Roger Ebert observed about Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Volume 2 that although it takes place in a heightened reality that’s removed from the realism of our own, the human behaviour and emotions explored couldn’t be more real or more relatable. That insight is precisely why it is my favourite Tarantino film and in particular I think that the last half hour or so is the best, most thoughtful and intuitive thing he’s ever directed in a career that for the most part hasn’t dug that deep in such a way.
Every filmmaker must duck expectations and adapt or fall victim to self parody and repetition, and the guy understands this well. Volume 1 is a thrilling love letter to samurai films, peppered with sword fights, hectic editing and celebrates movement, choreography and synergistic expression. With this film though he moves inward, not just showing us the extreme actions of these characters, but why they’re doing them. The first film opens with the how, as Bill (David Carradine) tenderly puts a loaded gun to the temple of The Bride (Uma Thurman) and pulls the trigger. This film shows us what led to that, and the consequences yet to come, why indeed she feels the need to Kill Bill. It’s a beautiful story that’s acted to the nines by Thurman and Carradine, both giving their career best. The samurai vibe is somewhat present again but here the tone is that of a spaghetti western. Anyone who knows or loves this genre (pauses typing and raises hand) is familiar with the aesthetic: languidly paced shots, long glances lingered on by a camera that moves slowly, stolidly. Orchestral significance placed upon seemingly mundane or small gestures and measured, introspective performances. It’s all here, from the glorious wide shots of the California desert to the laconic inwardness of Michael Madsen’s Budd to the Morricone strains that Quentin loves to sample.
The Bride continues her quest stateside, taking on Madsen’s lowkey deadly cowboy, tussling with Daryl Hannah’s treacherous banshee Elle Driver, punching her way out of a sealed coffin six feet deep and even finding time to stop in for a quick visit with Michael Parks, sneakily playing a different role than Volume 1. Madsen is off the chain spectacular as Budd, a gruff, sadistic badass who has seen better days and seems done with life until she brings out the fire in him once again. His quiet scene with Carradine outside the rundown trailer is a showstopper, as is his priceless expression when chewed out by an asshole boss (Larry Bishop, providing the funniest moment in either of the two films). Tarantino brings out the best in Madsen and this is their finest collaboration, proving in tandem what creative forces both or them are.
This is the Uma and David show when it gets down to it though, their eventual confrontation is what we’ve been anticipating since the beginning, but he doesn’t quite give us what we expect. They meet at a quiet Mexican villa, she sees her daughter for the first time and the words spoken between them cut deeper than any of the physical blows, of which there are barely any. Both The Bride and Bill know exactly what their respective actions have done to them both individually and as a couple, and that there’s no going back from a betrayal like that. The fascinating thing, for me at least, is seeing how despite this anguish and hatred, they are still very obviously in love with each other, something that isn’t easy to get across without spelling out, but these actors nail it. I love the writing here, the body language, the time and attention spent on exploring the pathos, I think it’s Quentin’s showcase sequence and the one that dispels anyone from thinking of him only as ‘that guy who makes violent movies.’
He often works with his pal Robert Rodriguez and most people might immediately think of GrindHouse or Sin City but this is my favourite of their collaborations. Robert isn’t seen or present behind the camera but he composes an original score that is heartfelt, evocative of the western genre and altogether a brilliant composition, particularly the cues around Madsen. This is unique in the fact that it’s the only film Tarantino has made using a score in a career of distinctive soundtrack choices.
From the stunning opening sequence shot in dreamy black and white and aching with palpable yet guarded emotion to the intense, exhaustive training montages with warrior Pai Mai (Gordon Liu, also showing up in a different role) to the blood n’ dust takedown of Elle and Budd in the bone dry desolation out west to the final showdown and reconciliation of sorts with Bill, this is a fantastic story and one hell of a piece of filmmaking on every level. The two Volumes are so very different and I noticed the other day that although I’ve seen both probably hundreds of times, I’ve never watched them back to back. They are separate entities, two sides of the same coin. Bill tells The Bride that her side ‘always was a little lonely.’ The same goes for Volume two, there are less characters, more time spent on emotion and a slightly mournful feeling that the frenzy of Volume one just didn’t have time for. I love this portion of the story the most, I’ve always felt just a tiny bit more at home in Volume 2, and I will never have anything but absolute love for it.