Shiny Shelf

Kill Bill volume 1

By Mark Clapham on 09 October 2003

‘Kill Bill’ is a brilliant film, one where every frame is exactly the way the director intended it. It truly showcases Tarantino’s abilities as a director, and his talent. It’s an awesome spectacle, and I respect the work which went into it. It’s a work of art.

I hated it. Not with contempt – I have nothing but respect for it as a work of art. No, simply the process of watching it was so gut-wrenchingly, fingers-down-the-blackboard, miserably vile that I could barely wring a drop of pleasure out of the experience. I think it’s some kind of masterpiece, but my favourite moment in the whole film was knowing it was over. If the film hadn’t been split into two, and the running time of this instalment hadn’t been a crisp ninety minutes, I would have walked out after forty of those.

It’s worth throwing out the reasons I don’t have to dislike the film. I have no problem with it morally, I didn’t find the extreme violence offensive, I didn’t find it terribly explicit. The subject matter, as a whole, is the kind of thing I’ve watched and enjoyed many times. I like violent films, I like garish films, I like trashy films. I really didn’t like this one, even though, as a technical exercise, it’s doubtless better made than any of the other violent, garish or trashy films I do like.

The problem is the aesthetic, and the very personal response it produces. ‘Kill Bill’ is a loving tribute to trash, the ultimate B-picture. ‘The Bride’ (Uma Thurman) is left for dead on her wedding day by her former boss, Bill, and her former assassin colleagues. The Bride’s husband-to-be, unborn child and wedding guests are all killed. The Bride wakes up from a coma four years later, and seeks revenge against Bill and his associates. It’s an exploitation film in its purest form, stripped of any depth or character that a more mainstream film might bring to the table. Instead of going for the mainstream, Tarantino has pushed the trash, exploitation, pop-culture elements to an absolute extreme.

The most obvious aspect is the sound design – rather than using subtle, even semi-realistic sound effects and appropriate music that fades in and fades out in a well-tuned way, Tarantino has stuck as close as possible to the soundscape of bad Kung Fu movies – shouted dialogue, brittle and unrealistic blows and sword-swipes, discordant blasts of tinny music. All of this, with the muscle of a Dolby cinema behind it. It’s brilliantly done, but aesthetically horrible. A similar effect is achieved through editing – severe jump cuts abound, leaving the audience dizzy. Fast cuts, violent sound, screaming victims. In lesser hands, this would just be laughable nonsense, but Tarantino knows how to use the medium. The overall effect is so perfectly, immaculately trashy, so lovingly sculpted in its horrid cheapness, as to produce feelings of instinctive nausea. Not because of the blood – it’s cheap kung fu movie gore, and the prosthetics are equally campy and cheap. Not because of the action, or the imagery. But because the whole sensory experience is an avalanche of precisely attuned nastiness, a choreographed assault of trashiness, an oppressive flood of tacky horrors. Yuck.

To my great relief, but to the detriment of the film’s core thrust, it drifts off it’s exploitation agenda slightly in the second half. When the Bride heads east, to find a weapon and take her first steps on the road to revenge, Tarantino’s forced vulgarity slips, and a certain beauty and slickness creep in. The drive-in tattiness gives way to hints of Kurosawa, and the camera slides out of retro mode and sweeps gracefully for a while. These give hints at a better movie fighting to get out, one where the director had put aside his love for bad directors and allowed himself to be the great director he is. Instead, these lapses into good taste are an aberration, and one which jars with the rest of the film. Contradictions are thrown up, like a fight scene which is shot and lit with astounding beauty, but edited and sound designed like a decrepit martial arts potboiler. It’s neither fish nor fowl, slick nor schlock.

The combination of A and B pic may have gelled if there was some human story here, an interesting artistic intent, but the determination to produce an exercise in trash culture prevents any humanity or higher thinking to slip into the storyline. As with the visuals, the script occasionally breaks away from the formula and the old Tarantino wit cuts loose, but these moments are rare. In Lucy Liu, Tarantino also has an actress who couldn’t be B-list if she tried – Liu brings a humanity to her role, even though it’s written as a cold hearted killer. The girl just can’t help being good, even if she’s supposed to be bad. Not that there’s any duff performances – everyone is spot on for their roles, and Thurman in particular deserves a shelf load of awards for the intensity of her performance. What other Hollywood actress would allow such an unflatteringly grim portrayal of herself? The Bride is a dead woman walking, and the camera is unflinching in it’s grotty realism, from the bags under Thurman’s eyes to the hairs on her toes. It’s a brilliant performance for a character who is, like the others, a cypher.

But that’s ‘Kill Bill’ all over. It is what it is, and to the best of its ability. Everyone involved has put 100% into what they are doing, from the acting before the camera to every aspect of post production. It’s a masterpiece, perfect for what it is. Unfortunately, what it is is the best possible recreation of a load of old rubbish, a true artist recreating total garbage. It’s the lost Beatles Death Metal album, it’s Monet’s poster of the tennis girl scratching her bottom, it’s Martin Amis writing an authentic Mills & Boon pastiche. Brilliantly done, but ultimately hollow. If you like the source material, you’ll find this a dream come true. If you don’t have any time for the B pictures Tarantino adores – and frankly, I don’t – then you’ll be at best mildly amused, at worst left cold.

Really, it all comes down to taste. There’s no soul in ‘Kill Bill’, it’s all about aesthetic presentation, film as pure imagery. As such, your reaction will be in your gut. For some, this will be pure adrenaline. For me, the nearest comparison was my dislike of seafood – cook the greatest fish dish in the world, the smell will still turn my stomach. I can see how brilliant ‘Kill Bill’ is, but it gave me no pleasure to watch it.

‘Kill Bill’ is a work of art, but as someone who isn’t willing to suffer for my own art, I’m certainly not willing to suffer for Tarantino’s. I can appreciate the brilliance of the work, but there’s no way in hell I’ll be appreciating it again in a hurry.

Line Break

By Mark Clapham

Mark Clapham is a Devon-based writer and editor. You can find out more about him at the egotistically named

Comments are closed.