Day Of The Woman

Film still for Day Of The Woman

Forget all you've read about Tarantino's Kill Bill Vol. 2 - it's really a family movie, says B. Ruby Rich

Quentin Tarantino makes guy movies, and great ones at that. He's a lad's lad, a cinephile's cinephile, a geek's geek, the thinking man's actioneer... who usually, it must be said, has very little on offer for any woman who happens to find herself in his cinematic space. His oeuvre, for which a French word feels instantly inappropriate, is a masculine one that mixes bawdiness with violence in a laddish universe packed with by-now legendary cinematic references and action-genre love letters, peopled with actors cast not for themselves but for their own prior signature roles.

I myself never know how I'm likely to respond to a QT film until I'm irrevocably in my seat. My scorecard? Hated Reservoir Dogs (1991), at the time anyway; loved Pulp Fiction (1994), to the dismay of my friends; loved Jackie Brown (1997), to the disapproval of my colleagues; disliked Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003), predictably enough. And now, drum roll: I am besotted with Kill Bill Vol. 2, to my own astonishment.

In an attempt to sort out why KB2 is (for some of us) so very alluring and satisfying, I'm committed to skipping all the details that are sure to be available to you in every male critic's review of the film. So here's my guarantee: no references to chop-sockey films or spaghetti Westerns; no back-alley appreciations of grindhouse movies or kung-fu gems; no learned discussion of wushu versus Hong Fist kung fu, nor of the difference between Japanese bushido and Chinese martial-arts traditions; no sermon on the difference between Sonny Chiba and Gordon Liu or between their characters of swordplay master Hattori Hanzo and hands-on master Pai Mei. Nope, none of that! Truth be told, all those references and explanations are packed into the 'press' section of the Miramax website in an effort to flatter critics and make us look smart, but I'm not enough of a queen to lip-synch.

What I can offer up, instead, is a meditation on what KB2 means to me and what it might mean to viewers, too, if positioned in a radically different cinematic universe - one characterised less by ultraviolence and genre quotations than by a remapping of family, a fusion of the horror movie and the revenge narrative through the central figure of the avenging woman, and an emphasis on the corporeal that makes for a surprisingly old-fashioned view of the body and its mortality.

Actually, apart from the hundreds of movie referents that ensure the film carries a QT auteurist signature, Kill Bill Vol. 2 is a more normative movie than Vol. 1, with fewer characters, more restrained bloodbaths, a return to motor-mouth (though slowed-down) dialogue and a more traditional narrative arc. In a sense, Tarantino seems to have momentarily shed - yes, like the skin of a snake, the symbol that gave Bill's Viper Squad girls their name - the "postmodern" style of the "cinema of mayhem" that has so long been the coin of his realm, as classified by Carl Boggs and Tom Pollard in last year's A World in Chaos: Social Crisis and the Rise of Postmodern Cinema, written before the release of the Kill Bill epic. It's the adrenaline charge of that mayhem that has turned so many stone cinephiles into QT junkies, jonesing for their next fix, lining up like kids at the roller coaster in summers of yore.

But how far does this universe of postmodern mayhem characterise the world of KB2? Certainly, Tarantino's characteristic and never-random torrent of surface switching, image splicing and music/dialogue sampling infuses the film, but the riffs no longer constitute the only track upon which to fix meaning. For some QT lovers, the existence of underlying or superimposed themes and meanings represents a keen loss. They seem to cast a shadow over the pure pleasure principle that previously allowed viewers to revel in the joyous brutality and genre hilarity of Tarantino's cinema.

This time, other influences figure in the picture. Oh god, has Tarantino, gulp, matured?, fans will gasp. It's tempting to speculate on the influence of actual persons. The theme of motherhood is rampant in KB2, but it's hard to believe QT has turned into a feminist. True, revisiting past interviews, it's clear that being raised by a single mom, and a tough one at that, has made him inordinately fond of strong women. But a ruthless killer who's flipped, joining the straight and narrow, by discovering she's pregnant? Yet there it is, a scene in which Uma Thurman's character, still known as Black Mamba in this one of many flashbacks, negotiates with an assassin by appealing to her to examine a pregnancy-test kit, lying with its positive result on the floor. This has to be one of the oddest scenes in any action movie. Thurman, whom Tarantino has wid-ely credited with collaborating on the original story idea, is indeed a mother, as are so many actresses in baby-booming Hollywood, where maternity, no longer an obstacle to sex appeal, has instead bec-ome its urgent accessory. And now, though not then, Thurman is a single mom, too, just like Quen-tin's was. It's easy to imagine her crafting these themes beyond the production stage of enactment. But is that really it, QT fans? Has the man been pussy-whipped into delivering us into a domesticated world where even female assassins take pregnancy tests and slink away without killing?

Wait. Consider the Texas connection. KB2 bears a prominent shout-out in the credits to "my brother" Robert Rodriguez, who also gets credit for the score along with the RZA of Wu Tang and Jarmusch fame. According to the popular press and its pulp fictions, Rodriguez is the good friend who provided a sanctuary (he's based in Austin, Texas, with his wife and kids) where QT spent time between Jackie Brown and the Kill Bills. While some reviews have talked convincingly about how Kill Bill is divided between the east of Vol. 1 and the west of Vol. 2, between the Shaw Brothers and John Ford with some Sergio Leone hovering over them both, it seems to me that the south is actually the determinant direction: the southwest of the US and the south-of-the-border of the final showdown in Mexico. And that's a compass point that's virtually owned, in American cinema, by Robert Rodriguez.

Indeed, the arrival of Thurman's Bride in KB2's dream-like, scrub-brush landscape marks her as a female descendant of El Mariachi, the breakthrough Rodriguez character. Packing a pregnancy-test kit, a foetus and a Hattori sword in her various time frames, according to whether she's the Black Mamba (her five-years-ago incarnation), the Bride (at her four-years-ago rehearsal interruptus, and since) or Beatrix Kiddo (her 'real' name), Thurman's character could cruise easily through Rodriguez's filmography into the homey world of Spy Kids. In his life as well as in this commercial home-run of a serial, Rodriguez represents the very picture of the retired vato loco. Far from the QT mayhem, he inhabits a world immortalised in countless country-western songs crooned by men who've given up the range for the love of a good woman and a brood of tykes at home (three sons, in Rodriguez's case).

Rodriguez may represent QT's past, when they collaborated on Four Rooms and From Dusk till Dawn (both 1995), but if KB2 is any kind of clue, he may indicate the future, too. Domesticity is an option that QT, on screen or off, may never accept, but it's one that nonetheless looms large via alter ego Thurman, whose Black Mamba character succumbs to the oldest nature-is-nurture trick in the book: she vows to quit her gig as a killing dame the minute (literally) the birthing game knocks her up. That's the kick-start motivation that sets both KB1 and KB2 in motion. When David Carradine's Bill finally appears in KB2, he's revealed as a Hugh-Heffner-redux playboy, a mac-daddy of violence, one-upping Charlie's Angels with a hit-squad harem of deadly women (plus his brother, Budd). Like a pimp who makes his money from death instead of sex, he turns his women out via the 'tricks' they're taught to turn by the master Pai Mei (the character QT originally wanted to portray himself). Bill can't stand to lose his best girl or, we eventually learn, his child to some dim-wit sweetheart of a back-country cowboy. Oh, did I mention her chosen one runs a used-record store? Presumably the one QT scavenged for his soundtrack.

Carradine's Bill brings the familial subtext of KB2, a suitably perverse one, out into the open. OK, it's hard even to wedge the word 'family' in here when QT is so very daddy-o, not daddy. But it's impossible to unpack the themes of KB2 without reference to family, without comprehending that Bill, the leader of the pack, is the father figure who must die. And his own daddy-mentor, Esteban Vihaio (Michael Parks), the original pimp-daddy model, is not averse to assisting the Bride's quest to find his prodigal son. KB2 is not just about the intersections of east and west, north and south, but equally about the meeting of horror, religion and myth through the figures of the Final Girl, Oedipus, Electra, The Father, The Son and Mary herself.

KB2 labels Bill as the Father of the Bride, and not just via the hasty introduction made to the doomed groom at an isolated chapel moments before the wedding massacre, during which we incidentally learn that Bill is also the father of her child. The Bride's drive to annihilate Bill is the very essence of KB2's Oedipal structure. Her eventual victory will come about only when she has vanquished the Father and reclaimed her child. (And, in a QT movie, never forget that actors' past roles always haunt them: Carradine was Caine in his television Kung Fu days; Caine, that Old Testament name.)

Significantly, Thurman isn't merely playing Bill's best girl; she's his Final Girl, too, a type identified by Carol Clover in her landmark study of the horror genre Men, Women, and Chain Saws as the one survivor left standing at the end of a chain of bloodletting, the one girl who manages to last alive until the end of the movie as her friends and family succumb to slaughter, and who, finally, avenges their deaths and saves herself by killing the monster. Certain that Thurman fills the bill perfectly in KB2, I cornered Clover herself for verification. "What's her name in the film?" she asked me. "Beatrix Kiddo, that's her real name," I answered. "She's the Final Girl," confirmed Clover. It seems the Final Girl always has a gender-neutral or male name.

That leaves only two troublesome details to resolve: Kiddo's not a girl and KB2 is not a horror movie. According to Clover's definition, the Final Girl is always the one girl in the film who abstains from sex. Paired romantically as well as professionally with Bill, pregnant, repeatedly raped while in a coma (the dispiriting KB1), Thurman's character hardly qualifies on this count. But make a simple swap of violence for sex, and bingo, Thurman fits the type. Pregnant, she stops killing. Then, after she herself has been 'killed', she returns as the Final Girl and seeks revenge. Although Thurman may not be a girl, her character doesn't yet know she's a mother. In the strange universe of KB2, that just might make her into a girl.

If KB2 is not a horror film, then what's a Final Girl doing in it anyway? The easy answer would be to fall back on QT's inveterate genre-mixing, according to which any genre is fair game at any point in any movie. The smarter answer would be that the Bride carries traces of the horror genre into this tale. Consider the prolonged fight between the Bride and Bill's brother Budd (Michael Madsen). The central set-piece of the film, staged in his home-on-the-range trailer, out in a lonesome cemetery, and everywhere in between, it's sheer delight - and full of allusions, not all of them filmic.

Budd bests the Bride, catches her by surprise, shoots her full of rock salt and immobilises her, and prepares to bury her alive. Unsubdued and unrepentant, she spits at him, then he spits on her, tobacco juice from his chaw. I spit on your grave! Yup, QT invokes that most famous of female-revenge movies at the exact moment his script prepares to pop the Bride into her premature crypt. It's a clue. We're in a female revenge fantasy, and we're in it for keeps. The scene of the Bride inside her coffin is another clue: a study in cinematic mastery, reducing the audience to the same visceral claustrophobia that afflicts the Bride, and toying with us. Flashlight or projector beam, dark grave or dark theatre, the sound of soil shovelled on to the casket or the sound of popcorn crunching nearby, we become convinced the oxygen's running out. And then, there it comes: the hand reaching up from the grave, above ground, clutching for air. It's Carrie!

The Bride rises from the dead in an emblematic horror-movie moment that speaks the language of blood as female empowerment. A torrent of puns and illusions follows. The Black Mamba did it? Elle Driver, the Bride's former comrade-in-killing, carefully tells Bill the truth, that the Black Mamba killed his brother, without revealing it's the snake she's talking about, not the woman. Daryl Hannah's turn as Elle is so very enjoyable, in part because she trails the history of Splash behind her, bringing water to the desert. Or maybe it's because she's traded in her fishtail for an eyepatch, in both cases bearing the sign of simultaneous excess and lack, a substitution that marks her. She's fun, too, because she's such a good student: reading from her notepad of web-surfing research on the snake and its venom, she lectures Budd as he's dying, in a monologue of pure QT gallows humour. Then the Bride crashes the party. Trailer trash? Elle and the Bride trash Budd's trailer. A Mexican stand-off? That's how critics described the ending of Reservoir Dogs, so here QT just sends his characters to Mexico for their final stand-off. He has begun to reference his own films, not just other people's. And who among us doesn't recognise the source of the gesture when Carradine shoots a dart into the Bride? This time it's not a hypodermic of adrenaline to restart her heart after an overdose but a shot of truth serum to get her talking.

Ah, it's so easy to be distracted in a Tarantino film. Where were we? Right, the Bride's return from her own grave. Between the enclosure of the coffin and her deliverance to the surface, the Bride can be glimpsed clawing her way out. At least, I think it's her in those barely decipherable shots. On the one hand she looks like a resident of those transparent plastic ant-colonies sold to kids as toys. Exposed in a cross-section of the underground, she's tunnelling her way out of her colony of one. On the other hand she may instead be passing through a birth canal, about to be delivered into the world, born again.

Or might she be born-again, newly returned to a fire-and-brimstone religion? KB2 opened in the US five days after Easter Sunday. Its major competition, ironically, was The Passion of the Christ, which had already been out for almost two months but got a spiritual bounce from its Easter promotional tie-in. It's my contention that KB2 deserves an Easter bounce, too, and then some. And it's not just because Uma Thurman makes a far more convincing and attractive Christ figure than Mel Gibson's young Jim Caviezel, spouting Aramaic (though she does). No, it's because Uma, too, is resurrected. She returns from the place of the dead, just as she arose from her coma death-bed in KB1, and goes about doing that most Christian of things, really, punishing the heathens, rather like the religious warriors who carried out the Crusades. It's the sort of activity you might find listed under "Smite thine enemies" in the index of the Gibson-edition Bible, bound to replace the King James standard soon.

Her resurrection is made possible through the miracle of cinema, not religion, by QT himself, master of his universe. And it's a gritty resurrection: she's covered with dirt, a cloud of dust in her wake, her eyes staring out, recognisable from countless movies of terror and suspense, as if to remind us that 'resurrection' is a horror-movie title too, and for good reason. There's enough abjection for a week of Good Fridays - but in a wonderfully old-fashioned way, KB2 is focused on the body, its suffering, and its mortality. At a moment when movies are fixated instead on special effects, CGI, cyborgs, aliens, hobbits - in short, everything except human beings - it's downright refreshing to find a film that makes us care about the battered and fatally flawed bodies subjected to its narrative.

Who is the Bride, then, this not quite Final Girl, not quite girl, not quite Jesus, who wants to kill the father she's already slept with and whose baby she was carrying before she was so brutally dispatched? Ulysses, perhaps, back from his wanderings to exact vengeance. Oedipus, maybe, in female drag. Or Electra, bent on revenge. Perhaps 'virgin birth' rings a bell? Virgin delivery, rather: not a child without a father, but a child without a mother.

The violent massacre of the wedding party is not seen in KB2, just heard. The camera discreetly dollies back and cranes up, up and away while the dirty deed transpires, returning only to view the carnage in all its black-and-white irreality. The moments of presumed conception and birth get even less coverage: no footage, not even a soundtrack. A girl simply appears in a hotel room, four years old, calling out "mommy" and playing with guns. Her immaculate conception takes place entirely off screen; her conception, immaculately, springs from the film's central themes of the return of the mother, the banishing of the father, and the recreation of an all-female family. Transmuted from sinner to Madonna, Thurman's character gets it all. Linda Williams, author of Hard Core and an expert at deciphering popular genres, notes the difference between the male and female revenge scenarios: "The male revenge pattern is all about giving the action hero a tender moment that allows him to seem to morally earn his revenge and then taking it away from him. Here, she gets the daughter and the vengeance. Rambo this isn't!"

Bill and his Viper Squad set out to destroy the family that the Bride had been secretly creating, out of their reach. In so doing, they evidently 'gave birth' to Bill's daughter, presumably plucked from the Bride's living womb. Ah, the things that off-screen space can do! But there's another family, the one Bill was born into, along with his brother Budd. Follow the leader, or in this case, go where the follower leads. Where does Budd work? As a bouncer in a strip club, just the sort of place we'd expect to turn up in a QT movie. Or, to parse the exact phrasing, "a titty bar". Budd's after the titty, he's still stuck in his pre-Oedipal phase, but he can't say no to his big brother when he comes calling. And then there's another family, the exclusive one Elle Driver has set up with Bill in the four years since the Black Mamba's comatose exit; too bad, that one's over. And another family, the one Bill created down Mexico way with El Vihaio, his totemic father. And then there's the conundrum of the Final Girl's final family, the one that cancels itself out, for only by tracking down the father to kill him can she discover a daughter exists, only by enacting what she had sworn to give up can she win back the girl she'd tried to keep from all this.

Too late. Christened with violence, B.B. (Perla Haney-Jardine) will no doubt grow up marked by it. Just like her counterpart and no doubt future nemesis Nikki (Ambrosia Kelly), the daughter in KB1 who saw her mommy Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox) die at the Bride's hands. Tarantino has been talking about doing Kill Bill Vol. 3 to carry on the story. He claims he has to wait 15 years for Nikki to grow up and come looking for the Bride. (Ah, if only he'd give Budd a long-lost son I could be really happy.) There's an obvious alternative that would fill Miramax's coffers sooner. Sure, KB3 has to be the story of the next generation of avenging angels. But why wait? Just title it Spy Kids 4, and let the cameras roll.

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012