, leaves the guns behind and goes full wire-fu. The Bride and her combatants fly across the screen in a phantasmagoric display, taking the kung fu and samurai films Tarantino cut his teeth on and cranking the dial up to 111. This isn’t some dropped line from some gangster about how much he loves Enter the Dragon, its a full-on embrace of the genre.

The fight sequence at the House of Blue Leaves is arguably Kill Bill’s most iconic scene, and it best embodies Tarantino’s zealous commitment to the genre and the film’s over-the-top violence. Eyes are plucked from sockets like grapes from the vine, and masked gangsters defy gravity, flying from one level of a room to the next, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon-style. Woo-Ping Yuen, who had earlier choreographed The Matrix, served as the martial arts advisor on Kill Bill, and it shows. Tarantino certainly wasn’t known as an action director by this point (and still really isn’t), but he delivered a seriously shocking and kinetic fight sequence here, not only paying homage to the movies that had inspired him, but giving them a 21st century overhaul.

Revenge Is a Dish Best Served Cold

While Tarantino does employ his trademark flashbacks and time shifts in Kill Bill, it’s not a hard film to follow. The logline is simple: A former assassin wakes up from a coma and seeks revenge on the people who killed her fiancé and unborn child. The Bride/Beatrix Kiddo/Black Mamba had everything taken from her, and rather than hold back, or leave it up to the authorities, she uses her skillset and takes down every last motherfucker who wronged her. It’s a fantasy, pure and simple. In real life, such catharsis is not embraced and will only lead to death and/or jail. But in Kill Bill, the Bride gets to seek out her righteous revenge and the audience gets to revel in the trail of bodies left in her wake.

What’s interesting about Kill Bill is that the Bride isn’t some complete innocent who lives a regular life and is randomly taken down. She’s not a bank teller at a stickup or a mom dealing with a home invasion. No, like those who come to kill her, she’s spent years killing people for money and rubbing elbows with the bad crowd. When Bill inoculates her with “truth serum” in the third act and interrogates her, she admits, though with hesitation, that she’s enjoyed killing her enemies and that she didn’t think her new life as Arlene would actually work out. This doesn’t by any means excuse Bill’s actions, but it makes for a more complicated character in the Bride. Is she righteous in her quest, after all? Was she warranted in leaving the life, and the father of her child, behind? All along, the movie asks the audience to root for a cold-blooded killer. But no matter one’s past, you just don’t get between a mother and her child.

Thurman is perfect as the Bride — she’s brutal during a confrontation, charming in conversation. She captures the complex emotions she faces on her journey — utter despair at the thought that she’s lost her unborn child, her love/hate relationship with Bill. Speaking of which, Carradine is excellent as the titular Bill. He’s wise and charismatic, but he’ll kill you in an instant. It takes talent to play someone so lovable yet so detratae, and he does it with aplomb. Their climactic scene together is charged with all kinds of emotion: Bill is so sweet with their daughter B.B. yet so cruel; Beatriz detests Bill and deals a killing blow but still caresses his hand. Think about this: she literally breaks Bill’s heart with the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique.

Mixed Media and Visual Eclecticism

Tarantino takes a kitchen-sink approach to genre-mashing in Kill Bill and that same instinct carries through to the film’s visual style, as if he wanted to cram every last one of his influences into one film. The boldest move has to be the choice to dramatize O-Ren Ishii’s backstory in anime. Considering the theme and setting of the film, anime isn’t as crazy a choice as, say, a sequence acted out by puppets, but it’s a daring move nonetheless. The fluid yet jarring animation style really captures the brutality and sadness of her story, in which her parents are murdered by a sadistic crime boss, a revenge tale that mirrors the Bride’s, to a certain extent.

Visually, Tarantino gets creative with color, and the lack thereof, throughout the film. The choice to film the wedding scenes in black and white gives the flashbacks a mythic quality, as the Bride’s attempts at a new life now nothing more than a distant memory. It’s clear that shit is about to go down, that her sad sack fiancé isn’t going to make it. Back at the House of Blue Leaves, after the major brawl on the lower level, the Bride takes on more of the Crazy 88, this time silhouetted against a cool blue backdrop. It accentuates the action in a new and interesting way, highlighting just how outnumbered she is as well as the impressive choreography at play. Just moments later, the setting shifts to a snow-covered garden. It’s a far cry from the gritty city streets that Tarantino has previously explored and gives the scene and battle a mystical, magical quality.

All in all, “the 4th film by Quentin Tarantino” is a wild, eclectic action movie with visual flair, great performances and personality up the wazoo. The story itself isn’t that original — it’d been explored in films like 1973’s Lady Snowblood and 1968’s The Bride Wore Black — but it’s Tarantino’s idiosyncratic style that makes it transcend those previous, lesser-known works. He has yet to return to kung-fu, but it should be noted that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood does feature a fictional portrayal of Bruce Lee, though it’s doubtful he’ll be flying through the air or poking eyes out of anyone’s socket.

John Brhel (@johnbrhel) is an author and pop culture writer from upstate New York. He is the co-author of several books of horror/paranormal fiction, including Corpse Cold: New American Folklore and Resurrection High, and the co-founder of independent book publisher Cemetery Gates Media. He enjoys burritos and has seen Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom way too many times.