Kill Bill Vol. 1 is the big kahuna. Quentin Tarantino is Babe Ruth, and the triple-decker library of '70s exploitation is his Louisville Slugger. When I read Tarantino's 200-plus-page draft of Kill Bill online several years ago, I imagined the maestro would cook up a savory broth of hepped-up grindhouse fare in the agreeably down-home style of From Dusk Till Dawn; the script is a compendium of tall tales, drive-in set pieces, and Whoa, shit! U-turns. But I had no idea that Tarantino possessed the skills to sustain a near-unbearable emotional intensity at the same time. Kill Bill Vol. 1 isn't a career high: Tarantino's masterwork remains Jackie Brown, a haunting tale of careworn love buried in a pulp-novel graveyard. But in its meticulous craftsmanship and jacked-up cinephilic energy, Vol. 1 might be the most viscerally and emotionally overwhelming B movie ever made.
The key to this veritable Finnegans Wake of trash cinema lies not in the many Asian cult influences that American critics have been trying to parse, but in the work of the auteur whom Tarantino has often cited as his own personal Big Man: Brian De Palma. I wonder what the critics who've been hailing the late, feeble, self-imitative works of De Palma (e.g., Femme Fatale) will make of Vol. 1, which--especially in its first half--suggests a remastered version of one of De Palma's '70s schlock masterpieces, with 21st-century picture and sound. Like the De Palma of Carrie and Sisters, Tarantino views his talents as a forum for both seduction and abuse of the audience: Kiss kiss bang bang, it is.
The opening jump from a pseudo-psychedelic exhibitor's title card ("Our Feature Presentation!") to the black-and-white image of the Bride (Uma Thurman), her face pummeled into medium-well cheeseburger, panting and whimpering for her life, suggests one's first schlock-movie experience uncomfortably dredged up by a combination of repressed memory and LSD. And indeed, the rest of Kill Bill Vol. 1 suggests the disorientation, delirium, and restlessness of a drug binge. But what's the drug? The movie seems made equally of Scorsese/P.T. Anderson cocaine, '60s B movie acid, and Asian-pulp steroids and raw red meat: It kicks off with the Bride telling her off-screen tormentor, "But Bill--it's your baby!" just as Bill pulls the trigger, blows her brains out, and kicks us into title card #2: "The 4th Film by Quentin Tarantino." As far as story goes, that's all you need to know and all you ought to know; the subsequent hundred minutes are, in the words of its author, "a roaring rampage of revenge."
Let it be said that there's not one idea to dissect in this picture. Sociologically minded viewers looking for a disquisition on the Nature of Vengeance in the post-9/11 era would do better to take in a matinee of Once upon a Time in Mexico. (Tarantino's closing credits refer to Robert Rodriguez as "my brother," but no two pulpmongers could be more violently opposed in sensibility and talent.) What we have in Kill Bill is a torrent of pure cinema: sensation and emotion roused to the level of animal fury by primal, feral storytelling. Though the feeling of physical peril and injury is as palpable and intense here as in any Sergio Leone picture, Vol. 1 embodies a lust for life as well: The movie has been directed with the bulging eyes of a man who has been told that he has a day to live, and can barely begin to take in all the lunacy, eroticism, and sheer sensory delight of the world around him.
There are two opposing aesthetic impulses at work in Kill Bill. One is what Tarantino has described as his desire to make a "truly cinematic" movie: a light-on-talk/heavy-on-action picture in which image and montage triumph over language and character. His past bids to be kinetic in the Scorsese/De Palma style--the set piece at the mall in Jackie Brown, or the illustration of the cop's anecdote in Reservoir Dogs--have generally been (likeably) clumsy, lead-footed attempts at those elder filmmakers' wizardly flair; Pulp Fiction must be the worst-directed art movie ever to make a heaping pile of money. In Vol. 1, the blizzard of various styles, self-conscious techniques, bite-sized directorial gags, and over-the-top, flavorsome sound cues suggests nothing so much as a movie that Tarantino wrote, loathed, and disowned: Oliver Stone's sublime Natural Born Killers. (Vol. 1's interpolation of a prolonged anime sequence casually one-ups the cartoon scene gene-spliced into NBK.) Stylistically, the movie is filled to bursting with surprising points of view; engaging narrative footnotes, rewinds, and do-overs; and ratcheting tone changes that suggest the slippery clutch on an old tractor. Whatever Tarantino did with the last six years of his life, it has paid off in the house-afire fervor of his filmmaking here.
The other, inverse property in Kill Bill is the director's unflinching commitment to approximating the extreme brutality of '70s badass cinema. Tarantino uses these movies (which also inspired another recent arthouse revenge picture, Gaspar Noé's Irreversible) as a gauntlet thrown down to the audience. Sure, you can handle Sheba Baby and Switchblade Sisters, but what about the chainsaw-family-reunion ending of The Last House on the Left? Or the crucified and burned-alive dad in The Hills Have Eyes? The scorched women of Don't Look in the Basement? The hand in the garbage disposal in Rolling Thunder? Tarantino's previous films have tapped into the breezy, kitschy, good-time aspect of '70s pulp and, sometimes, into the poetry between the lines. Kill Bill is an homage to the dark, sugarless skein of grindhouse cinema. This is what will probably spell the movie's commercial doom in the era of the weightless action of Charlie's Angels and The Matrix.
I've been deliberately unspecific about the details of Kill Bill Vol. 1 because the movie is its experience--what film geeks refer to as "the ride." I fear that audiences will be put off by the strange, tenuous, gossamer tone that Tarantino strikes: a mixture of extreme emotion and almost comic stylization. (The director flirts with and casually avoids self-parody in the climactic set piece, in which an airplane hangar's worth of Japanese Reservoir Dogs slide and fall in a hockey rink of blood.) But the word that kept resounding in my ears throughout the length of the film is a simple one, a word that I increasingly associate with Tarantino's work: love. What one feels in Vol. 1 is Tarantino's love of the characters, love of spinning a good yarn, love of the physical details of making a movie, love of the actors' faces, love of generating unselfconscious culture collisions, and, most of all, his love of tantalizing, turning on, fucking with, shorting out, and overloading the audience. It'll be a long wait until Vol. 2 (due February 20), but not since the opening day of Do the Right Thing have I so had the urge to start watching a movie again before it was even over.
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