Ultra Violence: Kill Bill (Volume 1) and the Subversion of the Patriarchal Order
Quentin Tarantino's films are often criticized for their use of violent imagery and Kill Bill (Volume 1) is perhaps his most purely, kinesthetically violent film of all. It lacks the witty dialogue and long periods of character development that softens the violence of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction to some degree and instead shifts from one violent action to the next, chronicling the actions of the Bride who attempts to avenge herself upon the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, of which she was once a member. The Bride is both a symbolically feminine force of nature, clothed in white and also pregnant at the beginning of the film, yet also a symbol of pure aggression. The action is precipitated by the desire of the Bride to get 'out' of the assassination business but after she is nearly killed in the process, that only wedges her deeper in the economy of violence of the film as she seeks her revenge.
The film suggests that no conventional justice is possible in the tradition of many Westerns and only outlaw justice can make what was wrong right. According to Tarantino, this was quite deliberate. "One of the first statements Quentin made was that he wanted each chapter of the script to feel like a reel from a different film. He wanted to move in and out of the various signature styles of all these genres - Western, melodrama, thriller, horror. He had an absolute knowledge of what he wanted each sequence to look like" (Pavlus 1). However, in contrast to most genre films in which a male protagonist seeks justice and the heroine is merely a passive creature to be saved, the Bride of Kill Bill takes matters into her own hand and becomes a feminist force of order, righting wrongs in a society where violence is the only language people speak and understand.
This can be seen in an early scene in the film where the Bride very deliberately shatters a scene of suburban domesticity. One of the former members of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, Vernita Green, is shown in an everyday suburban home. Suddenly the Bride breaks in, determined to kill her. Vernita has a gun hidden in a box of cereal (evidently planning for the day when her past might catch up on her) but the Bride kills Green, martial arts-style, with a blade to the chest. The apparently 'good' mother of this scene is anything but and it is the ultra-violent Bride who is truly the force of justice, fighting both for the memory of her unborn child and also the happy, romantic future that was denied her. The Bride is a maternal figure that is both powerful and deadly. The women only briefly pause when Vernita's child comes in, concealing their weapons behind their backs; at first it seems that unlike men, although they may want to kill one another, they still respect the child but eventually the Bride kills Vernita when she has a chance, even though the little girl can see the murder.
Although the film pays homage to a variety of film genres, the violent language which it borrows from the most is that of martial arts cinema. In contrast to horror films' use of gratuitous violence, martial arts films, however bloody stress that the violence has a philosophical underpinning to it: the character never merely engages in violence for violence's sake; there is always a reason for doing so. As one critic noted: "I suggest that violent imagery—especially that connected to Asian martial arts—functions as one of the primary cinematic languages for character description and plot progression in modern action films" (Anderson 1). Martial arts films are also significant in terms of the language of gender of Kill Bill because the most physically strong and powerful actors are not necessarily the most deadly. The Bride, as played by Uma Thurman, is pale, blonde and fragile-looking but she is also the most powerful figure in the film, overcoming men who are far physically stronger than she is. "The Bride defeats the 88 superb fighters (plus various bodyguards and specialists) despite her weakened state and recently paralyzed legs because she is a better fighter than all of the others put together" (Ebert 1).
The Bride's emotional journey throughout the film is very similar to that of the classical, heroic journey as outlined by Joseph Campbell in which the hero "is separated from his or her 'normal' life...is initiated into a new way of life... [and] the hero returns to his or her original world with some form of power learned in the other world" (Anderson 1). The Bride is stripped of all of her illusions of who her friends are at the beginning of the film and must enter into a new world and a new identity to survive and to enact justice. She is not the final object of desire, the prize to be won; rather she must fight herself and experience the initiation process.
The over-the-top nature of the violence of the film (scalping, beheading, knives to the chest) underlines the extent to which conventional narrative expectations, including gender, are being subverted. When the Bride awakens in a hospital to find that she is being raped, it is she who enacts vengeance, killing her attacker, and rather than the rape paralyzing and emotionally devastating her, it only drives her further on in her heroic journey, determined to seek out the training she needs to give her attackers and pursuers their final comeuppance. Tarantino himself noted, regarding the violence of the film: "I like movies about people who break rules, who are mavericks" ("Tarantino defends Kill Bill violence"). The Bride is an outsider from her former band of killers and also because she no longer fills any conventional female roles: even while she desires to be a mother to her child and escape the assassination business she is also well aware of the fact that those who are powerful in the world are violent and for her it is 'kill or be killed,' no man will save her and she can only save herself.
Anderson, Aaron. "Mindful violence: the visibility of power and inner life in Kill Bill." Jump Cut, 47.
Ebert, Roger. Kill Bill (review).
Pavlus, John. "A Bride Vows Revenge." American Cinematographer.
"Tarantino defends Kill Bill violence." BBC.