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At My Most Masochistic: Tarantino’s Bill

This is part of the blogothon put together by the Pompous Film Snob, asking bloggers to select their favourite Tarantino character. It’s a pretty stellar list of bloggers tackling some iconic characters, so it’s well worth a look. Check them out, here. I’m a bit late in publishing this one.

Kill Bill is a remarkable film. It’s an impressive work – so impressive that it is split across two parts. What’s really impressive about it, though, is just how big a departure is represented from Tarantino’s body of work in the nineties. Tarantino made his reputation taking basic scenarios with which we’re all familiar, but putting a new twist on them – for example, Reservoir Dogs takes place in the aftermath of a botched robbery or True Romance followed a young couple a cross-country elopement, running from the criminals rather than the law or Pulp Fiction followed a variety of intersecting stories which spring out of a deal and betrayal between bad men (it’s all set in motion with Jules and Vincent recovering something stolen from Marsellus). Here, however, Tarantino is doing something different. Rather than providing a unique angle on an archetypal story, he’s instead playing out the story to its logical conclusion. Kill Bill, Vol. I is a most typical revenge ploy, albeit perfectly executed. However, Kill Bill, Vol. II takes that idea and picks it apart. The characters who serve as plot functions in the first half become real human beings in the second. Seen as Bill arguably has the most screentime across both films (apparent from the Bride) it’s fascinating to see what he begins as, and how he ends up.

Bill is just fluting around...

Most of the characters in the first volume of Tarantino’s revenge saga are archetypes. They aren’t really characters. They exist as obstacles for the Bride to overcome. Sure, Tarantino peppers these big moments with hints of character and insight, but in the most sensational way possible (O-Ren’s history, for example, is a collection of over-the-top moments and set-pieces). We can recognise their plot functions. Copperhead, for example, is the sassy one. O-Ren is the one with a hair-trigger temper.

Bill is introduced to us as a disembodied voice. He’s Charlie in this warped little version of Charlie’s Angels that Tarantino is building. Even when he puts a bullet through the Bride’s head in the opening moment, he’s just a deep voice. He’s portrayed as the archetypal criminal mastermind, moving behind the scenes, manipulating. He knows to call Elle Driver just as she is about to put the Bride out of her misery, with absolutely uncanny timing. He’s shot mysteriously, from the shadows. Even when he shares physical space with another character – for example with Sofia Fatale  in the final scene of the first half – he remains an ominous all powerful figure. We watch his hands at work, but not his face. His hands and his voice. In a way, he’s almost divine, almost godlike.

However, what Tarantino does in the second film is to humanise these characters. Compare, for example, the presentation of O-Ren’s backstory in the first volume with the story we’re offered of Bud at the start of the second volume. Bud is a far more human and pathetic figure than the cliché that is O-Ren. The Bride herself is transformed over the course of the second film from an unstoppable killing machine on a roaring rampage of revenge into a loving mother and “real” human being (achieving what she sought all along).

So how does Bill change over the course of the second movie? What shading does Tarantino provide the character? In an exploration of Kill Bill as Tarantino acting out his own psychosis (a diagnosis I’m not entirely comfortable with), Metaphilm suggests:

Bill, the father, God, is completely humanized. In the first film we barely saw him, and never saw his face; he existed merely as an omnipresent threat and a kind of puppet-master, pulling the strings of his DiVAS. Now, in Volume 2, he’s locally and physically present as a man, a mere mortal. Now he has a brother; he plays the flute; he tells stories; he gets beaten up by his master, Pai Mei; he plays games with his daughter; his heart can be broken; he even makes sandwiches, going so far as to cut off the crust.

In fact, Bill becomes so human in Volume 2 that we start to sympathize with him, almost to the point where we don’t want to see him die. He no longer seems worthy of killing, no longer seems to deserve to die. We learn that he never knew his real father, that his own father figure—Esteban Vihaio (Michael Parks)—is a pimp who cuts women’s faces when they’re disobedient. In other words, we see that his father is as big a prick as he (our father) is, and thus that his childhood was no doubt as perverse and dysfunctional as our own.

Far from only seeing his hands and his voice at work, here we see Bill chat and joke – and we even she him flustered and out of breath, when he comes down from the temple.

In the end, everyone pays the Bill...

Instead of being the ominous archetype of the all-knowing figure (perhaps closely related to Blofeld, the archvillain of all those Sean Connery films), Bill possibly becomes the most Tarantino-esque of the characters in the film. He relates long rambling anecdotes in an organic manner and offers philosophic insights in charmingly abstract terms. All of Tarantino’s characters have an insight into life – a unique perspective that they are perfectly able to articulate in terms that feel at once verbose and yet perfectly natural.

Of course, Bill is a stone-cold sociopath (shooting a pregnant woman who is trying to tell him the baby is his, while implying that he’s the one really hurt by all this) and a reasonably negligent father (who lets their daughter watch Shogun Assassin?). For all his charm – and Tarantino builds a lot of it on Carradine as an actor (playing the flute, wandering the world, all iconic features of Carradine’s time as a lead in Kung-Fu), implying that there’s little redeeming about Bill himself – there’s no doubt that Bill is fundamentally a bad guy. He is sympathetic (much more so in the second film – desperately wanting to save his brother), but the movies never lose sight of the fact that the world would probably be a better place without him.

On one hand, the character speaks of honour – refusing, for example, to execute the Bride as she lies in coma, despite having no problem ambushing her at her wedding – but it seems this only an affectation rather than a core part of his personality. He’s willing to drug the Bride to get his own answers and emotionally manipulate her through her daughter. It’s telling that Bill meets his death on his own patio rather than on the beach he suggested – a samurai sword duel at dawn would be a perfectly honourable cap on the film, but instead himself and the Bride find each other fighting a lob-sided battle on lawn furniture. Hardly the most honourable way to go, is it?

However, Bill is more than that. He’s very much a Tarantino figure, but he’s also a conscious exploration of a conventional trope or pop culture archetype. I’m in the minority of adoring the half-hour conversation between Bill and the Bride at the climax to the second volume, because it’s another example of Tarantino playing a classic cinematic sequence through his own unique lens. This sequences is an amalgamation of all the classic “motive rants” or “we’re not so different” speeches than villains offer by way of an excuse not to kill the hero who is in their clutches. They can’t just kill the hero, because that would be a disappointment – a rather anti-climactic conclusion to the film. Instead it’s just a way to up the stakes before the hero ultimately prevails.

Bill’s conversation is that cliché played entirely straight – hell, he’s even got “truth serum” in a gun which may as well be labeled “convenient plot device”. And yet, Tarantino makes it work, through sheer force of will. It’s as if Bill knows he must hit these beats, but does so in his own unique way. His arguments are smooth and practiced. He’s almost charming. Of course, not all of them make sense and, in the end, Bill is a completely irredeemable sociopath, but he’s a character who has put a lot of thought into understanding his world.

In Alan Moore’s Watchmen, the omnipotent Doctor Manhattan describes himself as “a puppet who can see the strings” and – in a way – that’s how Bill feels. It’s almost as though he’s entirely aware that he’s the sort of fictional omni-present criminal mastermind, and that’s how he’s supposed to act. After all, if the Bride is Superman pretending to be Clark Kent, isn’t Bill Lex Luthor, a character who – despite his convincing rhetoric and internal logic – will always be the villain? He appears to have come to terms with that – if he hadn’t, he could just as easily have finished off the Bride while he had her tranquilised.

That’s why Bill is, at least to me, the most inherently fascinating of Tarantino’s creations. Unlike the rest of the characters in Tarantino’s work, who arguably exist as archetypes and eventually become something more, Bill is an archetype who can never really be anything more. He can be a better example of what he is, more nuanced and shaded, but he will always be “the bad guy”, “the mastermind”, “the criminal genius”. And while the Bride can change, becoming a mother rather than a killer or assassin, Bill can’t. He’s trapped within the story that Tarantino is telling, and is smart enough to realise it.

It would almost be tragic, if he wasn’t so damn good at being the bad guy.

The other contributors to the blogging event (and it’s a great line-up), include:

2 Responses

  1. -Who lets their daughter watch Shogun Assassin?-

    An awesome one.

    Great write-up, Darren, but really, is there even any question on how hard Bill rocks? He is maybe the most complicated Tarantino character, anyway.

    • Yep, he’s really the only one (apart from the Bride) given a full two films to develop and I think he really benefits from the different styles Tarantino employed.

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