Kill Bill: Volume 1 turns 15: How do we view The Bride and Tarantino in the post-Weinstein era?
Presented by: Kayleigh Donaldson
"When I woke up, I went on what the movie advertisements referred to as a roaring rampage of revenge. I roared and I rampaged and I got bloody satisfaction. I've killed a hell of a lot of people to get to this point. But I have only one more. The last one, the one I'm driving to right now. The only one left. And when I arrive at my destination, I am gonna kill Bill."
The double bill of Kill Bill, the ultimate tale of a scorned woman’s revenge, was a generation’s introduction to the manic cinephilia of director Quentin Tarantino. From its very origins, the film (originally intended to be one complete story but eventually split into two parts) seemed destined for cult status. Tarantino by that point had won an Oscar, the Palme D’Or and had been crowned the unofficial king of the ‘90s indie film-making scene.
Kill Bill: Volume 1 was his first film in six years and was conceived as the ultimate homage to everything Tarantino held dear: Grindhouse cinema, martial arts and samurai movies, the blaxploitation genre, the spaghetti Western, and of course, Uma Thurman. It was Thurman with whom he created the character of The Bride, the ruthless former assassin who wakes from a four-year coma to wreak ravenous revenge on those who massacred her wedding day. It had something for everyone, and Volume 1 would go onto become Tarantino’s highest grossing movie ever up to that point, which was great news for its distributors, Miramax. Ask a group of Tarantino fans what their favorite of his movies is and the chances are a solid percentage of them will say Kill Bill. It’s certainly the case for me.
In many ways, Kill Bill is the most Tarantino-esque of his output. There’s a fascinating energy to the film as if he’s thrown every idea he’s ever had at the wall to see what sticks. Every genre gets its fair share, from the homages to Clint Eastwood’s Western era to the anime flashback sequence directed by Kazuto Nakazawa, who worked on series like Samurai Champloo. The film is also Tarantino’s most ambitious, stretching his capabilities as a director of action to new heights. The fight between the Bride and O-Ren Ishii’s personal army, the Crazy 88, at the House of Blue Leaves remains a dazzling creative peak for Tarantino. Despite the technical proficiency, there’s an appealingly grungy quality to the film-making, in part thanks to the use of practical effects. Crucially, the film is Uma Thurman’s magnum opus as an actress. She’s utterly mesmerizing as the enigmatic Bride, a woman of ceaseless fury and ruthless efficiency as a killer, fractured but not broken. Her performance isn’t just great acting: It’s pure catharsis.
Fifteen years on, watching Kill Bill is a different experience. What previously played as a frenetic fanboy’s cinematic fantasy has new weight on its shoulders and a more unnerving context at play. Much has been written in the interim year about disgraced producer Harvey Weinstein and the power he wielded as the one-time Kingmaker of the indie world. For over two decades, his fierce ability to make money, win awards and dictate the future of the medium had become near-mythic in nature, almost as much as the many whispers of dark accusations that surrounded his entire career.
Today, to watch a Miramax or Weinstein Company movie is to grapple with the often troubling reality that the art you love is so often built upon pain. Weinstein was a man who used his clout, so indomitable for so long, to ensure his reputation was iron-clad. Many of the women who have accused him of sexual harassment, assault and manipulation share the same stories of how Weinstein would allegedly entice them with offers of work in his movies or trap them in hotel rooms under the guise of an audition or business meeting. Those films that delighted audiences and the industry were his calling card to power over women, including some of the biggest names in the business.
That included Uma Thurman.
In 2017, Thurman was asked about the then new revelations of Weinstein's abuse and the clip of her evident anger and inability to answer because of it quickly went viral. It seemed to embody everything we'd gone through for those few torrid weeks. Soon afterward, she hinted of her own #MeToo experience with Weinstein on Instagram. The accompanying image was of her in a car from Kill Bill. In a February 2018 interview with The New York Times, she alleged that Weinstein had sexually assaulted her in 1994, the same year of the release of Pulp Fiction. The same interview also revealed how, during the production of Kill Bill, she had sustained permanent neck and knee injuries after a major car accident on set because Tarantino had insisted she perform all her own driving stunts, despite her protests. Later, Thurman would clarify that Tarantino had apologized to her for the incident and that she had forgiven him. She did not write off working with him again in the future. Her daughter, Maya Hawke, is set to appear in his next movie, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
Kill Bill is the story of a woman seeking revenge on the man who hurt her. That takes on a whole new aura when you know how much time Thurman must have had to spend on set and the promotional tour with the man she accused of assaulting her as well as the friend and collaborator who put her at risk. What was previously a viewing experience of immense satisfaction feels stickier and more troubling in the cold light of day. Harvey Weinstein is exactly the kind of man a Tarantino hero would seek revenge from, and that’s tough to ignore. A large part of Tarantino’s clout came from his long-standing partnership with the Weinsteins. Kill Bill was a jewel in the Miramax crown and Thurman its unofficial queen, a lofty position that could not have been easy for any woman to share with her alleged abuser. Her successes became his.
It is possible to separate art from the artist, and indeed it’s a recommended tool for basic survival in our pop culture world. However, a lot of what makes Kill Bill such a different viewing experience now has more to do with our shifting understandings of the work of Quentin Tarantino. His rise to fame and the peak of the Hollywood establishment is a narrative oft-repeated as the ultimate dream for movie geeks: The video store clerk whose encyclopedic knowledge of cinema led him to award-winning success and to become the cream of the crop of indie cinema in the 1990s. Like an excited kid in a candy store, he picked the things he loved from the movies he worshipped, then he made his own stories from it, part appropriation and part fan-fiction. At the time, the results felt dazzling and fresh, a much-needed shot in the arm to the indie world.
Now, he’s eight movies into his career, with plans to retire after ten (although it’s debatable as to whether he really will hang up his camera at that point). He’s made a lot of revenge fantasies, all of which are about marginalized groups he’s not a part of (Kill Bill, Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained). He still loves to use the N word as if his life depends on it. His use of blaxploitation tropes feels more questionable. The violence in his films can skew from cartoonish fun to discomfiting gratuity in record time. Often, the most dynamic and charismatic characters in his work are the bad guys, such as Christoph Waltz’s powerhouse performance as Hans Landa in Inglourious Bastards, which leads to a lot of questions about how pop culture softens the edges of history.
With Kill Bill, the questions are plentiful: How much of this story is fetishizing Asian culture and cinema? How does this narrative as a female revenge fantasy work when it’s the brainchild of a man? Can a story remain empowering when it’s rooted so heavily in the brutality of women? At what point does a straight white American dude using other people’s histories and cultures as a blood-splattered playground become more than mere entertainment?
The sheer visceral thrill of watching Kill Bill has not worn off. It’s still a peak for Tarantino in many ways, as well as arguably the most purely fun movie in his canon. Despite everything we know now, the power of Uma Thurman’s rampage has not worn off or become diluted by hindsight. It probably wouldn’t get made today, or at the very least it wouldn’t be made by Quentin Tarantino. It wouldn’t be his revenge story to tell. That’s probably for the best. We enjoy what we have but we hope for better in the future, and that the bad men we wreak revenge on don’t get the last laugh or control over our narratives. Therein shall we find our bloody satisfaction.