Style as Substance

Kill Bill: Volume 1 is one of those movies that I've been keeping track of for years. From the beginning, I wondered why Tarantino was choosing such material for his next film. The plot certainly isn't edgy. Uma Thurman plays The Bride, a woman miraculously survives a bullet to the head on her wedding day (the groom was not so lucky). After an extended stay in a coma, she awakes and makes a list of five people to exact revenge upon. Then she goes and kills them. That's the plot.

And yet it's still a good film (not a great film, but good). The plot doesn't matter. Nor, really, do the characters. None of them are developed, or really likable. You root for the Bride, a textbook anti-hero, not because she's been wronged and is seeking revenge, but because she's such a badass. It is the style of the film that gets me, and like it or not, Tarantino is a master of style. The man knows how to manipulate the audience, and he is brutally unmerciful in this outing.

Let me rewind a bit. Do you remember the scene in Pulp Fiction where Vincent blows Marvin's head off by accident? Somehow, Tarantino is able to make that scene, and the ensuing events, funny. Not ha-ha funny, it's still black comedy, but funny nonetheless. You don't really know why you are laughing, but you are. And that is what this movie is like. It's like two hours of that one scene in Pulp Fiction.

Blood. Hundreds of gallons of it. Spraying, shooting, fountains of blood. The grisly murder rate in this film approaches triple digits. It's not for everyone. James Lileks says he had "no desire to see clever violence," and that is certainly understandable. These scenes are cold, merciless, and often disgusting, yet I found myself laughing. It's just a natural reaction when you see someone's head cut off and blood sprays out like a sprinkler. The gore is so over the top that it eventually ceases to be disgusting and takes on a blurry, surreal quality. Tarantino knows this works, but he's not content to leave it there.

This isn't an easy movie. It's not the roller coaster kung-fu action flick it's advertised as. It's difficult. Why? Because in those moments where the gore goes beyond the surreal, you still sense gravity in the violence. Tarantino grounds the violence just enough so that you laugh when it happens, but you're hit by an aftertaste of guilt a few seconds later. The blood may be completely over the top, but other details are what got me. The gurgling, the spasms, the screams. These things creeped the hell out of me. And on top of that, towards the end of the film, Tarantino keeps the film rocketing along at such a pace that your conscience can't keep up with the violence, and you know it. That is, I suppose the essense of black comedy. It's not easy and it's not fun, but it makes you laugh anyway.

It is difficult to say, though. It's not as obvious as I'm describing. The black comedy is more subtle than you might think from reading this, so take it with a grain of salt.

Walter sums it up perfectly:
I think Tarantino wanted a 180 from Pulp Fiction's tone. I think he feinted high and then socked us in the gut. And it worked. Bold as hell, and he pulled it off. Now I'm sick to my stomach, but I respect the bastard.
I don't like this movie the way I like Tarantino's other work. I like it like I like Taxi Driver or Requiem for a Dream, which is to say, I don't like it, but it is so well done that I can't stop myself from watching it. The filmmakers, damn them, are so good at manipulating the elements of cinema that I'm spellbound even as I'm wimpering.

Kill Bill doesn't have the weight of Taxi Driver or Requiem and it's a flawed film, but it has it's moments of brilliance too. There is a lot more to say about it, but I am at a loss to say more. It is difficult to describe because what's important about this film isn't what happens, it's how it happens. It's style as substance, and Tarantino makes it work. Damn him.