Tarantino: Kill Bill: Volume 2 (2004)
Kill Bill: Volume 2 opens with a couple of gestures that indicate that this will be a very different kind of film from Volume 1. During the opening credits, Tarantino returns to the conversation between Bill and the Bride that started the first film, where it left us hanging on Bill’s question, “Do you find me sadistic?” This time, however, we hear the next part of the conversation, as Bill confesses to the Bride that “this is me at my most masochistic.” We then shift back to a longer version of the massacre of the Groom and the rest of the people at the wedding. This time around, we learn that it wasn’t actually a wedding, but a wedding rehearsal. We also learn that the Bride didn’t have any family attending – just a collection of friends she’d met on the road – and that both she and the Groom were fairly irreverent, and even disrespectful, to the Groom’s parents, who wanted a more formal wedding ceremony.
Both of these shifts signal a film in which Bill will insist more on his own feelings, but also in which the sanctity of the Bride, and her wedding, will be put to one side. The biggest change from Volume 1, however, comes with the way in which this opening chapter is shot. Whereas all of the chapters in the first film mixed genre cues, “Massacre at Two Pines” is, as the title suggests, shot as a straight western. Moreover, this recourse to the western indicates a new interest in dialogue within Tarantino’s career. This renewed interest in dialogue coincides with our first real introduction to Bill, who was only a disembodied voice in Volume 1. As the Bride leaves the chapel to meet Bill, we see Bill’s face for the first time, while Tarantino cements the western cues with a quote of John Ford’s iconic tracking-shot from the start of The Searchers, fusing the appearance of Bill, the possibility of dialogue, and the language of the classical western into quite a different aesthetic project from Volume 1.
The first conversation between the Bride and Bill takes place on the verandah of the chapel, and plays as a transition from the monologues of Tarantino’s career to the more dialogue-driven efforts of his later career. This is partly because the western itself often encouraged this nexus between dialogue and monologue, revolving around stand-offs in which characters exchanged language, but from the same paranoid distance as Tarantino’s soliloquies. Accordingly, while the Bride and Bill are talking to each other during this opening scene, their body language, and Tarantino’s framing, still suggests that they are partly talking at each other as well. From time to time, we do see their faces, and see them in the frame, but for the most part Tarantino tends to atomize them, reducing them to a pair of feet that are planted, in defiance, against each other, despite appearing to converse. While they are ostensibly conversing, they perpetually have one eye on the horizon, even as Bill presents himself as the horizon of all possibilities, as the imminent massacre of the wedding party suggests. As a result, when the massacre does occur, Tarantino’s camera retreats to the position of the horizon, pulling back from the violence in a long tracking-shot that takes us out of the chapel, as the black-and-white footage grows grittier and corroded.
This opening chapters indicates, then, that Volume 2 will be particularly invested in the way that westerns dramatise the tension between monologue and dialogue, along with the western proclivity for characters who talk at, to and through each other in the same breath. At the same time, however, it indicates that Bill’s voice will ultimately be the horizon of this experiment, and that even the most flamboyant exercises in dialogue will be partly constrained by the way he organises the screenplay. The next chapter confirms this, cutting back to colour as Tarantino situates us in the midst of a richly and beautifully lit valley where Bud, Bill’s brother, played by Michael Madsen, has set up his caravan. We immediately shift into a conversation between Bill and Bud, although the exchange of language is subordinated to David Carradine’s voice, and Tarantino’s clear love for Carradine’s voice, whose grainy and granular textures are the aural equivalent of 70s film stock. In contrast to the kineticisim of Volume 1, the rest of this film will be the slowest and talkiest exercise of Tarantino’s career – his version of slow cinema – subsisting almost entirely on slow, stylised conversations, fully of long pauses and deliberated delivery. These long conversations are the reason why Volume 2 balloons out to nearly an hour longer than the first film, and nearly always involve Bill, or a character who operates as a surrogate or messenger for Bill.
Throughout this exercise, Tarantino often seems to be aiming for a new kind of silence in his career, or using Bill’s voice as a way to texture the silences around it, much as the granularity of 70s film stock textured the images it projected. In Tarantino’s earlier films, silence rarely had an intrinsic presence of its own, and usually felt as if it was simply waiting for a monologue to fill it. While these early films excelled at shock and excitement, they were rarely suspenseful, since silence is so critical to suspense. At the very least, they rarely contained sustained sequences of suspense, with the exception of the Del Camo Mall heist at the end of Jackie Brown, which at this point was the quietest and most focused third act in Tarantino’s career. In Volume 2, however, Tarantino seems to be experimenting with a new kind of suspenseful silence, contoured by the massive expanse of space around Bud’s house. For a long time after the first chapter, the Bride is only present as a part of this looming and suspenseful silence, culminating with a sequence that was unlike anything else in Tarantino’s body of work to date. In a bravura sequence, Bud comes outside at night and looks up at the cliffs in the dark, inchoately glimpsing the Bride’s agency somewhere in that sweep of space – a sweep that carries over into Tarantino’s subsequent tracking-shot, which takes us down to the Bride, crouched beneath Bud’s caravan, looking up at the same cliffs.
Stealth, rather than martial arts, is therefore the Bride’s main weapon in Volume 2, which more or less discards the hyperactive slickness of Volume 1. When violence does occur, it tends to be blunter, shorter and less flamboyant, starting with the first combat scene, in which Bud fells the Bride with a gun, shoots her full of “rock salt,” and then offers to “perform a coup de gras with a rock” for Bill. This is more of a grindhouse style of violence, perhaps explaining why the Bud subplot looks and feels a lot like Death Proof, especially when he rocks up to the local cemetery with the Bride in his trunk, before burying her alive with the help of a local lackey. This grindhouse style also recalls the torture porn aesthetic that was starting to dominate 2000s horror, along with the wave of minimal, claustrophobic horror films that would succeed it. These later films took the basic logic of torture porn – entrapment in a confined space – but did away with the torture, instead using the experience of confinement itself as the basis for a new wave of low-budget horror releases. This transition from torture porn to claustrophobic horror is succinctly summarised in the way that Bud disposes of the Bride, as he first threatens that she will be “blind, burned and buried alive,” but then realises it is more expedient, and cheaper, to merely bury her alive.
The claustrophobia of Tarantino’s earlier monologues, and the male voices that delivered them, is now literally translated into claustrophobic horror. While the Bride is buried underground, a series of flashbacks take her through some of the most constrictive voices in her life, while her perky voiceovers – one of the most distinctive features of Volume 1 – are completely absent here, muted and erased by Bill’s voice, which seems to percolate out across every single scene. The shift towards westerns isn’t just used to open up space, then, but to constrain space, or to move between wide open spaces and obsessively controlled spaces so that both feel more visceral in contrast to one another. While Volume 2 may contain some of the widest and most panoramic shots in Tarantino’s career, it also features more close-ups and tight shots than any of his previous films. This oscillation between close-ups and long shots displaces the globe-trotting momentum of the first two films, condensing all of the action to a couple mile radius of Bud’s house, but also endlessly expanding that space through a series of increasingly panoramic vistas. Only a series of flashbacks, and a closing act at Bill’s South American mansion, disrupt this process, but they seem to bog the action down even more, rather than allowing it to jump from place to place as in Volume 1.
For all that Volume 2 might try to enact dialogue, then, it just as often doubles down on the monologic tendencies of Tarantino’s earlier films, as if his dialogic ambitions and monologic preferences were at war with one another. This is at least more dynamic than much of his earlier career, and this dynamism will propel the western trilogy of Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight, which follow Volume 2 in understanding the western as precisely this fluid space between talking at and to people. The dynamism is not quite as refined in Volume 2, however, where the Bride spends the vast majority of the film listening to men speak. Sometimes she is listening in terror, sometimes she is listening in pleasure, but she is always enraptured, prostrate in either pleasure or pain, especially when Bill is the person talking. During most of the scenes set in the present, she is listening to either Bill or Bud, while the flashbacks often show her listening to Bill in adoration in their early years together. The longest flashback occurs while she is buried underground, and takes her back to a similarly claustrophobic situation – her training with martial arts master Pai Mei, played by Gordon Liu, who tells her from the outset that “You are not to speak unless spoken to. I will communicate with you as I would with a dog.” Even the final act is set up by one of these monologic voices, since the Bride only manages to locate Bill after tracking down his own father-figure, retired pimp Esteban Vihaio, played by Michael Parks.
As a result, the Bride’s debilitation is much more of a spectacle in Volume 2 than in Volume 1. She spends the first part of the film being bound, buried and beaten, while the flashbacks show her listening in rapt attention to Bill and his surrogates, and being trained by her samurai master, who hits and humiliates her until she succeeds. We don’t see her upright or mobile, in the present, until halfway through, when she escapes from being buried alive, and makes her way back to Bud’s trailer. For a moment, this brings back the propulsive energy of the first film, as a montage of slow fades emphasise the Bride’s upright posture as she walks across the desert, and blends back into the yellow palette of Volume 1, whose siren-like electronic motif also recurs as she locks eyes on Bud’s trailer. Yet this propulsion is exhausted almost immediately, for two distinct reasons. First, the Bride’s escape from underground is presented in the grindhouse zombie style that was popular in the mid-00s, rendering her undead, rather than truly alive. Stumbling across the street next to the graveyard, covered in dust and blood, with her arms jerking from the stress of clawing herself out of the coffin, she feels more like a character from Dawn of the Dead than from Volume 1, exuding an exhaustion that carries over to her subsequent walk across the desert.
Tarantino also chooses this precise moment to bring Elle Driver, played by Daryl Hannah, back into the action. Speeding across the desert by car as the Bride is stumbling towards Bud’s caravan, Elle is much more successful at jacking into the energy of Volume 1, effectively displacing the Bride from her own trajectory and identity. Accordingly, when Elle arrives at Bud’s, she berates him for not letting her kill the Bride, since this would have allowed her to absorb the Bride’s identity as the most accomplished assassin in Bill’s stable. In compensation, Elle adopts the Bride’s namesake – the Black Mamba – by unleashing a pair of Black Mambas upon Bud, who is quickly bitten to death. During this same sequence, we discover the Bride’s name for the first time – Beatrix Kiddo – further displacing her from the identity and energy of the first film, while also infantilizing her, since it turns out that “Kiddo,” Bill’s affectionate name for her, has been her real name all along. By the time that the Bride arrives at the caravan, then, her mission has already been partly absorbed by Elle, meaning that she has to fight for her own privileged perception of the events of the two films, rather than permitting Elle to appropriate and continue her narrative from this point.
This results in the single most gory image in the series – Beatrix pulling out Elle’s eye, literally robbing her of perception. Since Elle has only one eye to begin with, it might seem as if Beatrix has regained her control over her own story, and wrested her persona back from Elle. Yet it turns out that Elle has already, in some sense, retaliated this action, since we learn, through a series of flashbacks, that her other eye was torn out by Pai Mei, who punished her for not showing him the same respect that he demanded from Beatrix. Unlike Beatrix, however, Elle was not prepared to let Pai Mei humiliate her, and so put poison in his food, forcing him to die a slow, agonising and abject death. While she may have been revenging Pai Mei, rather than Beatrix, for her lost eye, the gesture debilitates Beatrix, whose last link to infallible masculine authority, in the teachings of her martial arts master, are now removed by the banality and ease of Elle’s revenge. For all the violence of Beatrix’s treatment of Elle, then, this scene in Bud’s caravan simply reiterates that Elle has already appropriated Beatrix’s story, dissociating her even further from the propulsion of Volume 1.
This dissociation is even more dramatic in that this showdown between Beatrix and Elle is the only really sustained combat scene in the film, clarifying that woman-on-woman combat is what really drives Tarantino, who needs the spectacle of the desecrated female body alongside that of the aggressive female body, or at least can’t conceive of one without the other. Combat thus becomes a zero-sum game, in which every autonomous woman is destined to desecrate another woman, effectively precluding any real combat between Beatrix and Bill in the final scene in South America. When Beatrix does finally kill bill, it’s with a five point palm exploding technique, in which she simply touches five pressure points on his body that cause his heart to explode. This martial arts move is over before it has begun, barely making a blip on the closing exchange between Bill and Beatrix, while dooming Bill to a slow enough death that their exchange, and his voice, can continue on for a good while after he realises that Beatrix has finally diposed of him. In effect, Bill’s voice outlives his body, and is the last note in the film, even or especially after he has finally died.
During this last sequence, it becomes clear that Volume 2 is designed to be Tarantino’s version of slow cinema. Up until this point, about half of the film has been composed of flashbacks, and another quarter composed of asides, removing all of the propulsive momentum of Volume 1, and really starting to drag as Tarantino tries to complete his narrative arc. For all the joyfully lowbrow energy of Volume 1, Volume 2 descends into quite a pretentious affair, proof that drawn-out scenes don’t necessarily make a film any more visceral or cathartic when action finally does occur. As Tarantino’s “serious” sequel to Volume 1, these final scenes are often unbearably writerly, more like a screenplay than a fully-realised film, making the buoyant energy of Death Proof feel like a tonic by comparison. By the sentimental last sequence, when Beatrix is reunited with her daughter, Tarantino’s style has grown more lugubriously grindhouse and arthouse at the same time, both of which tendencies would be elaborated and exhausted in the arthouse Grindhouse exercise before he managed to balance them more dexterously in the next three westerns.
While Carradine might have quite a musical voice, then, it can’t ultimately hide the fact that Bill is a pretty boring character, condensing and distilling all the pontificating potential of Tarantino’s earlier films. All the propulsive energy of Volume 1 now devolves into tedious mansplaining, culminating with the real climax of Volume 2, in which Bill incapacitates Beatrix with truth serum. This is ostensibly because he wants to extract the truth from her, but in reality he’s not that interested in what she has to say. Instead, the truth serum transforms the conversation into a monologue, since it effectively dissuades Beatrix from speaking, and so ensures Bill’s total and undivided attention to what he has to say. In the nadir of Tarantino’s career up until his point, Bill now descends into a disquisition on comic book superheroes, and Superman in particular, that is clearly meant to be provocative or original, like the discussion of Madonna at the start of Reservoir Dogs, but comes off as stupid, bloated and boring – a blovatied and oblivious assumption that the sheer act of talking at someone about cult minutiae is an interesting spectacle in and of itself. Finally, Tarantino’s mansplaining, and his monologues, seem to have reached a point of utter exhaustion, making the buoyancy of Death Proof necessary for establishing the next stage in his career, which would pivot away from the dead end glimpsed in the ending of Volume 2.
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