KILL BILL: VOL. 2

THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY OF THE SECOND ACT OF TARANTINO’S SHATTERING MASTERPIECE

RETROSPECTIVE REVIEW
By Daniel Lammin
16th April 2024

This time, I was ready.

If you've read my piece on the 20th anniversary of the first part of 'Kill Bill', Quentin Tarantino's shockingly ambitious two-part revenge epic, you'll remember how, the first time I saw the film as a double-bill of both volumes at Melbourne's iconic Astor Theatre, I was so surprised by the thunderous gunshot in the opening minutes that I had a pain in my chest for the entire evening. You'll also remember that I went into the intermission between the two films totally elated. I had fallen head over heels for 'Vol. 1', a bombastic symphony of blood and steel, unapologetic melodrama and spectacle the likes of which my teenage eyes had never seen before. I settled back down into my balcony seat buzzing. If that was how good 'Vol. 1' was, how much better would 'Vol. 2' be?

The two films begin with the same sequence, practically down to the second. And this time, I was prepared, I knew the gunshot was coming. There was the Bride aka Black Mamba aka B - - - - - - K - - - - (Uma Thurman, 'Nymphomaniac'), in black and white, beaten and bloodied. There was the cool, calm voice of Bill (David Carradine, 'Kung Fu'), assuring her that he would get no enjoyment from what he was about to do, that shock-inducing shot to the head. I remembered that she mumbled something, barely audible, but had no clue what it had been. That's the incredible trick Tarantino pulls at this transition point between the two films. We don't know what she says the first time because we have no context, and the shock of the gunshot steals the focus. Now though, we have context. We know she was pregnant at the time. We know she thought she lost the baby. We know, from the last line of 'Vol. 1', that her baby is still alive. And so, this time, though the sound mixing is exactly the same, we hear what she says, clear as a bell.

"Bill, it's your baby."

Gunshot.

This time, I don't jump out of my seat because of the sound. I jump out of my seat from the delicious, game-changing narrative surprise, a surprise that had been there all the time, hiding in plain sight. The stakes already felt high after 'Vol. 1'. The stakes going into 'Vol. 2' had just become so much higher.

It's hard to know how to classify the two volumes of 'Kill Bill'. Are they one holistic creation, or should they be counted as two seperate works? Tarantino counts them as a single film, and for the sake of ease, I usually count them as such. However, the opposite is just as legitimate. Part of the shock of 'Vol. 2' is how stylistically and tonally different it is from 'Vol. 1'. Where the first film is driven by action, by set pieces breathtaking in their scope and designed for maximum audience satisfaction, 'Vol. 2' is a much slower, much darker and much nastier film. Tarantino returns to his habit of long dialogue-driven scenes, often set around the act of sharing food or drink. The fight scenes are far more intimate and inclosed, grittier and crueller, and always end with a sharp shock, denying us the satisfaction of a big operatic ending. In fact, denying satisfaction is part of the text of this film, and intentionally so. Like any kind of adrenaline rush, a crash must follow, and after her victories in the first film, the adrenaline crash for the Bride in the last act of her odyssey brings home the reality of what she is attempting, and what it might ultimately cost her. In the first film, Tarantino shows her as a kind of superhero. In the second, she boils down to her essence: a woman in tremendous pain, trying desperately to alleviate that pain through an act of retribution, discovering that this act of retribution might not give her the closure she needs.

'KILL BILL: VOL. 2' TRAILER

To put it simply, if 'Vol. 1' was the ecstasy of revenge, 'Vol. 2' is its agony.

With startling ease, the film carefully shifts its tone from the operatic to the intimate, Tarantino, cinematographer Robert Richardson and editor Sally Menke forgoing many of the cinematic tricks they'd employed in the first volume. This chapter is sun-blasted, baked in heat and caked in dust. Death and pain aren't an eruption of emotion, but sharp and agonising. There is real suffering in this film, and not just through the impossible trials The Bride has to overcome. When death comes for Bill's brother Budd A.K.A. Sidewinder (Michael Madsen, 'Reservoir Dogs'), it's a sudden attack followed by a slow death. There's no grand retribution; The Bride doesn't even get to take her revenge on him. It's sad and nasty and ugly. Even the satisfaction of seeing The Bride pluck the remaining eye from Elle (Daryl Hannah, 'Blade Runner') barely lasts, as we watch her throw herself around in physical and existential agony. Rather than the feeling of victory she had after defeating O-Ren, The Bride barely has the energy to walk away. It also comes after a stunning, intimate, enclosed battle in Budd's trailer that, as it's about to reach its crescendo, just... ends. Death isn't a spectacle, but a stark, ugly reality.

This is intentional. If 'Vol. 2' had simply repeated the same tricks as 'Vol. 1', delivered the same experience for its audience, all we would have gotten was an (undeniably) enjoyable revenge thriller whose lasting impression would have been its stunts and its style. As much as Tarantino is an excellent stylist, almost all his film still come back to a humanist core. They're rarely frivolous. The spectacle in 'Vol. 1' was necessary to lead us into this alternate reality of assassins, of legendary sword smiths and Yakuza gangs, of artists whose tool is a sword and who paint in blood. We're mirroring the experience of The Bride as she takes her first steps towards revenge, and the thrill of letting that rage erupt. The massacre of the Crazy 88 becomes a visual metaphor for her internal fury, manifested physically in the bodies strewn around her. She wants the world to reflect her anger, and in 'Vol. 1', both she and us get to revel in the scale and excess of that.

In 'Vol. 2' though, the nasty aftertaste of that anger begins to set in. What is at the end of the road for her with all this? How much of herself is she willing to sacrifice? What happens if she can't kill Bill? What happens if she does? There was a code of honour to the fights in the first volume, a code that she takes seriously. There are rules of engagement, and you play by those rules, and to win is to do so fairly. Those rules have now been blown out the window, through the door of Budd's trailer as he blasts her full of rock salt. Now, her combatants look her in the eye, hatred dripping from their honeyed tongues. For O-Ren and Vernita, it was a formality. But Budd and Elle hate The Bride. They take pleasure in her suffering, "till her last breath". In the face of such hatred, there are no rules and there are no limits, and suddenly the sense of honour that made The Bride so admirable becomes her unexpected weakness. The horror of what Budd does to her - burying her alive and leaving her to die - is not just what he does but how easily she has been beaten by him. We watched this woman mow down people as if they were wheat, and now, with no fight at all, she is trapped in a nightmare. We were led to believe this woman was a superhero, who would fight to the death but always come out on top. Maybe she thought that too. And even though, deep down, we know that she'll get out of that wooden box and make it to the final Big Bad, you can feel her question herself, if all this was worth it to end up alone, suffocating in the dark.

Tarantino puts The Bride through absolute hell in 'Vol. 2', but perhaps the cruellest move and the most powerful comes in the final, shattering act of the film. Right at the moment where her greatest victory should have been within her grasp, she's faced with a cataclysm - a daughter she thought she lost, now standing in front of her with open arms, with the architect of her suffering there to watch. I described Bill in the piece on 'Vol. 1' as a kind of cult leader, "Charles Manson with a sword", and while 'Vol. 2' shows us many of the ways he emotionally manipulates those around him to do his bidding, nothing comes close to the diabolical cruelty of using The Bride's own daughter as a shield, a contingency and a weapon all at once. The moment where The Bride first sees B.B. (Perla Haney-Jardine, 'Steve Jobs') mirrors the moment she wakes up in 'Vol. 1', that overwhelming expression of agony. We see in flashback how, upon finding out she was pregnant during her last job, she decides to leave her life as an assassin behind, to leave Bill and make a life for her daughter free of bloodshed. And yet, standing here in front of her daughter for the first time, she sees all her nightmares play out at once. Her daughter is holding a toy gun, and efficiently. Her daughter is under the care of Bill. And she herself is standing there, in front of her daughter, holding a gun with the intention to kill. Bill took her life away from her, took her child away from her, and then, in perhaps his most malicious act, gave her daughter the exact life The Bride had told him on the steps of the church on her wedding day, that she never wanted for her. It might be the most devastating moment in any of Tarantino's films, and we know, at that moment, that whatever is going to happen will not be the grand, ecstatic finale we've been expecting. A grand gesture of revenge doesn't matter anymore. Now, for The Bride, it's about surviving, for herself and for her daughter. Maybe she would have accepted death at the end of the road if it was the cost to kill Bill. That was all she had to live for before. Now she has something to live for, someone to live for.

This chapter is sun-blasted, baked in heat and caked in dust. Death and pain aren't an eruption of emotion, but sharp and agonising. There is real suffering in this film, and not just through the impossible trials The Bride has to overcome.

The fight at the end of 'Kill Bill' is not one to end Bill's life, but the fight for The Bride to finally, wholly take back hers. His weapon is not his sword but his words. He gaslights and traps her, forces her to say the things she doesn't want to say, confuses and contradicts her. If we go back to that moment in the prologue of both films, he wants to hear all the ways in which she has wronged him and that justify what he has done and will do to her, that he had no choice. He wants her to know that she brought this on herself, that he is only doing what is his right and that she should accept his punishment in all its multi-faceted manifestations.

And her weapon to defeat him is her integrity. This is something we see in every ancillary interaction she has in the two films, with those that have encountered Bill in the past. They tell her again and again that Bill is a man with no integrity, who thinks of nothing other than himself. This is why Hattori Hanzo (Sonny Shiba) makes her a sword. This is why the disgusting Esteban Vihaio (Michael Parks, 'Tusk') leads her in the right direction. And this is why Pai Mei (Gordon Liu) imparts to her the one secret of his art that he never gave to Bill. Because she has honour and integrity. Because she won't use it to indiscriminately cause pain to others. She isn't driven by cruelty or the need to possess, the need to dominate. In the final scenes of 'Kill Bill', she truly ceases to be an assassin and becomes a mother and a woman, the victim of the barbarity of men, a victim of extreme emotional and physical abuse, standing in front of her abuser and calling for justice. Tarantino is clever enough not to make it all black and white - The Bride still feels something for Bill, but she knows that those feelings were a lie, part of his hold over her. We may want to see her cut him to pieces, the apprentice defeating the master at his own game, but it isn't that film anymore. In the end she defeats him with something even more powerful. It isn't just her fingers that blow up his heart, it's the revelation that he never mattered, the arrogant narcissist that he is, as much as he assumed that he did. And more than anything, how little he ultimately matters to her.

I've never understood the argument that 'Vol. 2' of 'Kill Bill' isn't as good as 'Vol. 1'. Despite their stylistic differences, they've always felt to me like a whole story, and in many ways, the division into two parts compliments and amplifies this rather than detracts. The destination we arrive at, while never reaching the stylistic heights of the first film, feels earned. Despite all the folderol and bombast, the film was always a story of a woman fighting to take back the life that was taken from her, a revenge fantasy we've all maybe wished we could play out morphing into the reality of where the quest for revenge may lead us. The spectacle, in visual and in dialogue, was just a means of expressing the enormity of that need and the depths of that pain. We began with The Bride in a yellow tracksuit, the sound of swords swinging in the air and the splash of blood. We end with The Bride aka Black Mamba aka Beatrix Kiddo aka Mommy (her most important title) in a car with the daughter she thought she lost, the life she thought she'd never have, speeding off into the future. The film doesn't suggest this is a happily ever after; there are too many ghosts for that. But maybe it will be a happier ever after.

It's been 20 years since the two volumes of 'Kill Bill' erupted across our screens, since Uma Thurman became an icon, since Daryl Hannah delivered her finest performance, since our hearts fell in sync with Hotei's 'Battle Without Honour or Humanity', since we tried to get our fingers right to recreate the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique, since we revelled in the blood and the glory of the ultimate angel of revenge and her mythological journey for justice. Tarantino has made many great films since ('Inglorious Basterds' and 'Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood' in particular). And yet, with the man a genre unto itself and the film that imitated the films of the past now endlessly imitated itself, 'Kill Bill' still feels singular, even within his filmography. It's a demonstration of all that cinema can be, the marriage of visual and sound, the snap of great dialogue, the beauty of great performances, the ability to use all at its disposal to enthral and move us. There simply hasn't been anything else like it.

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