KILL BILL: VOL. 1

CELEBRATING 20 YEARS WITH THE FIRST ACT OF TARANTINO’S SUBLIME REVENGE ODYSSEY

RETROSPECTIVE REVIEW
By Daniel Lammin
7th October 2023

The first time I saw 'Kill Bill', I thought I was having a heart attack.

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It was 2004, just after 'Vol. 2' had been released in cinemas, and my friends had convinced me to come to a double-bill of both parts at the Astor Theatre in Melbourne, the first time the iconic picture palace had played both films back-to-back. I hadn't seen 'Vol. 1' when it was released the year before, not from lack of interest but a nerdy teenager insistence on following the rules (the first film was rated R18+, and I was still 16 at the time). I'm not even sure I'd seen a Quentin Tarantino film before. All my friends who had seen it though insisted that I come to this double bill, even though I still wasn't 18 yet. They marched me into the packed cinema, told me to sit in the middle of the front row of the balcony and watched me with anticipation as the curtains opened. They knew something I didn't, that this film was probably going to blow my fucking mind.

The opening shot of 'Vol. 1' is startling in its brutality and stillness, a black-and-white close-up of the angelic face of Uma Thurman battered and bloodied, terrified and pleading. In counterpoint to her distress is the calm disembodied voice of a man, solemnly explaining why he has no choice but the action he was about to take. Her distress increases, she hastily mumbles out an admission to this man Bill (a line I can barely hear), and then a thunderous gun shot rips through the speakers of the cinema, the screen cutting to black.

To this day, I have never jumped out of my seat with more animated surprise than at that gunshot. It shook my whole body, sent it into a state of shock. I clutched my chest, now stinging with pain. Of course I wasn't having a heart attack, I was a perfectly healthy 17-year-old, but that pain sat in my chest for the next four and a half hours, a reminder of the unforgiving way this film had pulled me in. And very quickly, I realised just how trapped I was by it. I may have physically left my seat in that opening minute, but it wouldn't be long before I would be elevating from my seat in ecstasy. 'Kill Bill' didn't just blow my fucking my mind, it blew me totally fucking apart.

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We take for granted now that 'Kill Bill' fits so easily into Quentin Tarantino's filmography. In fact, I would hazard a guess that, for most people, this kind of ostentatious filmmaking and operatic violence is what they think of when they think about his films. Viewed in context though, 'Kill Bill', and in particular 'Vol. 1', were without precedent. His first three films - the wonderfully raw 'Reservoir Dogs', the generation-defining 'Pulp Fiction' and the quiet classic 'Jackie Brown' - were films built primarily on Tarantino's cracking, witty scripts. The grand set pieces in those films were usually intricate dialogue scenes, mostly set around the communal act of sharing a meal. There was violence certainly, but that violence was usually underpinned by a shocking realism and real human panic (think Mr Orange writhing in pain or Maya taking the shot of adrenaline). They felt immediate, direct and contained, like three well-calibrated pressure cookers.

'Kill Bill: Vol. 1' though opens (after that heart attack-inducing prologue) with a sequence almost devoid of dialogue. Rather than introduce us to his protagonist B - - - - - - e aka The Bride (Uma Thurman), her adversaries and her mission through extended dialogue, he flings us head-on into a spectacular knife fight with Vernita Green aka Copperhead (Vivica A. Fox, 'Independence Day'), a jaw-dropping dance of blood and blade and broken glass. You barely have time to take a breath, and yet each second erupts with narrative and character detail. By the time The Bride flings the kitchen knife into Vernita's chest, so much has been set up about this woman, her relationship with her past and the fury that defines her future endeavour.

'KILL BILL VOL. 1' TRAILER

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'Kill Bill' has been picked over and discussed endlessly, and in particular the awe-inspiring aesthetic flare of 'Vol. 1', but the fact it has been so over-discussed and so often imitated in the 20 years since its release has not robbed the film of its capacity to amaze. It still feels enormous, artistically and thematically. It still has an edge of spectacle that takes your breath away, from sweeping intricate gestures to the stillness and silence of a sandal being removed. Not a second of it feels wasted, not a frame of it feels indulgent and not a moment feels insincere. To dismiss 'Kill Bill: Vol. 1' as purely an exercise of style is to dismiss how intelligent, intricate and classical a film it is. The film may be 20 years old, but it easily fulfils the requirements of a classic - it feels as fresh as the day it first ran through a projector and as timeless as the grand tradition in which it falls, tales of loss and revenge executed on an almost superhuman scale.

As impressive as Tarantino's first three films are, for me it is 'Kill Bill: Vol. 1' where we see his full capacity as not just a screenwriter but a filmmaker. There's a degree to which I suspect he was working against those critics who purely dismissed him as a clever writer of dialogue by fashioning a film where dialogue is secondary to storytelling and character through action. Large sections of 'Vol. 1' have almost no dialogue at all, allowing the visual storytelling to take the lead, and an eclectic collection of storytelling devises at that. 'Vol. 1' is constantly shifting its visual style, not only pulling from the obvious cultural touchstones Tarantino wears on his sleeve (blaxploitation, Hong Kong cinema, spaghetti westerns, anime) but offering new variations on old ideas. In much the same way the Wachowskis had done with 'The Matrix' in 1999, Tarantino takes these stylistic markers and renders them fresh and thrilling by virtue of their new proximity to one another. In lesser hands, cutting to an anime sequence or to black-and-white or to highly stylised and artificial sets would jar against one another, but in this heightened universe Tarantino and his collaborators have created for this grand epic to take place, every singe shift makes aesthetic sense, and more importantly, emotional sense.

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For all its bravura, it's the emotional integrity of 'Vol. 1' that makes it such a satisfying experience, that the hero's journey for The Bride has been so carefully considered and that the moments of melodrama are undercut with a startling emotional honesty. Take the moment where The Bride awakens from her coma, the agony of realising her baby is gone. Neither Tarantino, Thurman or editor Sally Menke waste this moment. In a way, this cry of anguish is going to echo across both volumes of this two-part epic, the trauma and loss that will drive The Bride to the extremes of her revenge. It could be argued that, rather than being the full maturation of his indulgent nature, 'Kill Bill' is the first indication of the mature, thoughtful filmmaker Tarantino secretly is. If we didn't care about The Bride, not a second of this film, not a drop of its blood or sweat, would matter an inch. But we do care - we care because of the devastation she awakes to, the violence inflicted upon her and, ecstatically, the skill and passion with which she fights to take her agency back.

That same humanity also permeates the secondary characters, even the most dastardly. Both Vivica and O-Ren Ishii (a truly-absolutely-fucking-sublime-beyond-description Lucy Liu) express quiet moments of regret at what they did to The Bride, finding time within the violence to extend her that respect. In the case of O-Ren, we also have an extended backstory of her traumatic childhood, a sequence which also has the effect of allowing us to imagine the path that led both The Bride and Vivica to their lives as assassins. Master sword maker Hattori Hanzo, played so beautifully by the legendary Sonny Chiba, expresses such sadness and regret at what his craft has done but also a quiet sense of responsibility to atone for that. Even Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah, who has frankly never been more iconic) extends beyond a wonderfully vicious and comic villain in her one scene. You see the anger and resentment she has towards The Bride, for the ways in which she has been passed over and been forced to play second fiddle.

'Kill Bill: Vol. 1' is a bloody opera, a sublime symphony of steel and blood, a work of pure ecstasy. In the same way that the tone and the story divorce themselves from the need for realism, so too does the filmmaking free itself from the bonds of the expected.

As a result, the unseen figure of Bill (David Carradine, who even unseen gives a startling performance with just his voice) becomes all the more omnipresent and threatening. These women mentioned and the many others that appear in this first volume are puppets tied to strings attached to his long, agile fingers. They live for his favour - even The Bride, in her bloody path for revenge, is still defined by this man. His power over them is sickening, and this adds to the emotional complexity of the film and its characters. Even when he is causing them immense pain, he fawns over them, as if there is no-one in the world he cares for more. In the prologue, he has the audacity to frame his assassination of The Bride as an act of masochism, that killing her will cause him more pain than her. He is the most vile of cult leaders, Charles Manson with a samurai sword, and yet we only get a taste of the full extent of it in this first act. As vast as 'Vol. 1' is, it still feels hauntingly claustrophobic, as if no matter where The Bride turns, the shadow of Bill will be there, always one step behind, threatening to be one step ahead.

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'Vol. 1' is often discussed in relation to the Asian cinema it clearly emulates, films from Hong Kong and Japan in particular. What became clear on this rewatch though was how much the film is also rooted in the theatrical tradition of the revenge tragedy, a tradition that exists in performance across theatrical cultures. For a western audience, these kinds of narratives found their strongest footing in Elizabethan/Jacobean plays such as Thomas Middleton's 'The Revenger's Tragedy' and, even more so, in Shakespeare's 'Titus Andronicus'. Both plays feature protagonists on operatic quests for revenge that end with bloody retribution, and in the case of 'Titus', underpinned with a commentary on the nature of revenge and a strong relationship between emotional integrity and action. These are only two examples (and very western ones at that), but what I'm getting at is that this connection to such an ingrained tradition in storytelling lends 'Kill Bill' a sense of mythological weight. The Battle with the Crazy 88 is spectacular, but in its position in the story, is akin to a battle with a dragon or a great army in a classical myth, the hero(ine) with the magic sword facing the insurmountable force that will test their skills as a warrior before they can face their ultimate foe.

It's for this reason, I think, that 'Vol. 1' engages so eagerly with melodrama and the ridiculous. That unreality allows you to divorce your mind from logic and accept this story as a myth or legend, where the laws of nature don't always apply. 'Kill Bill: Vol. 1' is a bloody opera, a sublime symphony of steel and blood, a work of pure ecstasy. In the same way that the tone and the story divorce themselves from the need for realism, so too does the filmmaking free itself from the bonds of the expected. Robert Richardson's cinematography is beyond comprehension, Sally Menke's editing is endlessly dazzling, and the production and costume design are rich and delicious. At its greatest moments, you feel this film elevating, rising above and beyond the potential derivativeness of its references. It's impossible to remember all the moments of the sublime in this film, whether they be as bombastic as the tracking shot through the club or The Bride's jaw-dropping run up the bannisters during the battle, or as fiendishly simple as The Bride on her motorbike as Hotei's 'Battle Without Honour or Humanity' drops in, every hair on your body standing on end. 'Kill Bill: Volume 1' is pure ecstatic spectacle, but it's spectacular in all the ways it's possible for a film to be.

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And anchoring it all is a central performance for the ages. The Bride is Uma Thurman's finest performance, nuanced and honest and silly and melodramatic in all the right ways. She knows how important it is to carry the style and the heart of the film all at once, to know when to use one tool or the other. The emotional scenes work because you believe her, but the same can be said for every fight sequence. We feel her weariness, we feel the sting of injury, the frustration of failure and the superhuman drive to not give up. For how remarkable Tarantino's filmmaking is, 'Kill Bill' simply would not work without Uma Thurman. It's probably one of the most iconic performances of the century so far.

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'Kill Bill: Volume 1' leaves you in a state of elation, of ecstasy, buzzing with an energy you can barely contain. Even after 20 years, there's still just nothing remotely like it. For an hour and 50 minutes, it holds you enraptured, dazzled by its bravura and shaken by its brutality. I honestly don't know how anyone back in 2003 was able to handle the wait to see what happened next, to see what heights were in store for them with the second half. And yet, 'Vol. 1' is still a wholly satisfying experience in its own right. While the narrative arc is left unfinished, it does bring the first act of The Bride's emotional arc to an end. In her pursuit for revenge, for the life she lost and the child that was taken from her, she faced a seemingly impossible challenge. But bloody and battered in the quiet of the snow-covered garden, with the dead O-Ren at her feet and the preposterous trail of victims behind her, the idea that she may eventually kill Bill seems all the more possible. The job may not be done, but in this quiet moment, she is victorious.

Hard part's over. Now. Let's get these other piggies wiggling.

Luckily I didn't have to wait six months. I only had to wait 20 minutes, that pain in my chest still persisting and the revelation at the end of 'Vol. 1' still ringing in my ears. I had sat in awe at the operatic first act. I had no idea just how gritty, how nasty and how enormous it was all about to get.

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