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How 'Kill Bill' finds its feminist message through violence

Uma Thurman's portrayal of the Bride in "Kill Bill" is just one of the female characters in the film whose violent scenes have a feminist undercurrent. – Photo by Film4/Twitter

The year is 2003, and there's a red, yellow and black gloom that hovers over filmic America, glittering in its violence and blood. It’s "Kill Bill" by Quentin Tarantino — the millennia's most notable femme-fatale-turned-assassin film, a disturbing, technicolor portrait of feminism and bloodshed.

Yet, as a 2-year-old at the time of the premiere, I didn’t watch “Kill Bill” for another three years. My first memories of "Kill Bill" are of soul-shattering, all-encompassing fear: from memories of O-Ren’s origins bred of violence and parental annihilation to the Bride learning how to punch a wooden board.

These scenes, from “Kill Bill: Volume 1” and “Kill Bill: Volume 2,” respectively, plagued my childhood movie-watching experience. But what I know now is that the franchise’s wild disturbances only highlighted the interwoven concepts of feminism and violence through color theory.

"Kill Bill” follows the Bride — the blonde bombshell assassin apart of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad whose pimp-like ringleader, Bill, betrayed her. After the assassins attempt to murder the Bride (played brilliantly by Uma Thurman), she awakens to a new revenge-laden way of life. On a hunt for blood, revenge and torture, the Bride delves into a two-volume-long killing spree.

Starting off strong, Tarantino welcomes audiences into the world of female violence with O-Ren Ishii, a member of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad and enemy of the Bride. The use of blood is a constant, otherworldly force between the first and second volumes, with O-Ren being the vessel through which that violence is conveyed.

We see the use of an almost whimsical level of violence most significantly in O-Ren’s character arc. The most tragic of details of her early life include the brutally inhumane death of her parents as a young child.

Here, Tarantino doesn’t shy away from depicting every morbid and macabre element of these murders. We watch through the eyes of young O-Ren as hired assassins raid their house and blockade the young family of three in their bedroom. Her parents are left to be slaughtered like pigs while O-Ren hides under their bed — traumatized, helpless and victimized.

In this scene, blood falls like rain — while her family is being murdered, audiences have to, unfortunately, witness the gory details: the blood rain filling their mattress, the blood droplets slowly trickling on O-Ren’s face as she hides under their bed and O-Ren’s destroyed youth.

It’s in these overly dramatized details that we most see “Kill Bill”’s feminism as if the bloodshed is indicative of how resilient and strong O-Ren will become. In adulthood, O-Ren decapitates a man’s head in one splice. His decapitated body then gushes — like a Yellowstone geyser — in a fountain of blood. Almost poetically, O-Ren delivers a soul-stealing speech while holding up her victim’s head. Splotches of blood lightly cover the corners of her forehead.

If we follow O-Ren’s chronology and thematic significance in the movie, we can also pick out a color-driven motif. One of Tarantino’s most shining cinematography moments is the sterile, wintery aesthetic in O-Ren's death.

Everything is stark white — her ghost-like dress is long, flowy and haunting, and snow covers the ground and falls in the jet-black foreground. It paints a picture of purity until we're abruptly hit with a splash of red blood, like an elegant splash of strawberry puree, across the ground’s coating of pure, angelic snow, signaling the death of one of the Bride’s most equipped enemies.

The sequence’s most significant colors remain white and red, as well as the black and yellow of the Bride's outfit. The use of color play is most pronounced within the film’s violence. These colors — most dominantly a sickly red — monopolize the movie.

Moreover, the use of violence and the color red are related to the highlighting of the film's innate feminist view. For instance, one of my most engrained memories of “Kill Bill” is the Bride’s brutal training under the legendary Pai Mei. What I found most disturbing was her excruciatingly meticulous kung fu regiment — repetitive and massively painful, her knuckles always left a crimson stamped print on the board, leaving her writhing in pain.

There's something to be said of this scene: The knocking is emblematic of her personal threshold of resilience — pounding, unending and powerful. Tarantino doesn't hold back on sound effects as we can hear the Bride's joints and knuckles crunch under each punch. It's these odd forms of violence and punishment that are jarring due to their longevity. The most inhumane forms of violence that Tarantino thrusts upon our faces are the ones we must endure for the longest time, where the seconds tick by excruciatingly slowly.

It gets worse, because the Bride just continues on, despite breaking and bruising and bleeding. Later on, she has to eat rice with her trembling hands, so ruined they can't hold chopsticks. Throughout the franchise, it is these hands, and her traumatizing training, that save her life time and time again — the film is almost saying blood is the price for female liberation.

Tarantino’s love for these gory, unnecessary means of violence must be acknowledged. There's so much absurd violence it's as if violence is its own element, a quasi-personified force within the world of "Kill Bill" or a main character in the spotlight alongside the Bride.

Yet, violence’s hyperbolic nature within the franchise is depicted as the norm in the assassins' inner circle. The Bride, as well as every other female assassin, must endure major instances of violence. Perhaps a symbol of female empowerment or martyrdom, the Bride receives some of the most disturbing and jarring violent modes of punishment.

Take for example in "Volume 2," when the Bride finally tracks down one of the last members of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad. Upon finding him, the retired-assassin-turned-redneck, Budd, shoots the Bride with rock salt pellets. Hard enough to cause major blood loss and broken bones but benign and small enough to wound her instead of killing her. This kind of violence substantiates my theory of Tarantino’s love for his slow, painful and torturous punishments.

The Bride writes on the floor as slowly but surely her brown shirt leaks into a deep red, blood coming from her mouth in driblets, her face white as a ghoul. While on the phone with Elle, another member of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, desperate to kill the Bride, she says that she “must suffer till her last breath.” This conversation lends itself as the impetus to one of the most unwatchable scenes in the franchise. 

We, unfortunately for our psyches, watch this play out as Budd decides to bury the Bride alive. The narrative choice manipulates every single fear and phobia: being buried alive, isolation, complete darkness, suffocation, claustrophobia, bondage/the inability to move — a comprehensive menagerie of hellscapes.

The human audience member, biologically hungry for survival, is submerged in a 5-minute-long nightmare. With Tarantino’s camerawork, we are right in the thick of it with the Bride, hearing the thunderous pounding of steel nails 6 feet above until darkness consumes us. The scene overwhelms us. Viewers feel right next to the Bride, like we're sharing our limited, dense, scarce air supply inside the small, wooden box.

But due to her traumatic training experiences, she conjures up memories of that wooden board. While being buried alive, her history of bloodshed is what ultimately saves her. She uses these memories and gets herself out of the coffin, punch by punch. Each hit imprints blood on the coffin wall, but she doesn't flinch. Eventually, the Bride's hand shoots through the soft, patchy soil, and she begins to claw her way out. Like an awakened Frankenstein, she re-emerges from the dirt a new woman — a new killer.

It’s creepily crafted modes of brutality like these that make one feel as if Tarantino is an assassin himself. His hunger for intense levels of violence and bloodshed is quintessential to the franchise’s ethos. Surprisingly enough, the finale of "Volume 2" is one of the most memorable scenes for its complete omission of violence.

Bill, when shooting the Bride with a poisonous dart, utters the franchise’s most supervillain-esque line of all: “What lies within that dart, just begging to course its way through your veins, is an incredibly potent and quite infallible truth serum. I call it, ‘the undisputed truth.’ Twice as strong as sodium pentothal, with no druggy aftereffects."

Bill uses this serum to talk through some uncomfortable topics, and eventually asks the “$64,000 question,” which, to him, is the question of why the Bride ran away from him. Later on in the night, the Bride decides to kill him for all of the atrocities and traumas he has afflicted upon her, a satisfying end to her journey of revenge.

The Bride uses the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique, another life-saving kung fu teaching. The death blow is dealt in a few moments of beautiful simplicity. It's no coincidence that the duology’s final scene — indeed, the killing of Bill — involves little to no blood and a fraction of a second of violence.

Against the backdrop of what Tarantino spent the entirety of his two-part story doing — exploring the absurd and overly violent — it fits perfectly to feature a finale opposed to that previously devised model of violence. This is the ending the Bride deserves. An ending that wreaks vengeance upon all the people who called her “a b***h” like it was her first name. In this position, she tracks her enemies down and kills all of them one by one in the ultimate display of empowerment.

An icon, the Bride proves herself to clearly be a precursor to our current bad*ss, or hyper-intelligent female assassin archetype we see repurposed in our media — think Villanelle in "Killing Eve." More specifically, I believe "Kill Bill" to an excellent study by Tarantino into the duality of absurd violence and feminism. Like the most strategic of chess plays, he explores violence, feminism and how color theory can portray both of these as intertwining themes in what can be considered his magnum opus.

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