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Kill Bill Isn’t the Simple Revenge Story You Remember

The Bride’s quest for vengeance is morally gray. But that gray is overshadowed by the bright yellow of her jumpsuit and kick-ass katana fights. Photo: Miramax/Everett Collection

For the next few weeks, Vulture will be selecting a film to watch with our readers as part of our Friday Night Movie Club. This week’s selection comes from Vulture writer Bethy Squires, who will begin her screening of Kill Bill Vol. 1 on April 14 at 7 p.m. ET. Head to Vulture’s Twitter to catch the live commentary.

In the Futurama episode “Bender Should Not Be Allowed on TV,” an act break begins with this tag: “You’re watching Futurama — the show that does not advocate the cool crime of robbery!” That’s Quentin Tarantino’s whole career in a nutshell. Tarantino fills his face (and our screens) with cool crimes of violence, and the coolness of those crimes undermines the director’s ambivalence toward that violence.

Let’s examine the plot of Kill Bill for an example. Beatrix Kiddo wants to escape her life of violence for her unborn daughter’s sake. She gets engaged, but Bill, her jilted ex-lover, enlists his group of assassins to murder Beatrix’s entire wedding party and almost kills her. Four years later, Beatrix plots her revenge on those murderers, including Vernita Green. She isn’t deterred from her plan by the well-being of Vernita’s daughter, 4-year-old Nikkia. In fact, after landing a knife in Vernita’s chest, Beatrix invites Nikkia to exact her own revenge someday if she “still feels raw about it.” And there was even more vengeance in original drafts. Go Go’s twin sister, Yuki, was originally going to try and take down Beatrix in a “huge gunfight.” Vengeance in Kill Bill is a hydra; cut down one head and three rise up in its place. It’s a fatalistic outlook, and something of a bummer once you come to empathize with people on both sides. Vernita and others on Beatrix’s kill list, like O-Ren Ishii, Budd, and even Bill, become somewhat sympathetic right before their deaths. The Bride herself admits she lacks basic human “mercy.” Taken as a whole, the arc of her journey is morally gray. But that gray is overshadowed by the bright yellow of the Bride’s jumpsuit and her kick-ass katana fights.

Both Kill Bills (but especially Vol. 1) have lodged themselves in the pop-culture subconscious as badass-chick “I’m killing boys” propaganda with iconic soundtracks. But they are actually nihilistic, yakuza-movie-inflected meditations on how violence only begets more violence (with iconic soundtracks). They’ve been swallowed up by the “Good for Her” cinematic universe, the loose coalition of movies that fans, especially on the internet, celebrate for showing bad girls getting shit done. The Bride is now a meme of vengeance. Case in point: the SZA song “Kill Bill.” These movies may or may not side with the main character and her violent ways, but audiences stan.

And it’s not hard to see why. Take the aforementioned scene where the Bride kills Vernita. It starts with her walking up to the now-retired assassin’s Pasadena home. As soon as Beatrix lays eyes on Vernita, we get the memetic music sting (a fragment from Quincy Jones’s theme from Ironside) that is still used to signify white-hot rage on TikTok. Kung-fu-film fanboy Tarantino puts his whole Shaw Brothussy into the scene as the women wordlessly duke it out, using found weapons and breaking furniture until, at one point, it’s down to a kitchen knife versus a cast-iron pan. They go feral; the noises coming from Vivica A. Fox and Uma Thurman sound somewhere between speaking in tongues and the grunting of a wild boar. The frenetic editing, the sudden tension of Nikkia coming home, Vernita’s last-ditch attempt to shoot Beatrix through a box of cereal — all of it distracts us from the fact that the Bride is willingly perpetuating a cycle of violence that ruined her life. It sucks, actually!

On the press circuit for Kill Bill Vol. 1 in 2003, when questioned repeatedly about why he made his new film so violent, Tarantino eventually exploded on his interviewer. “BECAUSE IT’S SO MUCH FUN, JAN!” he shouted on local news. As a writer, Tarantino is interested in the effects of violence on his characters, the repercussions of their actions, and the anguish they do or do not feel. Tarantino the director? He’s less serious. He’s putting stuff in because it’s awesome, because it references Lady Snowblood. Because Sonny Chiba whips ass. He’s making the movie because it’s so much fun, Jan. It’s fun to watch, too, even 20 years on. Kill Bill’s moral complexity is a little harder to remember than all that spectacle. But what glorious spectacle it is — and does Uma Thurman look cool in Bruce Lee’s jumpsuit, or what?

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Kill Bill Isn’t the Simple Revenge Story You Remember