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Quentin Tarantino and "Kill Bill" pay homage to the samurai epic, shower the audience with blood, and dilute pop culture.

8:15 AM, Oct 10, 2003 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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IT'S NOT NEWS to report that trailers are often better than the movies they advertise. Some of the best trailers in recent years--"The Phantom Menace," "Mission: Impossible 2," "Pearl Harbor," "Eyes Wide Shut"--have been for movies which can only be charitably considered middling.

Are movies getting worse, or are trailers getting better? Probably a little of both. No need to repeat the state-of-the-industry lament here, but it is worth considering whether the art of trailer-making is now entering its golden age. (If you think making a trailer isn't art, how would you have sold "Entrapment"?)

With "Kill Bill"--the fourth film by Quentin Tarantino, in case you were wondering--the problem isn't that the trailer is better than the movie (although it is), it's that the trailer is required reading for the movie: In 28 seconds it gives you more explanation about the story than the movie does in 93 minutes. The plot and exposition in "Kill Bill" is sketched in such short, hurried strokes that audiences who haven't seen the trailer might not entirely understand what they're seeing. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it is different. Who knows, perhaps trailer-as-prologue is the next evolution of the form. (Click here to watch the excellent trailer.)

YES, IT IS surprising that Quentin Tarantino has made a movie that's short on both dialogue and story. The plot goes like this: Uma Thurman used to be a member of a gang of assassins. She met a boy, decided to get hitched, and hung up her spurs. Her old colleagues, led by her former boss, Bill, show up a the wedding, kill the groom and other assorted guests, and leave Uma for dead. After four years she comes out of a coma and vows revenge. To tell this epic tale we have "Kill Bill: Volume 1" and, coming next February, "Kill Bill: Volume 2." It was, evidently, too much to compress into one sitting.

None of which is meant dismissively. Whatever else its merits, "Kill Bill" is an entertaining genre movie and a real high point in the wuxia oeuvre. It has, however, a certain grandiosity that, while not entirely unwelcome, is so self-conscious as to be a little uncomfortable. There are moments in "Kill Bill"--when, for example he bleeps out the name of Uma Thurman's character or puts the opening credits in Japanese--that are so pretentiously stylish that it feels as though we've caught the director in flagrante with himself.

Thurman deserves some kind of medal for her work here. She does an astonishing job creating a trompe l'oeil, giving the appearance of depth where none has been written for her. Also, while Nicole Kidman's bravery was endlessly praised for wearing a prosthetic nose in "The Hours" (because it made her look, you know, less pretty, which was daring), Thurman allows herself to be trashed onscreen--bruised, abused, bloodied, and disfigured. Few actresses of her stature would ever assent to being shot so unflatteringly. Good for her.

(The really revelatory performance, however, comes from Lucy Liu, as the assassin O-Ren Ishi. Liu, normally a blandly enigmatic presence, is given to tightly-controlled, robotic performances. Here, as a semi-psychotic Yakuza, she's off-kilter and a little reckless; "Kill Bill" is much better for it.)

As much as for these performances, "Kill Bill" is likely to gain attention for its violence and gore. With good reason: "Kill Bill" is the goriest movie you're ever likely to see. It vaults past the Japanese samurai movies it takes as its inspiration. There are plucked-out eyeballs and skulls punctured with nails, disembowelings and dismemberment, and everywhere great gushing geysers of blood. Tarantino tells Newsweek that most of this "is done for a comic effect."

No doubt devotees of Eastern cinema will rush to Tarantino's defense, as will sophisticated American critics. But it's not clear from whom they're defending him. After all, people concerned with violence and sex in film have largely given up the struggle--only ethnic and racial grievance groups attack movies these days.

And what a missed opportunity for the virtue police. "Kill Bill" is a powerful example of one indisputable fact: Violence is desensitizing. After 90 minutes of death and slaughter, you'll barely bat an eyelash when one character is scalped and her pink, mushy brain glows faintly against the evening snow. Whether or not desensitization is a problem in the culture is another debate, but let there be no doubt that it is real.