Editor’s Note: The House Next Door is proud to reissue a series of articles developed at 24LiesASecond, a now-defunct platform for provocative criticism with an underdog bite. The essay below was first published on 06/03/2005, under the editorial guidance of James M. Moran (editor-in-chief) and Peet Gelderblom (founding editor).
Not since Stanley Kubrick defused psychological interpretations of his adaptation of The Shining—by defining it as simply a ghost story—has a director so decisively discouraged theoretical analysis of an intriguing work. Yet, Quentin Tarantino has preempted similar inquiries with respect to Kill Bill by taking every opportunity to define his four-hour saga only in terms of its influences, while reducing it, without elaboration, to a singular and obvious theme of revenge. In spite of Tarantino’s recalcitrance, I’m unable to quell my suspicions that there may be more here than has been claimed.
Anyone can imitate anything; it is my sense that Kill Bill is more than an imitation, revision or reconsideration of Seventies grindhouse and western cinema. And it contains too many cues that it is more than “simply” a sprawling homage or the story of an angry woman’s revenge.
Let’s be honest. The young viewers who will be most influenced by Kill Bill won’t care, initially at least, that a particular scene “refers” to Dressed to Kill or that the character Pai Mei is an artifact from Shaw Brothers films (and before that, a historical figure); if they are in the midst of that miraculous courtship that viewers enjoy with films that rapture the imagination, they will naturally ask themselves the same questions Tarantino, as an impressionable youth, likely asked himself about the works that took his breath away: Why do I like it? What is this film about? What drives my favorite characters? Is there some less-than-obvious meaning here to be gleaned? In addition to those questions, one I sometimes ask myself when faced with a work this ambitious—and in some mysterious way obsessive—is, Why was it so important to this director to tell this story?
Tarantino is a gracious filmmaker in that he borrows to honor and bestow appreciation upon the antecedents he reveres. But certainty he has his own intelligence, his own obsessions and his own aspirations. No director creates new works only to call attention to old works. One would imagine that Tarantino, in Kill Bill, aspires not only to address film buffs who came of age in the Seventies but also to mesmerize the younger viewers who, statistics inform us, are the overwhelming consumers of contemporary cinema. For those viewers, Kill Bill will have to—and I think does—stand erect without the aid of a cane.
I confess my notions about Kill Bill are strange. But the film itself is strange. Kill Bill has been described—not only by critics but by co-creator Uma Thurman—as a story of revenge and redemption. The characters are eccentric and Tarantino takes pains to differentiate them. He shows us many things we need not see in order to be thrilled by this work; for example, the disturbing childhood and ruthless ascent of Rishi O-ren, miniature biographies of tertiary characters, and the failure and dissipation of Budd. Tarantino intrudes upon the most glorious metaphor in his work to provide the chapter on Pai Mei. It’s not initially obvious why such flashbacks are crucial, or sequenced as they are, if Kill Bill is little more than the story of a furious woman exacting justice against five individuals who tried to take her life. A story that simple should not require twenty minutes more to relay than the restored Lawrence of Arabia.
What about this vital question of redemption?
Although frequently disputed, the view of Kill Bill as a story of redemption is pervasive. Even that it is presumed enough to be contested is indication enough that it is strongly implied. We are told at the outset that the film is about “vengeance” and the narrative clings faithfully to the presumption that Beatrix’s journey is the quest for a fair reckoning that manages, for many viewers, to acquire murky features of redemption. But how does it?
Let us recall that prior to the massacre, Beatrix concludes she no longer wishes to participate in professional killing or remain in the company of those who do. But there is cause to question whether her change of heart represents renunciation in any moral sense. Beatrix does not claim to be motivated by remorse, regret or shame. As is made explicitly clear in a flashback, her determination to stop killing is formed concurrently with her discovery of her pregnancy. This new concern suggests that she has replaced an old preference with a new preference produced by a cause other than spiritual epiphany. She terminates her assignment not because she feels it’s morally repulsive to kill another human being for money, but because she does not wish harm to come to herself or her unborn child. Although she might seem righteous, most cultures do not consider it extraordinary to demonstrate kindness towards one’s self or one’s own child. Sincere compassion regards all life as precious and does not distinguish between the stranger one is paid to execute and the child one carries. If a thing is wrong when done to one’s relative, it is wrong when done to a stranger or adversary. Although Beatrix experiences a change of heart about what degree of risk she is willing to assume, her transformation is produced by a desire for self-preservation rather than a vexed conscience or the arousal of her deepest moral impulses.
Her escape to El Paso is a private decision that leads inadvertently to the appearance of a moral transformation that is never authenticated even when there is ample opportunity within the narrative for it to be confirmed. Beatrix has made a rational, not a spiritual, decision. Later, once animated by the desire for retaliation, she presumes murder of her assailants is the appropriate punishment for what she has suffered. During this quest to exact justice, many others are killed as well. Granted, this is murder motivated by comprehensible rage rather than profit; but it is still murder.
One who ruminates on this question of whether Beatrix is redeemed or not must eventually contend with this fundamental hypocrisy: How can vengeance ever be the path to redemption, particularly when she who seeks redemption is as guilty of the crimes for which she seeks redemption as those who she seeks redemption against? A murderess who expresses no contrition for prior misdeeds is not redeemed by murdering less scrupulous murderers while remaining indifferent to the transformation of herself.
Still, a vast number of spectators have clearly referred to Kill Bill as a story of vengeance and redemption.
A Google search on the terms Kill Bill and redemption returns 218,000 results. Here is a random sampling: Ely Portillo, editor-in-chief of Silver Chips Online describes Kill Bill as the “Bride’s epic saga of revenge and redemption.” Matt Cale at Ruthless Reviews calls it a story of redemption. Subhas K. Jha of Now Running refers to the film as including “gratuitous self-redemption.” Woodrow Bogucki of Hybrid Cinema writes of Vol. 2, “The character and the quest remain the same, but stylistically this movie is very different from its predecessor. Gone are the themes of honor and revenge, and redemption is in… sort of.” Don Kaye of Raw Story writes:
But when taken as a whole, the story of the Bride (Uma Thurman) and her quest for revenge becomes a surprisingly bittersweet tale, in its own twisted way, of redemption and responsibility. We see plenty of redemption-themed movies emanating from Hollywood, but not one in which the protagonist massacres dozens of people and more or less gets away with it.
Zach Campbell, essayist at 24FPS, writes:
“For starters, Kill Bill confirms that Tarantino is a moralist. He’s always setting up audience sympathies and letting them groove on protagonists’ vindication, redemption, and salvation.”
A Christian group called Ransom Fellowship poses on its Web site the following “Question for Discussion and Reflection”: In an interview on the DVD, Uma Thurman calls Kill Bill a movie about “justice and redemption.” Do you agree? Why or why not?
San Diego News Notes feature “Talk About Movies” is a monthly disagreement between critics Ernie Grimm and Matthew Lickona. Lickona argues that “Beatrix is redeemed by an act of love. She denies what she believes is her nature as a killer to go and be miserable in El Paso and give her daughter a clean slate.”
Grimm disagrees: “But it’s a particular act of love. It’s natural, not supernatural. She’s not laying down her life for a stranger, she’s pregnant … Beatrix continues to live by the sword. If it’s a redemption story, it’s only 5% redemption. The other 95% is revenge.”
Lickona counters: “For all the talk of swords, nobody dies by the sword. Bud [sic] dies because he tries to leave the life of penance he’s given himself. Elle loses because of her impiety—it cost her an eye and made her vulnerable. And Bill is treacherous.”
In an exhaustive and excellent analysis for Jump Cut, author Aaron Anderson writes:
“…the film itself is not simply a revenge drama, but also a story of redemption. The only way that Kiddo can deserve a normal life is to pay penance for her own past life. This penance, however, takes the form of more violent actions, involving both Kiddo’s ability to inflict harm upon others as well as her ability to endure pain and injury herself.”
These examples illustrate that a tendency to read Kill Bill as a story of “redemption,” in whole or in part, appears to be pervasive. Such interpretations that wish to elevate the work on moral grounds, however, must acknowledge that Beatrix is motivated by anger to undertake a task that is voluntary, because it gratifies a private need for retribution and, unbeknownst to her, ultimately to retrieve what belongs to her. In fact, the withholding from Beatrix of the knowledge that her child, BB, is alive only complicates any effort to argue that she undertakes her task for any reason other than visceral satisfaction. If anything, a conventional analysis of this narrative might lead one to conclude that Kill Bill, like Unforgiven, is the story of a protagonist who is characterized not by change but rather by a failure to actualize a professed change.
For these reasons I believe redemption has been forced upon the climax by wishful observers who impute a transformation to the character of Beatrix that is not demonstrated if the film is taken literally. Yet no one asserting this redemption has attempted to argue that Kill Bill should be assessed in any other way. Nevertheless, I count myself among those who concede that, when all is said and done, there is this sense that some important evolution has transpired within the character of Beatrix.
Opening the door
Critics have not probed deeply enough to build an argument for Kill Bill as a story of redemption. One solution, I believe, is to view the film as an allegory in which Beatrix is in combat not with literal enemies but external manifestations of a turmoil that rages within her own psyche: a task she undertakes in order to achieve something very specific.
This opens the door to some interesting possibilities. One could, for example, contemplate Kill Bill as a cinematic allegory in which a post-modern heroine confronts oppressive archetypes, or a feminist allegory in which Beatrix wages war against undesirable aspects of classic female conditioning. However, the allegorical interpretation that intrigues me the most is directly connected to the film’s subterranean immersion in Zen Buddhism, the Code of the Samurai and kung-fu. Such an interpretation views Kill Bill specifically through the lens of the Buddhist philosophy that lingers in its central nervous system, offering the possibility that Beatrix’s quest is an allegory about spiritual transformation and the pursuit of enlightenment. Kill Bill—in keeping with the Zen doctrine that forms the historical basis for its samurai and kung fu themes—is translated as the story of a warrior-heroine who acquires the mythological Sword of Wisdom to overcome five internal enemies (known as the Five Poisons) that separate her from her Buddha Nature.
The heroine of Kill Bill dismantles a false Self she has outgrown in order to reconstitute, or reunite with, her authentic, pre-conditioned Self. She transcends a legacy of violence and delusion to become reacquainted with her innate nature. In this way, Kill Bill might be engaged rather as Little Buddha. When Bertolucci’s Buddha confronts external adversaries, he is doing battle with outward manifestations of internal demons such as self-doubt, fear, desire and temptation. As he dispatches them, he transforms himself incrementally. When these adversaries are entirely vanquished, the viewer is to understand Buddha is enlightened. Perhaps when Beatrix wages battle against antagonists she is in a life-and-death struggle with aspects of herself that she recognizes no longer serve her best interests. Viewed in this way, most traces of contradiction within the work vanish. Kill Bill becomes a sovereign and vastly meaningful work—one that could earnestly be said to promote the theme of redemption.
Another advantage to an allegorical reading is that other baffling aspects of the work become more decipherable. It makes sense that so much time is devoted to exposing the temperament, idiosyncrasies and preferences of the other assassins in order that we understand what they represent. Pai Mei’s insistence that Beatrix learn to defeat enemies no further than three inches from her chest ceases to be a contrivance and becomes symbolic and poetic. A rational reason for the de-escalation of action scenes emerges, as does a sensible explanation for Tarantino’s refusal to divulge Beatrix’s name until a particular moment late in the narrative. We gain greater insight into the final dialogue between Bill and Beatrix. Metaphors such as Beatrix’s entombment and Bill’s exploding heart become profound and thematically symmetrical.
Zen Buddhist allegory
“Kill whoever stands in thy way, even if that be Lord God, or Buddha Himself. This truth lies at the heart of the art of combat.”
—Hattori Hanzo, Kill Bill
“Zen proverb says, ’Let go over a cliff, die completely, and then come back to life—after that you cannot be deceived.”
—Master Yuanwu, Zen Essence
Let’s take a second look at Kill Bill. Rather than engage it as a literal story of vengeance, let’s read it is a fable about transformation. The omnipresence of Bushido (The Way of the Sword), samurai and kung-fu precepts, references and themes in Kill Bill would appear to provide an opportunity to examine the film in this way; for, these disciplines are predicated on Zen Buddhism. Someone approaching this film from a Buddhist perspective will discern Zen in the teachings of Hattori Hanzo and Pai Mei, identify the significance of references to the Shaolin Monastery in Bill’s anecdote about Pai Mei, and perhaps notice the misapplication of the teachings by Bill. Whereas it may seem to Westerners almost perverse to test a Zen interpretation on a work like Kill Bill, to someone growing up in Japan, China, or Tibet, it may seem an irresistible or perhaps even an obvious avenue of approach.
Buddhism is a rather complex religion (or philosophy), but at its most elemental offers a schematic (path) whereby individuals can acquire wisdom and compassion in order to permanently extinguish the internal hindrances that lead to suffering. This process usually occurs under the purview of a Master, who gives his student a new name and is regarded as the practitioner’s spiritual father. Wisdom, in Buddhism, is represented by a figure called Manjushri, who wields the Sword of Wisdom. Symbolically, the practitioner picks up the Sword of Wisdom and uses it to cut the roots of interior delusions that obscure a correct apprehension of reality. As wisdom replaces ignorance, the practitioner cleanses the karma accumulated from the commission of past negative deeds, becomes more virtuous, and acquires compassion for the suffering of others.
Although Buddhism is a religion of non-violence, during later stages of the path (the Tantric stage) the practitioner calls upon the so-called “wrathful deities” to engage five inner enemies—pride, anger, doubt, ignorance and attachment—in a more aggressive way. One might even call this process violent, although it occurs largely within the practitioner’s mind and involves visualizations, mantras and prostrations. When these inner enemies are destroyed and replaced by the attributes which are their direct opposites, the practitioner is, or is on the verge of becoming, an enlightened being liberated from suffering—a Buddha. This is not, as one might presume, a process of adding to the personality but stripping away a lifetime of conditioning; in other words, it is about returning to a more innocent state of existence. Thus, it is common in Buddhist texts to encounter the child as a metaphor for enlightenment.
If we were to invent an allegory about this process, it could conceivably begin like this:
Once upon a time there was a yellow-haired Samurai warrior. Although skilled, she fell under the influence of a charismatic but corrupt Master named Bill. He accepted her as his disciple, remade her in his own image and gave her a new name: “Black Mamba.” He conditioned the warrior to apply her skills to evil rather than virtuous purposes. One day the warrior realized she was pregnant by her Master. In order to protect the life of the child and escape the hazards that surrounded her, the warrior fled the tutelage of her Master. She shed her old identity and adopted a new one. She was known as “The Bride.”
Let’s pause here. This is, of course, a retelling of Kill Bill. Beatrix, upon acquiring Bill as her Master and spiritual father, is bestowed the name Black Mamba. Upon recognizing that he has guided her towards rather than away from suffering, she flees and renames herself Arlene Machiavelli. That Beatrix chooses to name herself after the Italian statesman whose name is synonymous with manipulation and deception engineered to retain mastery over others and promote private aspirations is not only amusing; it is a strong indication that her egotistical desires persist. But her hopes for an idyllic existence are dashed when Bill and his four accomplices commit mass murder at her wedding rehearsal and leave Beatrix in a coma. During her convalescence she becomes nameless; she is Jane Doe and The Bride. Tarantino intentionally withholds from the audience her true name until he reveals it late in the narrative, even though there is no logical, dramatic reason for him to do so.
However, these cosmetic attempts to rectify her past and establish a more traditional present did not lead to sincere internal transformation. Because the warrior failed to sever the root of the Five Poisons, they reappeared to cause her even worse suffering.
The Five Poisons: “I have vermin to kill”
The Five Poisons are the internal enemies that one must overcome in order to transform the self and apprehend reality correctly. Although there are minor variations in explications of the Five Poisons in Buddhist texts, they are generally enumerated as Pride, Jealousy (or Jealous Anger), Doubt (i.e., Faithlessness), Ignorance and Attachment. These Poisons are considered to be the fundamental causes of human suffering. To permanently escape the misery of conditioned existence, the spiritual warrior must sever these poisons at the root. When so accomplished, the manacles that bind her to the misery of conditioned existence are extinguished, and the self is liberated from these contaminating forces. Once emancipated from the poisons, the practitioner is said to be enlightened.
In Kill Bill, let us imagine that the poisons that stand between Beatrix and the recovery of her Buddha Nature are embodied principally by the five assassins: O-ren Ishii is the embodiment of Pride; Vernita Green is the embodiment of Jealous Anger; Budd is the embodiment of Doubt; Elle Driver is the embodiment of Ignorance; and Bill is the embodiment of Attachment. In the context of allegory, Beatrix’s adversaries are approximate representations of psychological hindrances that act as direct catalysts for her own transformation.
This notion that assassins are embodiments of what are described in Buddhism as the Five Poisons merits explanation. First, it is valuable to establish why the poisons need to be eradicated and why the decision to do so is considered momentous in spiritual training.
“When the Five Poisons abide in you, that is the demon of mind… Dharma practitioners must cut off the root of the Five Poisons… [Ignorance] causes people to suffer greatly. [Doubt] causes people to behave like animals… Pride causes people to have many enemies, even if their other qualities are untainted. Attachment causes people to go through periods of great elation and depression so that they are unable to control themselves. Jealousy causes people to have strong ambition and to delight in suspicion. Do not let yourself be swayed by these Five Poisons.”
—Padmasambhava, The Path of Heroes
The determination to extinguish the Five Poisons, writes Zen Reverend Koho Zenji, “may be regarded as the turning point of self or as a fundamental reform in our life. All religions seek this self-denial. It is a subjective awakening to the fact that…only when we rid ourselves of the false self can we find our True Self.”
The specific grounds upon which we might impute that the five primary opponents of Beatrix may represent these poisons will be explained as we proceed. What is clear is that Tarantino carefully establishes discernible differences among the assassins. They are characterized by different temperaments, desires, lifestyles and traits. Some assassins are more painstakingly contoured than others. The depth with which they are developed, as well as their psychological complexity, correlates approximately to the order in which they are confronted and the degree of ingenuity required of Beatrix to defeat them. Vernita Green and O-ren evoke fewer contradictions than Budd, Elle and Bill. This, it will be argued, is because Green and O-ren are representations of gross concepts, whereas Budd, Elle and Bill are representations of subtle concepts.
The Five Poisons, angered by what they perceived to be the warrior’s impertinence, betrayal and arrogance, one day hunted her down and harmed her more than she had ever been harmed before. An ordinary person could not have survived. Yet, having begun—though barely—on the path of liberation, the obstinate warrior was granted temporary immunity from the cycle of death and, after spending four years in meditative stillness, awoke one day with a clear and focused mind. She was determined once and for all to face directly and extinguish the Five Poisons that led her astray, attempted to take her life, and apparently destroyed the life of her unborn child.
In accord with the teachings set forth by the revered Bodhisattva Manjushri—known as the Lord of Wisdom—the samurai warrior set out to acquire the Sword of Wisdom which, according to scripture, is necessary to slay the Five Poisons. She was deemed by the custodian of the sword to be a warrior worthy of wielding the finest sword ever made. Once having acquired Manjushri’s Sword of Wisdom, the samurai warrior then set out to eradicate the poisons at the root.
The samurai warrior and the Way of the Sword
“The ego—which seeks self-preservation as though that were important—is here destroyed.”
—Winston L. King, Zen & The Way of the Sword
Many excellent volumes excavate the fundamental link between Samurai principles and the Zen Buddhism that is their foundation. Winston L. King, author of Zen & The Way of the Sword, assures his readers that “Zen was far and away the preeminent samurai religion.” King quotes D. T. Suzuki to confirm that “Zen is indeed the religion of the samurai warrior.”
Beatrix is described on several occasions as a “Warrior” and, as such, must understand that the samurai sword, or katana, is not to be used trivially or for selfish purposes. One who wields the katana for personal gratification alone is doomed to fail. Writes Suzuki, “The swordsman’s mind must be kept entirely free from selfish affects and intellectual calculations so that the ’original institution’ is ready to work at its best.” King describes the correct mental disposition of the warrior as the “state of no-mind-ness.”
Inversely, the Way of the Sword can also function as a vehicle to spiritual realization.
Invoking Suzuki, King writes, “The owner and user of the sword ’ought to be a spiritual [woman], not an agent of brutality. [Her] mind ought to be at one with the soul which animates the cold steel.” “The sword,” writes Suzuki in Zen and the Japanese Culture, “is an inauspicious instrument to kill in some unavoidable circumstances. When it is used, therefore, it ought to be the sword that gives life and not the sword that kills” (emphasis added). Furthermore, Suzuki insists that “swordsmanship is, after all, not the art of killing; it consists in disciplining oneself as a moral and spiritual and philosophical being.”
Specifically, the samurai gains mastery of the sword while eradicating the ego and realizing the concept of No Self. Writes Suzuki, “The sword, therefore, is to be an instrument to kill the ego, which is the root of all quarrels and fighting.” Yamaoka Tesshu, a samurai warrior and the father of the Mind-Sword School, maintained that the warrior’s primary adversary was not external but rather “the ordinary ego-ridden consciousness.” Furthermore, “as I recalled my previous notions of skillfulness and ineptness, fighting and no fighting, I realized that these dichotomies have nothing to do with the opponent; all these things are creations of one’s mind. If there is self, there is an enemy; if there is no self there is no enemy.” This view of the adversary as a projection of ego is widespread in samurai writings. Thus, it becomes less exotic to imagine that an epic of a samurai warrior might be interpretable as an allegory in which opponents are external manifestations of psychic hindrances. By definition, any story about a samurai warrior must have spiritual dimensions, and allegory is one of the few avenues of approach available to tell such stories.
Neither kung-fu nor the Way of the Sword can exist without Zen, nor are these disciplines properly mastered without subduing the ego. This principle, rendered indirectly in Kill Bill, is dealt with explicitly in The Last Samurai. One who makes this connection between No-Self, the extinction of ego, and the awakening of a fearlessness that results in extravagant feats will note how Tarantino sutures a recollection of Pai Mei’s attempt to annihilate Beatrix’s ego to her escape from the interred casket. Pai Mei plants seeds during training that ripen when she faces her own death directly, following what appears to be her instantaneous comprehension and application of his teachings.
The samurai warrior hunted the Five Poisons in descending order, from the most conspicuous to the more entrenched and pernicious. Her pride and jealousy were gross distortions; therefore, Pride and Jealous Anger were easier to locate and destroy than the more deeply rooted and subtle poisons such as Doubt, Ignorance and Attachment.
Pride, naturally, was the easiest of the Poisons to locate, and—because Pride’s opinion of her own skills inflated—easy to defeat.
Tarantino gives viewers a sense of O-ren Ishii as prideful: of having an inflated opinion of her self, her power, her heritage, her authority, and especially, of developing a reputation that exceeds her skill. To compensate for these defects, she surrounds herself with a personal army of subordinates and equally pompous protégés who insulate her from having to demonstrate her talents. Although O-ren overcame extraordinary impediments to rise to underworld prominence, in her present incarnation she is all style and no substance. Beatrix herself remarks in the narration that O-ren is “the easiest to find.” When forced to fight her own battle, O-ren is no contest for Beatrix; indeed, the encounter is so asymmetrical it is almost painful to watch because of the dichotomy between O-ren’s reputation and her inability to put up a fight. None of the other assassins evokes this quality of pride.
Anger was next. Anger attempted to escape demise by distracting the warrior by issuing a stream of grievances produced by her remembrance of petty slights.
Vernita Green is the assassin about whom we learn the least. But she does express jealousy and bitterness. The poison of jealousy is sometimes translated simply as “hatred” or “jealous anger,” although anger is a component in nearly all of the poisons. Her last name and the color scheme of her house—both inside and out—is a possible clue that she signifies Jealousy. The engagement between Green and Beatrix has the qualities of a dirty street fight, and personal resentments play a role in the way they speak to each other and the ferocity and underhandedness of the combat. The word “bitch” is exchanged between them like a mantra. Much of Green’s conversation with Beatrix is focused on recollections of what Green perceives to be past slights and injustices (i.e., a quarrel over the bestowal of code names and who Bill believes is more proficient with blades). This encounter is the nastiest and least ritualistic. More than any other encounter, this one provokes a demonstration of anger in Beatrix, whose fighting style in other sequences is more formal, efficient and detached.
Next, the warrior progressed to the more complex delusions of Doubt, Ignorance and Attachment. Doubt was a slovenly but cunning enemy who, even more than the other poisons, resorted to unchivalrous and underhanded means to subdue the warrior. He tied her up and buried her alive.
“Save me from Doubt, that terrible ghost…
Who harms my yearning for conviction,
Who murders my liberation”
—First Dalia Lama Gedun Drub
Budd is characterized by listlessness, indecision, apathy, irresponsibility, alcoholism, uncertainty and avarice. His code name, SideWinder, evokes restless drifting rather than forward movement. When queried by Bill regarding Beatrix, Budd cannot form a firm opinion or answer to anything. He contradicts himself and even evokes suicidal ideation by contemplating the possibility that he ought to die, although he turns out not to believe this at all. Tarantino even bothers to show us in some detail that he is suspended indefinitely from his job as a “bouncer at a titty bar” for tardiness and, indeed, Budd appears indifferent that he is. Although ostensibly trained to be a warrior, when challenged by Beatrix, he abandons all semblance of propriety and resorts to what can only be described as cravenly torture. He does not trust his skills enough to even pretend to observe the conventional rules of engagement. Elle Driver later tells Budd to his face that his slothful and self-destructive lifestyle renders him a disgrace to the Code of the Warrior. Lastly, it is as a direct result of Budd’s internment of Beatrix that she must directly realize and implement the wisdom teachings of Pai Mei. In doing so she overcomes her own doubt about their legitimacy, usefulness and ability to implement them when facing death. It is in this pivotal sequence that the suffering she endured to acquire his teachings bears fruit. Thus, she overpowers her own doubt (or faithlessness) immediately before Budd—its allegorical embodiment—is subjugated by the Black Mamba.
This pivotal sequence, and the revelatory flashback that bifurcates it, could conceivably be viewed as the point in the narrative at which Beatrix acquires the final knowledge or direct realization necessary to complete the process of enlightenment. The term “direct realization” is frequently referenced in Buddhist texts. It refers, in this instance, to a delayed but instantaneous internalization of a prior teaching. The teacher, who is often deceased, manifests to the pupil in such a way that knowledge is transmitted to the mind of the pupil who, in these stories, is in urgent need of the teaching. This realization, sometimes called a transmission, is Kill Bill’s second major plot point, and the moment of transformation comes about when Beatrix recalls and actualizes obscure teachings passed to her by kung-fu master Pai Mei. This sequence is entitled “OK Pai Mei, Here I Come” on the DVD version, a designation that suggests not merely that the flashback is exposition intended for the audience, but that Beatrix herself has experienced its contents directly as a transmission.
The warrior was now interred and alone with her True Enemy: Herself. She lay beneath the earth, trapped there with the Poison called Doubt. Recollecting the teachings of kung-fu Master Pai Mei, who had replaced the corrupt Bill as her spiritual guardian, she recalled the link between No Self (egolessness) and the Fearlessness that is the antidote to Doubt. Realizing these teachings directly, she conquered doubt and applied them successfully to escape the Lord of Death.
The wisdom of Pai Mei and the concept of No-Self
Pai Mei is a master of kung-fu, and he teaches Beatrix far more than how to break a piece of wood. Many readers may not be familiar with the origins of kung-fu. According to the Shambhala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen, “Today many people—including Westerners—associate the Shaolin monastery with the practice of kung-fu, a form of ch’i-kung that is often misunderstood as a combat sport though it was originally a form of spiritual training. According to legend, kung-fu was developed by Buddhist monks of Shaolin monastery.” Close observers may recall that Bill’s anecdote about Pai Mei concerns the crotchety sage’s encounter with a Shaolin monk. The teachings of Pai Mei are Zen teachings, unless Pai Mei is teaching a kind of kung-fu that no one else has ever taught. The kentsui or “tongs and hammer” approach Pai Mei employs to train Beatrix is “not for the faint-hearted. This frequently harsh-seeming way of training is, however, an expression of great compassion on the part of the master, who through it helps his students to realize their deepest potential and to progress as far as it is possible for them on the path to awakening.”
The histories of the martial arts, the samurai, and Zen Buddhism have been inextricably linked for centuries. Unless the mind is as fit as the body, practice of a discipline—be it Kung Fu, Bushido or The Code of the Samurai—is corrupted by ego. The martial arts are psychological disciplines that lead gradually to the attainment of physical mastery, which is why martial artists must obey behavioral and ethical precepts. In order to perfect a martial art—and this point is illustrated by Pai Mei—one must extinguish the ego before perfecting the consciousness that swings the blade or pierces wood. Internal change is as much a prerequisite for physical mastery as it is for Enlightenment. That is why it is necessary for Beatrix to suffer such humiliation in order to acquire Pai Mei’s wisdom—so that she recognizes it is less painful to divest of rather than cling to attachment to self, or ego. The physical suffering she endures is an external manifestation of a process that is predominantly psychological.
What, specifically, does Pai Mei impart to Beatrix once he replaces the corrupt Bill as her True Master? The nasty and hilarious sarcasm of Pai Mei may obscure the practical relevance of his harsh lessons. During their first encounter, Pai Mei savages Beatrix. In this scene, and the first lesson that follows, Pai Mei locates within her the residue of the Five Poisons and takes every opportunity to fling them back in her face:
Pride: “Your Mandarin is terrible… You bray like an ass.” “I will communicate with you like I would a dog.” “Do you think you are my match?” “Your swordsmanship is amateur at best… Your so called kung-fu is really quite pathetic.” “Compared to me you’re as helpless as a worm fighting an eagle.”
Anger: “Your anger amuses me.”
Doubt: “The wood should fear your hand—not the other way around. No wonder you can’t do it—you acquiesce to defeat before you even begin.”
Ignorance: “You must be stupid, so stupid.” “I asked you to demonstrate what you know, and you did: not a goddamned thing!”
Attachment (to the concept of a “Self”): “[Your arm is] my arm now. I can do what I please.” “Since your arm belongs to me I want it strong.”
By eroding Beatrix’s self-concept, Pai Mei endeavors to lead Beatrix to question assumptions about her attachment to beliefs about herself—produced by the Five Poisons of ego—which she has not yet realized are impediments to spiritual evolution. The process of eradicating the poisons is difficult for most students to achieve quickly, even under the guidance of an accomplished master. But, clearly, Pai Mei labors incessantly to plant the seeds of transformation.
The physical skill Pai Mei most obsessively wishes Beatrix to master in phase one of the training is a maneuver used to defeat an enemy no further away than three inches. Practically speaking, no competent martial artist should ever permit an adversary to get this close. So what is Pai Mei really getting at? What enemies are so close? Enemies that reside within are so close. The Five Poisons are so close.
Later, when Beatrix finds it necessary to actualize this technique—in Kill Bill’s most vital and glorious metaphor—it is not against an external adversary but an existential one. She is trapped alone with herself in her grave. Just as the Pai Mei sequence is about his efforts to extinguish Beatrix’s doubt that she can master the technique, her adversary in the coffin is the internal enemy of Doubt. Doubt (Budd) put her there. Beatrix employs Pai Mei’s technique in the service of a metaphor about overcoming doubt in order to conquer a fear of death, of separateness, and it is the implementation of this technique that leads to Beatrix’s rebirth and literal re-emergence from the earth. This is a classic illustration of enlightenment: to overcome inner defilements in order to escape the cycle of birth and death, also known as the cycle of suffering, or samsara. It is in this sequence that Beatrix overcomes Doubt; this is why it becomes intriguing rather than disappointing that Beatrix does not personally disembowel Budd. In allegorical terms she has already extinguished Doubt, and in so doing sets the karmic seeds of both Budd’s and Elle’s destruction into motion.
What indications are there that Elle Driver represents Ignorance? Elle Driver would seem to represent ignorance based on gross characterization and the conspicuous—almost textbook—symbolism it accompanies. It’s important to establish here that in Buddhism ignorance—the antipode of wisdom—does not mean stupidity or lack of intellect, but describes a fundamental defect in the ability to perceive reality, to establish enlightened priorities, and—particularly—to comprehend the intricacies of karmic consequence.
Pabongka Rinpoche, in his famous Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand, describes ignorance as “not knowing, not seeing, not understanding… Ignorance is like blindness—not seeing the nature or mode of existence of something: the [causes of suffering], cause and effect… Ignorance is the root of all delusions.” Geshe Kelsang Gyatso in Understanding the Mind enumerates a twofold division of ignorance:
1. Ignorance of actions and their effects
2. Ignorance of emptiness
Gyatso draws from the Compendium of Abhidharma for a complete definition:
“A mental factor that is confused about the nature of an object and that functions to induce wrong awareness, doubt, and other delusions… For example, if we mistake a toy snake for a real snake we have an ignorance of the nature of that toy snake, and in dependence upon this we develop a wrong awareness that apprehends a real snake.” (198)
Parenthetically, perhaps the most frequently used illustration in all of Buddhist literature for the poison of ignorance is the proverbial coil of rope mistaken for a snake. Elle Driver mistakes a snake that could be deadly to her for a snake that is only deadly to Budd. Once the snake kills Budd, it doesn’t much concern her that it is still loose in the trailer; once she acquires the sword, she ignores the snake.
As this conceptualization of ignorance is rather complex to convey through the embodiment of a character, Elle Driver is transformed into a caricatured representation of ignorance—the metaphor of blindness is a classic illustration of ignorance in Buddhist parables. This inability to see is a metaphor for distortions created in the mind by a flood of transient desires, wants, hatreds, vendettas, and preoccupations that obscure wisdom. Elle Driver’s impulsiveness, idiosyncrasies, greed and fixation on gratification of short-term desires to the exclusion of considering long-term consequences are emblematic of ignorance. A few references to her being a blonde from California (code name: California Mountain Snake) are tossed in lest we miss this point. Furthermore, the circumstances by which Elle Driver became blind in one eye reveal that, when given the opportunity to overcome her ignorance, she rebelled against Pai Mei, an embodiment of Wisdom. Elle Driver not only lost her eye, but lost it when she mistook a wise master for a “miserable old fool” whose objective was to teach Elle Driver how to overcome an absurdly distended ego.
Ignorance, considered the Mother of all delusions because it gives rise to all the other poisons, is the most important and difficult of the five to eradicate. (Intriguingly, Thurman refers in the Vol. 2 Making Of featurette to Elle Driver—the “mother”—rather than Bill—the “father”—as her “arch nemesis.”) It is essential that Beatrix cross swords with Driver directly, as she is the most malignant enemy. Gyatso writes in Understanding the Mind that one certain “method for overcoming ignorance is to rely upon the [sword-wielding] Wisdom Buddha Manjushri” (p. 201).
Poison vs. Poison
A synergistic relationship develops between the embodiments of Doubt and Ignorance.
The ingenious interplay between Doubt and Ignorance is a rumination on cause and effect. Had Doubt and Ignorance not caused Beatrix such intense suffering, she would never have engaged Doubt, and Doubt would never have come into possession of the Sword of Wisdom. Because of its value, Doubt recognizes he can profit by its sale. Ignorance, who more than any poison needs the Sword of Wisdom, is too short-sighted (blind) and indifferent to consequences to deal fairly with Doubt. And so it goes.
Having at last reconnected with the principle of No-Self, the Warrior was now able to engage her remaining enemies. Ignorance’s craving for the Sword of Wisdom was so immense that the Warrior would not have to lift a blade in order to defeat Doubt; for, Ignorance undertook this task herself, using as her weapon the calling card from the Warrior’s own wicked past—the Black Mamba.
It is Elle Driver who, in Beatrix’s stead, manifests as the conqueror of Doubt, with the Black Mamba a symbolic representation of Beatrix’s karmic intervention. It is not a signal of Beatrix’s weakness that Ignorance defeats Doubt (or, as Andy Klein puts it in his liner notes to Vol. 2, an indication that she has been cheated out of a revenge that is rightfully hers), but a presage of her evolution. She has begun to use skillful rather than gross methods to defeat internal enemies. She is wise enough to allow contiguous poisons to prey upon one another. Furthermore, in killing Budd, Elle Driver creates the cause for her own destruction (at least for those of us who presume she is bitten by the Black Mamba).
In her conclusive encounter with Beatrix—who ascends to become the guardian of her own destiny upon learning of the death of Pai Mei—Driver is blinded entirely by Pai Mei’s successful disciple and reaps the suffering caused by her failure to consider the karmic consequences of permitting her lust for the sword to obscure her reason. The “ripening” of unanticipated consequences against the ignorant (literally, in this case, one who cannot see) is a motif commonly found in Eastern parables about the effect of ignorance on karmic fruition.
By plucking out Elle’s remaining eye and leaving her alive to die by causes Elle herself set into motion, Beatrix cements a pristine karmic metaphor:
The warrior then proceeded to engage her arch nemesis, Ignorance. She caught Ignorance—who was preoccupied with her new possession—off guard. However, in the hands of Ignorance a Sword of Wisdom is merely a piece of metal. Ignorance, characterized by the inability to see reality clearly, had already lost sight in one eye. Ignorance was so distracted by her desire for the Sword of Wisdom that the warrior was able to blind Ignorance entirely before leaving her debilitated and helpless in the company of the deadly Black Mamba. Ignorance’s own evil karma would manifest as the cause of her own undoing.
Now, let us back up for a moment and examine the larger picture.
Another important consequence of an allegorical interpretation is that it reconciles a structural abnormality that some spectators find unsettling. It seems clear from the way the saga is structured that Tarantino is less concerned in Vol. 2 with satisfying the spectator’s thirst for spectacle than he is in resolving abstruse but fundamental questions about how Beatrix is made whole as a result of her quest. Essayists and critics who accept Kill Bill at face value express bewilderment at the de-escalation in the intensity of primary action sequences.
One can sense Tarantino’s uneasiness in his decision to alter the chronology in Vol. 1 so that the confrontation with Vernita Green precedes rather than follows—as it does in narrative time—the stunning Showdown at the House of Blue Leaves. Thereafter, explosive action yields to a more circumspect and verbal exploration of circumstances and events. The anticipated encounter between Beatrix and Bill has about it an air of melancholy and has been described by some as anti-climactic: it delivers, for action enthusiasts, something less than is anticipated.
This decompression is only paradoxical if the assumption persists that Kill Bill aspires first and foremost to be an action film about a vengeance that must be sated with blood. It ceases to bewilder if Kill Bill is decoded as an allegory in which one measure of Beatrix’s evolution is her propensity to explore less obvious combat strategies as she draws nearer to completion of her goal.
One way the director evokes that Beatrix’s evolution is accumulative rather than climactic is by complicating her task in such a way that the heroine must increasingly rely on attributes—wisdom, self-awareness—other than sheer determination and tactical skill. Tarantino can make this point by reducing the stark contrast and directness of her confrontations, while gradually substituting them with more intricate dynamics that beg the very question of why he elects this approach. This question, it seems to be, would invariably return us to the crucial question of what is being accomplished by Beatrix in addition to the distribution of justice. This is answered in part by the realizations that occur to her along the way. Although she has learned many techniques from Pai Mei (the True Master in the film until Beatrix ascends to replace him), it is implied by the flashback that her encounter with Budd provides her the first real opportunity to implement (realize) the teachings and inhabit the state of egolessness that is their prerequisite. This sequence inaugurates a noticeable change in the level of insight she demonstrates in her dealings with remaining adversaries.
Within the framework of Buddhist allegory, Beatrix need not execute Doubt if Ignorance can be relied upon to do so. And Beatrix need not murder Ignorance if she has acquired the wisdom to recognize that Ignorance will defeat herself. Perhaps the very fact that Beatrix can sacrifice the pleasure of exacting corporeal revenge against her three remaining nemeses is its own implication that her path is something other than a straight line.
A graduation in skillful means
There is something noteworthy about the color scheme of Beatrix’s costumes that warrants comment. When the events depicted in the film are re-chronologized, one may notice that the general progression in the color of Beatrix’s costumes correlate, with the accomplishment of each successive feat, with the belt progression from novice to master of a martial artist. Beatrix is first a bride, then a hospital patient, and next the samurai practitioner taking custody of the Sword (white). After acquiring the sword, she is clothed in yellow. Once having overcome O-ren, she graduates to the orange (admittedly a brownish orange) color scheme. Throughout the Pai Mei flashback, Beatrix’s primary color is blue. She emerges from her tomb covered in dirt (brown). She remains brown for her encounters with Budd (Doubt) and Elle (Ignorance). She arrives for her conclusive engagement with Bill wearing a black leather jacket: White belt, Yellow belt, Orange belt, (Blue belt), Brown belt, Black belt. Admittedly, there are several discontinuities (she escapes from the hospital in Buck’s blue uniform and briefly wears her black jacket on other occasions), and it is of course possible this is serendipitous; even so, I find this interesting. Elle, Beatrix’s double, follows a looser but abbreviated progression, beginning the film as a nurse (white) and meeting Beatrix for their final encounter in black.
The flavor and temperament of her standoffs with the assassins gradually evolve as she ascends from one level of accomplishment to the next. A Buddhist scholar would almost certainly argue that this occurs because as each of the Five Poisons is extinguished, one of the five positive roots (indriya) arises in its stead.
According to the Shambhala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen, the removal of the “unwholesome roots… is necessary for the attainment of enlightenment.” Transcendence is achieved by developing the “five spiritual powers or faculties (bala) that make possible the attainment of enlightenment.” These faculties—Mindfulness, Effort, Faith, Wisdom and Samadhi—arise spontaneously with the demise of the concomitant poison they directly oppose. For this reason, the five attributes are sometimes known as “antidotes” to the poisons.
Effort (or Exertion) arises in the absence of Pride.
Mindfulness arises in the absence of Jealousy (or Anger).
Faith arises in the absence of Doubt.
Wisdom arises in the absence of Ignorance.
Samadhi—which is described as equanimity towards an object that would ordinarily inflame desire or hatred—is said to lead to the “elimination of passions”; therefore, it arises in the absence of Attachment.
The aptitude Beatrix demonstrates in each successive encounter would hypothetically evolve because as each poison is dispelled it is replaced by its opposing faculty (bala) or Positive Root (indriya).
A return to origins
A breakthrough occurs to Beatrix seconds before she confronts Elle Driver: she reacquires her birth name. Inside Budd’s trailer, Driver prematurely declares Beatrix dead. Then Tarantino deploys an unorthodox flashback to formally unveil the name he has taken pains to conceal whenever it is uttered by other characters in the film. The brief flashback depicts Beatrix as a pupil in a grammar school classroom where a teacher is taking attendance. When the teacher calls Beatrix’s birth name she raises her hand and says simply, “Here”—“Here” as in present. In other words, Beatrix Kiddo—as opposed to Black Mamba, The Bride, etc.—is once again present in Beatrix’s body. Kiddo, of course, is a name that evokes qualities such as purity, youth, naïveté, and innocence. It designates a pre-contaminated state and is the antipode of the toxic identity forced upon her by Bill: Black Mamba. The restoration of her name terminates a narrative cycle in which Beatrix Kiddo has been dependent upon others to assign her a name and identity. However, in this crucial pivot, she is regressed by Tarantino to an age prior to her contamination by false masters or the Five Poisons.
Let’s consider why her birth name might be returned at this point. In the prior sequence, Beatrix has overcome not only Doubt but death and the fear of death. She has accomplished this by internalizing the No-Self teachings of Pai Mei. Once that is accomplished, theoretically the false selves designated as Black Mamba, Arlene Machiavelli, The Bride and Jane Doe have been extinguished. In the absence of these false selves, which were byproducts of the very poisons she is methodically defeating, the only self remaining is the original self: Beatrix Kiddo. And because Ignorance is Beatrix’s arch nemesis, she requires at this moment the extraordinary aptitude of the warrior that only mastery of No-Self can guarantee. By reacquiring her true identity she separates herself from the mother and the father—an affirmation of self-sufficiency she must experience before she can defeat Ignorance and Attachment.
The flashback testifies to the audience that this internal evolution has occurred, while simultaneously implying that Beatrix’s quest is not merely one of taking lives but reacquiring things that were taken from her—including her unconditioned identity. It may sound like a paradox to assert that Beatrix recovers her true self, dependent upon achieving the principle of No-Self. This apparent contradiction is resolved in two ways. First, Beatrix has not consciously sought her True Self, even though she discovers it nonetheless. Her immediate quest is to rid herself of the poisons that endanger her life—those five characteristics that have been acquired through the process of conditioning and that have egregiously betrayed her. Because the poisons are the constituents of ego, as they are extinguished the ego perishes as well. What is left is the true self. Secondly, No-Self does not mean the absence of a Self, nor is it a denial of existence; rather, it describes the state of every human being in the absence of the ego and the distortions produced by ego. According to Buddhism, we acquire rather than are born with these distortions, so another way of describing No-Self is as that state of being we all inhabit prior to negative social conditioning that gives rise to ego, its subsidiary poisons, and the fear and neuroses they produce. What could be a more appropriate name for one who inhabits that state than Kiddo?
Practically speaking, the audience knows from the prologue of Vol. 2 approximately what the outcome of Beatrix’s odyssey will be. The flashback and restoration of the birth name serves the purpose of cueing the audience that the outcome is less important than an understanding of why these victories are necessary and possible. The film contains clues, like this one, that strongly indicate that her conquests are contingent upon some internal transformation that is difficult to apprehend in the absence of these cues. The classroom flashback is one example of a cue that helps to exteriorize this concept of Beatrix’s quest as incrementally transformative. Her acquisition of her true name at this awkward moment, when its revelation is bracketed from the frantic action that surrounds it, is not likely to be intended merely as a joke.
Beatrix, who has obtained the Sword of Wisdom in order to defeat delusions that plague her, overcomes Pride, Anger and Doubt. At this juncture, Beatrix reacquires her birth name, defeats Ignorance, and sets aside the Sword of Wisdom. The implication is that Beatrix, by the time of her encounter with Bill, is already enlightened. When she visits with Bill, she does so as a liberated version of her innate self—patient rather than furious, meek rather than proud, faithful rather than doubtful, and wise rather than ignorant. In fact, she even seems to have overcome attachment prior to the final confrontation, most probably because by defeating Ignorance—the Mother of all delusions and Beatrix’s “arch nemesis”—she has severed the roots of its subsidiary poisons. At this evolved level, Beatrix is able to engage her pernicious rival in a method so subtle that it disappoints viewers hoping for a spectacular altercation.
Attachment: a kindly extinction
“Thus, an excessive love for anything will cost you dear in the end.”
—Lao Tzu, Tao Teh Ching, chapter 44
“Swordsmanship agrees with Buddhism and is in accord with Zen in many ways. It abhors attachment.”
—Kanzan Sato, The Japanese Sword
Of the five assassins, it is Bill who most closely resembles Attachment. Attachment is a fear of, or aversion to, being separated from an object of desire. Pabongka Rinpoche writes in Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand, “When, for example, one wants to look at an object, touch it, and so forth, a corner of one’s mind craves and clings to this object of one’s attachment; the attachment then spreads and is difficult to remove… The lasso of craving and attachment confines you to samsara’s prison.”
Attachment has a dark side. It is not merely a desire to unite with an object of desire, but an obsessive preoccupation with an object of desire that cannot be obtained. It is Bill’s attachment to Beatrix that leads him first to desire her and later to wish to slaughter her. It is Bill’s attachment to Beatrix that causes him to rescind instructions that Elle murder her in the hospital, and then to be obsessed with her whereabouts but ambivalent about whether he wants to murder or reunite with her.
The next and final step in Beatrix’s evolution, if Kill Bill is truly about progressive, redemptive enlightenment, must logically involve her use of a positive antidote—compassion, kindness, understanding, humility, faith, or some combination of all five—rather than a poison, to exterminate the last remaining defilement. This is precisely what she does with respect to Bill, whom she will meet not with enmity but mercy. Indeed, the most remarkable feature of her final encounter with Bill is the complete absence of rage.
Now only the poison of Attachment remained. No longer was there any need for the warrior to wield the Sword of Wisdom; for, she had acquired wisdom of her own by defeating Ignorance. Attachment would have to be dealt with cautiously. Attachment, as is its nature, attempted to manipulate the warrior’s emotions by arousing her sentimentality, weakening her resolve, distorting her beliefs and undermining her self-confidence. Attachment even dangled the warrior’s lost child—previously feared unrecoverable, and now so desperately sought—before her very eyes. But the warrior, having vanquished her pride, anger, doubt and ignorance, was invulnerable to manipulation by flattery, empty promises and appeals to her nostalgia. Pride had been replaced by humility, anger by compassion, doubt by conviction and ignorance by wisdom. That Attachment was in possession of the warrior’s child only fortified her belief that to spare Attachment would be folly. However, she had evolved beyond the impulse to destroy Attachment with violence.
The most profound aspect of this sequence is not Beatrix’s confrontation with Bill but her recognition that BB is alive. Indeed, the most heart-wrenching moment in the film is when Beatrix first sets eyes upon her child. It is overwhelming in any context, but what does it mean within the framework of allegory? Prior to this revelation, Beatrix was certain her child had been destroyed by the Five Poisons. After defeating four of the five, she reawakens to the truth that it is very much alive. The poisons can obscure her access to, but not destroy, the child. Now, Attachment holds the child hostage but, because this is Attachment, the incarceration looks approximately like a father’s love for his child. Furthermore, it makes perfect sense that the child would be a product of Beatrix and Attachment.
In the scenes that follow, Bill subtly attempts to reverse the progress Beatrix has made by convincing her she still is, and will always be, Black Mamba, and that Black Mamba, deep down, is still attached to Bill and needs him to survive. Attachment literally uses attachment as a rationale for why his life should be spared. His desperate interrogation of Beatrix nearly calls overt attention to the possibility of the film as allegory by provoking the viewer to speculate as to why it might be the case that Beatrix is neither defensive in the face of his manipulations, nor feels remorse for her recent killing spree. The interesting answer is not that revenge feels good—because this is not conveyed although it is presumed to be true—but that there is something necessary about these killings beyond the satiation of justice. Otherwise, the story of Kill Bill would unfold in a very different way and would not leave most spectators with the sense that it is a story of change.
First, her confession that murdering these enemies felt good does not shame her or arouse suspicions about her morality because Tarantino has established that these killings are necessary. Why should Beatrix be expected to feel morally neutral about saving her own life, whether we engage Kill Bill literally or as allegory? There is no reason to believe that these assassins will ever stop trying to murder Beatrix unless she reconciles with Bill—and that is an impossibility. Bill and his conspirators represent an imminent threat to her existence in any context.
Second, it is the nature of successful conditioning that an individual, once conditioned, is no longer able to distinguish between impulses that are a product of that conditioning and impulses that are not. Although Beatrix has acquired wisdom, she still faces a formidable poison that is the relic of a complicated emotional history and who, like her, lays claim to the child. In spite of this, she appears to experience virtually no ambivalence, and Bill cannot induce or trigger the reemergence of conditioning that has been destroyed.
One senses that in this sequence Beatrix is humoring Bill; there is no doubt in her mind as to his fate, but she nevertheless decides to play along in order to gain insight into her attachment to Attachment. Whether we find Bill’s presentation charismatic, clever, or simply pathetic, we glimpse why Beatrix could once have found him overwhelming and the emotions he provoked intense and contradictory. He is guilty of many evil deeds, but he is himself wounded, needy, even pitiable. The more powerful Beatrix becomes, the more transparent and helpless Bill seems.
The allegorist need be less vexed by this scene, for Bill is an internal aspect of Beatrix—the most conflicted voice in her head—and he is an adaptive mechanism striving to convince Beatrix that they are inseparable and that she needs him to survive, when the truth appears to be the complete opposite.
Even the things Beatrix may dislike about herself once ostensibly served some purpose, and eradicating her conditioning and entrenched defense mechanisms is a process fraught with ambiguity, perhaps even the appearance of hypocrisy.
At one time, Beatrix may have believed she needed Bill to survive, but she is ready to be rid of him and, in a sense, she has already destroyed him. For this reason, Beatrix is indifferent to Bill’s appeal for clemency. If the climax seems asymmetrical, it is because there is nothing substantive to discuss and no surprise in store. Beatrix does not demonstrably vacillate in her decision to do what she must. Bill is presenting his last and best case to someone who cannot be convinced. Once Beatrix ceases to believe Attachment can exist without her cooperation—that it is a relic of vanquished ego—there is no necessity for reciprocal violence. A projection cannot fight back. Conflict becomes not only irrelevant but impossible.
No less interesting is that Bill ultimately accepts these new conditions. Beatrix has acquired the wisdom that renders Bill powerless, and once his feeble attempts to reacquire dominance vaporize, he capitulates. What recourse does a figment of the imagination have against the mind that creates it? Bill only had power over Beatrix because she permitted him to; it has been revoked. He is panicking. She treats him with dignity because he is her creation.
The fact that Beatrix is so unmoved by Bill’s appeal to her emotions is perhaps the best evidence that exists in Kill Bill that Beatrix has changed. It may also be the reason that many viewers sense that something momentous has transpired even though it is confirmed in the vaguest terms possible: by the absence of conflict. Recognizing his irrelevance, Bill—the last of the Five Poisons—consents to be put out of his misery. Because Beatrix is bidding farewell to a powerless delusion initially established within herself for some purpose that is no long served, rather than battling an extrinsic monster, she derives no visceral gratification from his destruction. Bill, a vestigial aspect of Beatrix’s false Self, dies of a broken heart because, like Puff the Magic Dragon, he recognizes he is no longer necessary to his Maker who has outgrown him. Beatrix, who in the prior sequence has learned of Pai Mei’s death, is the ascended New Master, the New Maker.
It is a stroke of metaphorical genius that Bill is felled when his heart explodes at the mere touch of five precisely-placed fingers. This one final touch is necessary to release attachment forever. Each finger represents one of the Five Poisons, and it is a deadly maneuver she only employs to rid herself of the fifth, final and most paradoxical delusion. It is almost as if she cannot use this temperate, almost courteous technique until she has vanquished Ignorance, the Mother of delusions, and experienced the direct realization of the No-Self teachings of Pai Mei. Having completed these tasks, she evolves beyond emotionalism, because wisdom rather than ego demands Bill’s death. There is no private thirst to be quenched, merely a task to be consummated.
In the context of allegory, redemption is a natural consequence of Beatrix’s journey. By extinguishing the delusions that corrupted her and caused her prolonged suffering, Beatrix—by innuendo—does repudiate her past in a manner far more effective than trying to reinvent, suppress or deny it, as she does prior to the wedding rehearsal massacre. Her story becomes one of active engagement with aspects of herself she disdains, the destruction of which she undertakes to become a better and more independent person. Her unanticipated reward is the recovery of her lost child.
From Beatrix’s perspective, her encounter with Bill is reminiscent of a sequence in Scorsese’s Kundun in which the young Dalai Lama comes to recognize that his ire towards a Chinese general he feels he ought to despise is inappropriate, because the general is not inherently sinister, but merely a flawed, fearful and insecure human being. When the Dalai Lama’s empathy intrudes upon his outrage, the effect is one of poignancy; and the wisdom that leads to this epiphany is offered as evidence of his spiritual evolution. Furthermore, Buddhism teaches that humans owe a debt of gratitude to their enemies, who are in a sense more precious than friends because without them there could be no opportunity to overcome the poisons produced by the fiery emotions they provoke. They function—like Green, O-ren, Budd, Elle and Bill—as catalysts for personal transformation. Beatrix may finally understand that it is precisely Bill’s possessive pathology that made her transformation possible. She derives no pleasure from murdering him, although it must be done. Therefore, it is presented as a merciful euthanasia.
She engaged him for the final time. Attachment, desperate for a stay of execution, tried to seduce the warrior back to the Dark Side. Attachment strove to convince the warrior that she needed him to survive, was inherently evil and could never reclaim her Lost Child because there had never been anything pure and uncontaminated about her. But his words were wasted on the warrior, and once Attachment recognized that he was impotent in the face of her newly-perfected wisdom, the emotion of his primary delusion was turned against himself. His heart exploded at the mere touch of her hand, and he was vanquished.
When this last of the Five Poisons was defeated, the warrior was reunited with her lost child. Her quest was finished.
The estranged child represents Beatrix’s Buddha—thus, BB. Beatrix’s child, or Buddha Nature, is rejoined with Beatrix once she disposes of these five symbolic adversaries and their minions who are the proximate cause of their estrangement. Like the spiritual Path itself, the destination is unclear until the journey is made; therefore, Beatrix is deprived of a direct knowledge that her child is alive until she is sufficiently awake to perceive that its recovery is within her grasp.
Names and reunion with the child
BB: “I waited a long time for you to wake up, Mommy.”
Why does Tarantino find it important to conceal Kiddo’s true name from his audience when there is no apparent payoff when it is divulged? Is this just a joke or homage to antecedents, or is there a thematic significance? In Zen Buddhism, once a Master is acquired the pupil is given a new name. These are the master’s duties as described by Master Jiyu-Kennett in Zen is Eternal Life:
“The first master is regarded as the trainee’s “father” in Buddhism since he gives him birth in the family of the Buddhas at ordination, a new name in religion and the opportunity to be set free of the world of samsara. It is the first master’s duty to teach his new disciple the scriptures, to watch and correct his morals in accordance with the Precepts and to feed, clothe and otherwise watch over his welfare, as a parent watches over a child, providing him with financial aid at all times.”
Bill, whom Beatrix introduces to fiancée Tommy as her father, fulfills one of these obligations but clearly has failed on the rest and severely transgressed the parameters of the master/pupil relationship. In Kill Bill, Beatrix is renamed by a corrupt Master who absconds first with her birth name and then her child. Beatrix Kiddo’s full name is formally revealed to the audience as Beatrix conquers ignorance. From the moment Ignorance is defeated, there is no uncertainty in Beatrix’s mind that she will or can defeat Attachment; indeed, Tarantino permits her to assure the spectator directly how this encounter will end in the prologue that opens Vol. 2. Since the path to Enlightenment is traditionally described as a process not of augmentation but peeling away layers to reveal the original self, the young child is often a metaphor for the innate, pre-conditioned Self. Zen Master Jiyu-Kennett writes in Roar of the Tigress:
“You built [the wall]: you pull it down. You made the mess of you: you have to clean it up. If the pond is muddy and you can’t see the moon of Zen, it is because you polluted it… Buddha tried all sorts of ways; He had to go back to the naïve mind of the child to find the purity and the stillness, and the iron, with which to live life. And when you realize the true extent of this purity and stillness, you realize your position in the scheme of things and you know the awe-fullness of the Unborn.”
Master Jiyu-Kennett, in Zen is Eternal Life, speaks directly of how emulating the Lord of Wisdom on the path to enlightenment results in a return to the pure state of the child:
“To those who realize the heart of Manjusri [i.e., wisdom] not only is duality transcended into unity but the very unity itself is also transcended and the truth of Meister Eckhart’s words proved for all time: “And a man shall be free, and as pure as the day prior to his conception in his mother’s womb, when he has nothing, wants nothing and knows nothing.”
By divesting herself of all but the final poison, and then focusing on her Buddha nature, Beatrix has reacquired “the naïve mind of the child.” In fact, it is wonderful that the child addresses the mother directly, like some still-small voice formerly inaudible but perennially residing within. When the child and mother speak, this is like Beatrix having a dialogue with her long-lost self. The child tells Beatrix that she has waited patiently to be rediscovered.
One might then ask if there is any significance to other designations within the film. The initials that denote her proposed task are KB (Kill Bill) while Beatrix’s are BK, so the revelation of her true name marks the inversion of this designation of her task—it suggests, perhaps, that something malignant has been reversed, and something pure restored. Or, possibly, Kiddo’s initials could stand first for “Kill Buddha.” At the closure of the Path to Enlightenment observable phenomena are revealed to be empty of intrinsic existence—all phenomena, including the Buddha. That is why it is said—and a voice over narration by Hattori Hanzo early in the film is an explicit variant on this famous saying—that an enlightened individual meeting the Buddha on the final stage of the path must symbolically “kill” him and disable a reliance on his teachings. Beatrix, too, murders her first master, her “father” and a false Buddha, at the culmination of her path to enlightenment.
In Kill Bill, “Kill Bill” becomes a euphemism for the eradication of internal enemies in order to effectuate a lasting disposition, as opposed to a series of perfunctory and transitory changes. The murder of the so-called defilements is not a task separate from reconstituting her pre-contaminated nature but the very path to liberation. When it is accomplished, Beatrix reclaims possession of the misplaced child that is a symbolic manifestation of her essential nature. Her triumphant restoration of this Original Self is affirmed by the reunion with her child, BB—Beatrix’s Buddha. But this is more than merely a reunion; it represents the symbolic rescue of her imperiled innocent nature from the clutches of delusory conditioning itself since, without the certainty this reunion evokes, there remains a danger that she might be re-conditioned. By taking custody of her innate self, Beatrix—who has already escaped death twice—irrevocably shatters the cycle of conditioned existence.
A Zen allegory in context
Consider if you will that the concept, characters and story of Kill Bill were not conceived by Tarantino alone. This saga was the product of an ongoing and lengthy collaboration between Tarantino and Uma Thurman, who is the daughter of Robert Thurman, the first endowed chair in Indo-Tibetan Buddhist studies in the United States and widely regarded as America’s preeminent Buddhist and most esteemed Buddhist author and scholar. Hatched during the 1993 filming of Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill evolved over a period of ten years. Is it inconceivable that, under these circumstances, a film in which Zen-laden themes are ubiquitous could entirely escape evoking spiritual principles, either because they were placed there intentionally or seeped in by cultural osmosis? Does Thurman’s contribution at the conceptual level make this any more likely?
An obvious question arises: Is Uma Thurman Buddhist? The boilerplate biography available all over the Web affirms that Uma and her brothers were “raised in the Buddhist faith.” We are assured by the Celebrity Babes Web site that “[because] her father was a Buddhist monk, Uma was influenced by the Buddhist mindset of free-thinking from a very young age and is highly respected within the film world for her continued practice.” The biography at Platinum-Celebs.com is even more direct: “Uma Thurman, along with her three brothers, were raised in the Buddhist faith… Uma’s father was a personal friend of the Dalai Lama. She is Buddhist.” Thurman’s name certainly appears on a large number of lists—some of them admittedly suspect—of celebrity Buddhists, including one at E-Sangha.
How convenient it would be to stop there and rest my case; unfortunately, ambiguity is reintroduced as we consider this next quotation, extracted from the November 1995 edition of Cosmopolitan Magazine, from Ms. Thurman herself:
“I grew up in a mostly Buddhist environment. My father, when very young, was the first American to be ordained as a Buddhist monk. He now teaches Indo-Tibetan studies at Columbia University and is regarded as this country’s foremost authority on Buddhism. When the Dalai Lama comes to America, it’s my father who is his host. When asked if I consider myself Buddhist, the answer is, Not really. But it’s more my religion than any other because I was brought up with it in an intellectual and spiritual environment. I don’t practice or preach it, however. But Buddhism has had a major effect on who I am and how I think about the world.”
Very intriguing, but hardly a bull’s eye. Yet it is fascinating that there is this subtle—yet quintessential—disagreement between Thurman and Tarantino over the ultimate meaning of Kill Bill.
If indeed Tarantino should wholly disavow any deeper readings, we are left to ponder whether no such reading exists, or whether Thurman herself may have consciously or unconsciously steered Kill Bill in the direction of meaning and redemption. In the context of a film in which her character is victimized, brutalized and degraded, Thurman’s insistence that Kiddo’s suffering occurs for some purpose more profound than vengeance alone may constitute the sweetest revenge of all. And would it not be interesting if the collaborator she exacts it against is completely unaware that his playful homage has been transformed into spiritual allegory without his consent?
Cleary, Thomas (translator). Zen Essence: The Science of Freedom. Shambhala Publications. 1989.
Gyaltsab, Zhechen, et al. Path of Heroes: Birth of Enlightenment. Dharma Publications. 1995.
Gyatso, Geshe Kelsang. Understanding the Mind. Tharpa Publications. 1997.
Jiyu-Kennett, Reverend Master. Roar of the Tigress. Shasta Abbey Press. 2000.
Jiyu-Kennett, Reverend Master. Zen is Eternal Life. Shasta Abbey Press. 1999.
King, Winston L. Zen & The Way of the Sword: Arming the Samurai Psyche. Oxford University Press. 1993.
Lao Tzu. Tao The Ching. Translated by John C.H. Wu. Shambhala Publications. 1989.
Pabongka Rinpoche. Liberation in the Palm of your Hand. Wisdom Publications. 1997.
The Shambhala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen. Shambhala Publications. 1991.
Sato, Kanzan. The Japanese Sword. Kodansha International. 1983.
Stevens, John. The Sword of No-Sword. Shambhala Publications. 1984.
Suzuki, D. T. Zen and Japanese Culture. Princeton University Press. 1959.
Zenji, Koho. Soto Zen. Shasta Abbey Press. 2000.
Love Before the Virus: Arthur J. Bressan Jr.’s Newly Restored Passing Strangers
The film’s characters are simultaneously horny and melancholic. They seem to want plenty of sex but also love.
One of the many pleasures to be had in watching Arthur J. Bressan Jr.’s newly restored Passing Strangers derives from its status as a historical document, or a piece of queer ethnography. The 1974 film allows us to see but also feel what life was like for gay men during what some have called the golden age of unbridled sex before the AIDS epidemic. Bressan Jr.’s portrait of this history is simultaneously attuned to its sartorial, mediatic, erotic, and affective dimensions, which may come as a surprise to those unaccustomed to explicit sexual imagery being paired with social commentary. Pornography and poetry aren’t counterparts here. Rather, they’re bedfellows, one the logical continuation of the other. Money shots, for instance, aren’t accompanied by moaning or groaning, but by the sounds of a violin.
The film’s characters are simultaneously horny and melancholic. They seem to want plenty of sex but also love. They devote so much of their lives to picking up strangers for sex, briefly and by the dozens, but not without secretly wishing that one of them might eventually stay. In this they may not differ much from their contemporary cruising heirs, though they do in their approach. It turns out that asking for a pen pal’s photo before a meetup in 1974 was considered creepy, and using Walt Whitman’s poetry as part of a sex ad was quite fruitful.
That’s exactly what 28-year-old Tom (Robert Carnagey), a bath-house habitué and telephone company worker living in San Francisco, does in the hopes of attracting something long term. The literal poetics of cruising speaks to 18-year-old Robert (Robert Adams), who responds to Tom’s newspaper ad right way. They meet in person and begin a love affair that could only be described as bucolic, including making love in fields of grass, on top of a picnic blanket, to the sound of waves and piano notes, and riding their bikes around town, much like the sero-discordant love birds of Paris 05:59: Théo & Hugo do after partaking in a gangbang. In retrospect, promiscuity gains the tinge of an obsessive auditioning of “the one,” who, in Bressan Jr.’s sensual fairy tale, is bound to come along and save us from ourselves.
Passing Strangers, which originally screened at adult cinemas and gay film festivals, recalls Francis Savel’s 1980 porno Equation to an Unknown in how smut and romance are so intimately bound in the forms of queer intimacy that the film depicts. This may also be due to the dearth of gay cinematic representation at the time—of gay men perhaps needing to dream of prince charming and of bareback anal sex in the same movie session, satisfying the itch for love and for filth in one fell swoop. But while Equation to an Unknown is completely wrapped up in a fantasy glow, there’s something more realistic, or pragmatic, about Passing Strangers.
Tom’s voiceover narration, which takes the shape of disaffected epistolary exchanges with his newfound beloved, orients us through the action. Motivations are explained. At times, however, Bressan Jr. indulges in experimental detours. These are precisely the most beautiful, and atemporal, sequences in the film—scenes where sex is juxtaposed with the sound of a construction site or the buzzing of a pesky mosquito, or one where an audience of orgy participants give a round of applause after somebody ejaculates. And the film’s surrendering to moments of inexplicable poesis reaches its apex in a shot of a boy in clown makeup holding his mouth agape. It’s an exquisitely brief shot, indelible in its strangeness.
Review: Tom Hanks Stubbornly Steers Greyhound into Sentimental Waters
With no vividly drawn humans on display, the action feels like rootless war play.1.5
With his almost supernatural likeability, impeccable reputation, and penchant for appearing in films rooted in American history, Tom Hanks has become a national father figure. The actor’s ongoing project, particularly urgent as we seek to redefine our relationship with our history and iconography, is to remind us of when the United States actually rose to the occasion. Unsurprisingly, this project often centers on World War II, one of the least controversial pinnacles of American collaboration on the world stage.
Continuing this tradition, Aaron Schneider’s Greyhound concerns the efforts to provide Britain with troops and supplies via Allied naval convoys on the Atlantic, which German U-boat “wolf packs” stalk and sink, attempting to break a Western blockade. Adapted by Hanks from C.S. Forester’s novel The Good Shephard, the film is a celebration of duty and competency that’s so quaint it’s almost abstract, as it arrives at a time of chaos, selfish and blinkered American governing, and a growing bad faith in our notion of our own legacy.
Set over a few days in 1942, the film dramatizes a fictionalized skirmish in the real-life, years-long Battle of the Atlantic. The American destroyer Greyhound, leader of a convoy that includes Canadian and British vessels, is commanded by Ernest Krause (Hanks), an aging naval officer with no experience in battle. Text at the start of the film explains that there’s a portion of the Atlantic that’s out of the range of air protection, called the Black Pit, in which convoys are especially vulnerable to the wolf packs. For 50 hours, Krause and his crew will be tested and severely endangered as they seek to cross this treacherous stretch of the sea.
This skeletal scenario has potential as a visceral thriller and as a celebration of Allied ingenuity and daring. Unfortunately, Hanks’s script never adds any meat to the skeleton. One can see Hanks’s passion for history in the loving details—in the references to depth charge supply, to windshield wipers freezing up, to the specific spatial relationships that are established (more through text than choreography) via the various vessels in this convoy. What Hanks loses is any sense of human dimension. In The Good Shephard, Krause is frazzled and insecure about leading men who’re all more experienced in battle than himself. By contrast, Krause’s inexperience is only mentioned in Greyhound as a testament to his remarkable, readymade leadership. The film’s version of Krause is stolid, undeterred, unshakably decent ol’ Tom Hanks, national sweetheart. As such, Greyhound suffers from the retrospective sense of inevitability that often mars simplified WWII films.
Greyhound’s version of Krause lacks the tormented grace of Hanks’s remarkable performance in Clint Eastwood’s Sully. This Krause also lacks the palpable bitterness of Hanks’s character in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, as well as the slyness that the actor brought to both Spielberg’s Catch Me if You Can and Bridge of Spies. In Greyhound, Hanks falls prey to the sentimentality for which his detractors have often unfairly maligned him, fetishizing Krause’s selflessness in a manner that scans as ironically vain. As a screenwriter, Hanks throws in several writerly “bits” to show how wonderful Krause is, such as his ongoing refusal to eat during the Greyhound’s war with U-boats. (A three-day battle on an empty stomach seems like a bad idea.) Meanwhile, the crew is reduced to anonymous faces who are tasked with spouting jargon, and they are, of course, unquestionably worshipful of their commander, as are the voices that are heard from the other vessels in the convoy.
Schneider lends this pabulum a few eerie visual touches, as in the slinky speed of the German torpedoes as they barely miss the Greyhound, but the film is largely devoid of poetry. The stand-offs between the vessels are competently staged, but after a while you may suspect that if you’ve seen one torpedo or depth charge detonation you’ve seen them all. With no vividly drawn humans on display, the action feels like rootless war play. In short, Greyhound takes a fascinating bit of WWII history and turns it into a blockbuster version of bathtub war.
Cast: Tom Hanks, Karl Glusman, Stephen Graham, Elisabeth Shue, Tom Brittney, Devin Druid, Rob Morgan, Lee Norris, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Maximilian Osinski, Matthew Zuk, Michael Benz Director: Aaron Schneider Screenwriter: Tom Hanks Distributor: Apple TV+ Running Time: 91 min Rating: 2020 Year: PG-13
Review: The Beach House’s Moodiness Is Dissipated by Shaky Characterization
The character drama becomes afterthought as it’s superseded by action.2
Michael Crichton’s 1969 novel The Andromeda Strain, in which a satellite crashes to Earth with an alien virus on board, is an expression of Space Age anxieties, about how the zeal to reach the stars could have unintended and dangerous consequences. In Jeffrey A. Brown’s The Beach House, something lethal instead rises from the depths of the ocean, a kind of “alien” invasion coming up from below rather than down from the cosmos, better reflecting the environmental anxieties of our present day. It still feels like comeuppance for human hubris, but this time in the form of intraterrestrial, not extraterrestrial, revenge.
The potentially extinction-level event is played on a chamber scale as domestic drama. Emily (Liana Liberato) and Randall (Noah Le Gros) are college sweethearts who go to his family’s beach house during the off-season, in a seemingly abandoned town, to work on their personal problems. They’re unexpectedly joined there by Mitch (Jake Weber) and Jane (Maryann Nagel), old friends of Randall’s father, and the four agree to have dinner together. It’s then that Emily, an aspiring astrobiologist, conveniently provides some context for what’s about to happen, as she makes reverential conversation at the table about the mysterious depths of the sea and the sometimes extreme conditions in which new life can be created and thrive.
That night, while tripping balls on edibles, the couples look out and marvel at the sparkling, purple-tinged landscape outside their beach house. (The smell is less gloriously described as being like that of sewage and rotten eggs.) It’s not a hallucination, though, because whatever ocean-formed particulate is turning the night sky into a psychedelic dreamscape and the air cloudy is also making the characters sick. There’s some interesting and serendipitous overlap between the film’s central horror and our present Covid-19 crisis, as the malady seems to be airborne, affecting the lungs and making the characters cough. It also affects older people more quickly than the young, with the milder symptoms including exhaustion.
Brown emphasizes the oddness of nature with an eye for detail focused in close-up on, say, the eerie gooeyness of oysters, and by vivifying the film’s settings with bold colors: On the second night, the air glows mustard and red, recalling recent California wildfires. The ubiquitous haze also evokes John Carpenter’s The Fog and Frank Darabont’s The Mist, but other genre influences are also on display, from Cronenbergian body horror, as in the gory removal of a skin-burrowing worm, to zombie flicks, given the slowness of the hideously infected victims.
There’s not a lot of exposition about the illness, as Brown’s screenplay is primarily focused on Randall and Emily’s fight to survive the mysterious onslaught. But you probably won’t care if they do. The character drama becomes afterthought as it’s superseded by action. The Beach House had convincingly argued that these two people shouldn’t be together, that their relationship has long passed its prime. He mocks her plans for advanced study and calls her life goals bullshit, even though he has none himself; he suggests that they move into the beach house, to live in a state of permanent vacation, while he tries to figure out what life means. When she’s high and getting sick and asking him for help, he dismisses her, lest it harsh his mellow. But instead of engineering his downfall, Midsommar-style, Emily does everything she can in the last third to help save him. It feels sudden, unearned, and unconvincing—enough to make you root for the monsters from the ocean floor.
Cast: Liana Liberato, Noah Le Gros, Maryann Nagel, Jake Weber Director: Jeffrey A. Brown Screenwriter: Jeffrey A. Brown Distributor: Shudder Running Time: 88 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: The Old Guard Is a Would-Be Franchise Starter with No New Moves
Smartly prioritizing the bond of relationships over action, the film is in the end only somewhat convincing on both counts.2
Gina Prince-Bythewood’s The Old Guard is a modestly successful attempt to build a new fountain of franchise content out of a comic series with nearly limitless potential for spin-offs. The story kicks into motion with a team of four mercenaries with unique powers and an ancient bond setting off to rescue some kidnapped girls in South Sudan. Charlize Theron brings her customarily steely intensity to the role of the group’s cynical, burnt-out leader, Andy, who isn’t crazy about the idea since she doesn’t trust Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the ex-C.I.A. agent who hired them. Given how long it turns out that Andy has been doing this sort of thing, you would imagine that her comrades would listen.
The mission turns out to be a set-up, and the would-be rescuers are wiped out in a barrage of bullets. Except not, because Andy and her team are pretty much unkillable. So as their enemies are slapping each other on the back and conveniently looking the other way, the mercenaries haul themselves to their feet, bodies healing almost instantaneously, bullets popping out of closing wounds. Payback is swift but interesting, because for reasons likely having to do with their being many centuries old—the youngest, Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), fought for Napoleon—the four quasi-immortals like to use swords in addition to automatic weaponry.
Written with glints of pulpy panache by Greg Rucka, the comic’s originator, The Old Guard sets up a high-potential premise and proceeds to do not very much with it. Rucka’s conceit is that this tiny group are among the very few people on Earth to have been born essentially immortal. This can be a good thing, but it can also prove problematic, as it means that they watch everybody they know age and die—a trope that was already somewhat worn by the time Anne Rice used it throughout her novels about ever-suffering vampires.
The plot of the film does relatively little after the showdown in South Sudan besides introduce a new member of the mercenary team, Nile (KiKi Layne), establish that Andy is tiring of the wandering warrior life, and show the group plotting revenge on Copley only to have that turn into a rescue mission that conveniently brings them all back together again. As part of the run-up to that mission, new recruit Nile, a Marine who goes AWOL from Afghanistan with Andy after her fellow soldiers see her seemingly fatal knife wound magically heal and treat her as some kind of witch, is introduced to life as a nearly invincible eternal warrior.
That rescue plot is simple to the point of being rote. Billionaire Big Pharma bro Merrick (Harry Melling), seemingly made up of equal parts Lex Luthor and Martin Shkreli, kidnaps two of Andy’s team in the hope of harvesting their DNA for blockbuster anti-aging drugs. Unfortunately for the film, that takes two of its most personable characters temporarily out of action. Nicky (Luca Marinelli) and Joe (Marwan Kenzari) had their meet-cute while fighting on opposite sides of the Crusades and have been wildly in love ever since. After the two are captured and mocked by Merrick’s homophobic gunsels, Joe delivers a pocket soliloquy on his poetic yearning: “His kiss still thrills me after a millennium.” The moment’s romantic burn is more poignant by being clipped to its bare-minimal length and presented with the casual confidence one would expect from a man old enough to remember Pope Urban II.
In other ways, however, The Old Guard fails to explore the effects of living such lengthy lives. Asked by Nile whether they are “good guys or bad guys,” Booker answers that “it depends on the century.” While Rucka’s hard-boiled lines like that can help energize the narrative, it can also suggest a certain flippancy. When the film does deal with crushing weight of historical memory, it focuses primarily on Andy, who’s been around so long that her name is shortened from Andromache the Scythian (suggesting she was once the Amazon warrior queen who fought in the battle of Troy). Except for a brief flashback illustrating the centuries-long escapades of Andy and Quynh (Veronica Ngo) fighting for vaguely defined positive principles (one involved rescuing women accused of witchcraft), we don’t see much of their past. Similarly, except for Andy’s increasing cynicism about the positive impact of their roaming the Earth like do-gooder ronin, they seem to exist largely in the present.
That present is largely taken up with combat, particularly as Booker, Andy, and Nile gear up to rescue Nicky and Joe. Prince-Bythewood handles these scenes with a degree of John Wick-esque flair: Why just shoot a Big Pharma hired gun once when you can shoot him, flip him over, and then stab and shoot him again for good measure? However tight, though, the action scenes’ staging is unremarkable, with the exception of one climactic moment that’s so well-choreographed from an emotional standpoint that the impossibility of a multiplex crowd hooting and clapping in response makes the film feel stifled by being limited to streaming.
Smartly prioritizing the bond of relationships over action in the way of the modern franchise series—doing so more organically than the Fast and the Furious series but missing the self-aware comedic patter of the Avengers films—The Old Guard is in the end only somewhat convincing on both counts. That will likely not stop further iterations from finding ways to plug these characters and their like into any historical moment that has room in it for high-minded mercenaries with marketable skills and a few centuries to kill.
Cast: Charlize Theron, Matthias Schoenaerts, KiKi Layne, Marwan Kenzari, Luca Marinelli, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Harry Melling, Veronica Ngo Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood Screenwriter: Greg Rucka Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 118 min Rating: R Year: 2020
Review: We Are Little Zombies Is a Fun, Wildly Stylized Portrait of Grief
The film is a kaleidoscopic portrait of a world where emotions are accessed and revealed primarily through digital intermediaries.3
Makoto Nagahisa’s We Are Little Zombies follows the exploits of a group of tweens who meet at the funeral home where their deceased parents are being cremated. But, surprisingly, Hitari (Keita Ninomiya), Takemura (Mondo Okumura), Ishi (Satoshi Mizuno), and Ikiko (Satoshi Mizuno) are united less by sorrow and more by cool indifference, as they see their parents’ deaths as yet another tragedy in what they collectively agree is pretty much a “shit life.” As the socially awkward Hitari claims matter-of-factly in voiceover, “Babies cry to signal they need help. Since no one can help me, there’s no point in crying.”
Through a series of extended flashbacks, Nagahisa relates the kids’ troubled lives, never stooping to pitying or sentimentalizing them or their utter dismay with the adult world. The new friends’ deeply internalized grief and hopelessness are filtered wildly through a hyperreal aesthetic lens that’s indebted to all things pop, from psychedelia to role-playing games. It’s Nagashisa’s vibrant means of expressing the disconnect between the kids’ troubled lives and their emotionless reactions to the various tragedies that have befallen them.
With its chiptunes-laden soundtrack and chapter-like form, which mimics the levels of a video game, We Are Little Zombies will draw understandable comparisons to Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. But it’s Nagisa Oshima’s Three Resurrected Drunkards that offers a more precise analogue to this film’s provocative rhyming of stylistic zaniness and extreme youthful alienation. Oshima’s anarchically playful farce stars the real-life members of the Folk Crusaders as a disaffected group of rebellious musicians, and when the kids of We Are Little Zombies decide to form a band to express themselves, they even perform a bossa nova version of the Folk Crusaders’s theme song for the 1968 film. This and the many other cultural touchstones in We Are Little Zombies are seamlessly weaved by Nagahisa into a kaleidoscopic portrait of a world where emotions are accessed and revealed primarily through digital intermediaries, be they social media or a dizzying glut of pop-cultural creations.
Nagahisa’s aesthetic mirrors his main characters’ disconnect from reality, incorporating everything from stop-motion animation to pixelated scenes and overhead shots that replicate the stylings of 8-bit RPGs. At one point in We Are Little Zombies, an unsettling talk show appearance brings to mind what it would be like to have a bad acid trip on the set of an old MTV news program. Nagahisa accepts that the kids’ over-engagement with screen-based technology is inextricably embedded in their experience of reality and ultimately celebrates the sense of camaraderie and belonging that the foursome finds in pop artifacts and detritus. This is particularly evident once their band, the Little Zombies of the film’s title, starts to explore their antipathy toward and frustrations with a seemingly indifferent world.
The Little Zombies wield the same charming punk spirit as the film, and once instant fame reveals its viciously sharp teeth, Nagahisa doesn’t hold back from peering into the nihilistic abyss that stands before the kids. As in Three Resurrected Drunkards, We Are Little Zombies’s most despairing notes are couched in the distinctive language of pop culture. Hitari’s attempts to grab essential items before running away from the home of a relative (Eriko Hatsune) are staged as a video game mission. The band’s hit song—titled, of course, “We Are Little Zombies”—is an infectious, delightfully melodic banger all about their dispassionate existence. There’s even a fake death scene of the kids that, as in Three Resurrected Drunkards, effectively restarts the film’s narrative, allowing the characters to once again test their fate.
For all of this film’s reliance on the stylistic ticks of video games, its narrative arc isn’t limited to the typically linear journey embarked upon by many a gaming protagonist, and the foursome’s path leads neither to enlightenment nor even happiness per se. What they’ve discovered in the months since their parents’ deaths is a solidarity with one another, and rather than have them conquer their fears and anxieties, Nagahisa wisely acknowledges that their social disconnection will remain an ongoing struggle. He understands that by tapping into the unifying, rather than alienating, powers of pop culture, they’re better equipped to deal with whatever additional hard knocks that the modern world will inevitably throw their way.
Cast: Keita Ninomiya, Satoshi Mizuno, Mondo Okumura, Sena Nakajima, Kuranosukie Sasaki, Youki Kudoh, Sosuke Ikematsu, Eriko Hatsune, Jun Murakami, Naomi Nishida Director: Makoto Nagahisa Screenwriter: Makoto Nagahisa Distributor: Oscilloscope Running Time: 120 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Palm Springs Puts a Fresh Spin on the Time-Loop Rom-Com
The film smuggles some surprisingly bleak existential questioning inside a brightly comedic vehicle.3
The pitch for Palm Springs likely went: “Edge of Tomorrow meets Groundhog Day but with a cool Coachella rom-com vibe.” All of those components are present and accounted for in Max Barbakow’s film, about two people forced to endure the same day of a Palm Springs wedding over and over again after getting stuck in a time loop. But even though the concept might feel secondhand, the execution is confident, funny, and thoughtful.
Palm Springs starts without much of a hook, sidling into its story with the same lassitude as its protagonist, Nyles (Andy Samberg). First seen having desultory sex with his shallow and always peeved girlfriend, Misty (Meredith Hagner), Nyles spends the rest of the film’s opening stretch wandering around the resort where guests are gathered for the wedding of Misty’s friend, Tala (Camila Mendes), lazing around the pool and drinking a seemingly endless number of beers. “Oh yeah, Misty’s boyfriend” is how most refer to him with casual annoyance, and then he gives a winning wedding speech that one doesn’t expect from a plus-one.
The reason for why everything at the wedding seems so familiar to Nyles, and why that speech is so perfectly delivered, becomes clear after he entices the bride’s sister and maid of honor, Sarah (Cristin Milioti), to follow him out to the desert for a make-out session. In quick succession, Nyles is shot with an arrow by a mysterious figure (J.K. Simmons), Sarah is accidentally sucked into the same glowing vortex that trapped Nyles in his time loop, and she wakes up on the morning of the not-so-great day that she just lived through.
Although Palm Springs eventually digs into the knottier philosophical quandaries of this highly elaborate meet-cute, it takes an appealingly blasé approach to providing answers to the scenario’s curiosities. What initially led Nyles to the mysterious glowing cave in the desert? How has he maintained any semblance of sanity over what appears to be many years of this nightmare existence? How come certain people say “thank you” in Arabic?
This attitude of floating along the sea of life’s mysteries without worry parallels Nyles’s shrugging attitude about the abyss facing them. In response to Sarah’s panicked queries about why they are living the same day on repeat, Nyles throws out a random collection of theories: “one of those infinite time loop situations….purgatory….a glitch in the simulation we’re all in.” His ideas seem half-baked at first. But as time passes, it becomes clear that Nyles has been trapped at the wedding so long that not only has he lost all concept of time or even who he was before it began, his lackadaisical approach to eternity seems more like wisdom.
Darkly cantankerous, Sarah takes a while to come around to that way of thinking. Her version of the Kübler-Ross model starts in anger and shifts to denial (testing the limits of their time-loop trap, she drives home to Texas, only to snap back to morning in Palm Springs when she finally dozes off) before pivoting to acceptance. This segment, where Nyles introduces Sarah to all the people and things he’s found in the nooks and crannies of the world he’s been able to explore in one waking day, plays like a quantum physics rom-com with a video-game-y sense of immortality. After learning the ropes from Nyles (death is no escape, so try to avoid the slow, agonizing deaths), Sarah happily takes part in his Sisyphean games of the drunk and unkillable, ranging from breaking into houses to stealing and crashing a plane.
As places to be trapped for all eternity, this idyll doesn’t seem half bad at first. Barbakow’s fast-paced take on the pleasingly daffy material helps, as does the balancing of Milioti’s angry agita with Samberg’s who-cares recklessness. Eventually the story moves out of endlessly looping stasis into the problem-solution phase, with Sarah deciding she can’t waste away in Palm Springs for eternity. But while the question of whether or not they can escape via Sarah’s device for bridging the multiverse takes over the narrative to some degree, Palm Springs is far more interesting when it ruminates lightly on which puzzle they’re better off solving: pinning their hopes on escape or cracking another beer and figuring out how to be happy in purgatory. Palm Springs isn’t daring by any stretch, but it smuggles some surprisingly bleak existential questioning inside a brightly comedic vehicle that’s similar to Groundhog Day but without that film’s reassuring belief that a day can be lived perfectly rather than simply endured.
Cast: Andy Samberg, Cristin Millioti, J.K. Simmons, Peter Gallagher, Meredith Hagner, Camila Mendez, Tyler Hoechlin, Chris Pang Director: Max Barbakow Screenwriter: Andy Siara Distributor: Neon, Hulu Running Time: 90 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
Review: Hamilton Comes Home, Still Holding Conflicting Truths at Once
The show offers testimony to the power of communal storytelling, just as mighty on screen as on stage.3.5
The actual physical production of Hamilton has never been at the heart of the show’s fandom. Its lyrics have been memorized en masse, Hamilton-inspired history courses have been created across grade levels, and its references have invaded the vernacular, but, for most, Hamilton’s liveness has been inaccessible, whether due to geography or unaffordability. Hamilton the film, recorded over two Broadway performances in 2016 with most of the original Broadway cast, winningly celebrates the still-surprisingly rich density of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s score and the show’s much-heralded actors. But this new iteration is most stunning in its devotion to translating Hamilton’s swirling, churning storytelling—the work of director Thomas Kail and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler—to the screen.
Most films of live theater feel partial and remote. There’s usually a sense that with every move of the camera we’re missing out on something happening elsewhere on stage. The autonomy of attending theater in person—the ability to choose what to focus on—is stripped away. But instead of delimiting what we see of Hamilton, this film opens up our options. Even when the camera (one of many installed around, behind, and above the stage) homes in on a lone singer, the shots tend to frame the soloists in a larger context: We can watch Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.), but we can also track the characters behind him or on the walkways above him. Every shot is rife with detail and movement: the rowers escorting Alexander Hamilton’s (Miranda) body to shore, Maria Reynolds (Jasmine Cephas Jones) hovering beneath a stairway as Hamilton confesses his infidelities to Burr, ensemble members dancing in the shadows of David Korins’s imposing set. There’s no space to wonder what might be happening beyond the camera’s gaze.
Off-setting the cast album’s appropriate spotlight on the show’s stars, the film, also directed by Kail, constantly centers the ensemble, even when they’re not singing, as they enact battles and balls or symbolically fly letters back and forth between Hamilton and Burr. Audiences who mainly know the show’s music may be surprised by how often the entire cast is on stage, and even those who’ve seen Hamilton live on stage will be delighted by the highlighted, quirky individuality of each ensemble member’s often-silent storytelling.
Kail shows impressive restraint, withholding aerial views and shots from aboard the spinning turntables at the center of the stage until they can be most potent. The film also convincingly offers Hamilton’s design as a stunning work of visual art, showcasing Howell Binkley’s lighting—the sharp yellows as the Schuyler Sisters take the town and the slowly warming blues as Hamilton seeks his wife’s forgiveness—just as thoughtfully as it does the performances.
And when the cameras do go in for a close-up, they shade lyrics we may know by heart with new meaning. In “Wait for It,” Burr’s paean to practicing patience rather than impulsiveness, Odom (who won a Tony for the role) clenches his eyes shut as he sings, “I am inimitable, I am an original,” tensing as if battling to convince himself that his passivity is a sign of strength and not cowardice. When Eliza Hamilton (Philippa Soo) glances upward and away from her ever-ascendant husband as she asks him, “If I could grant you peace of mind, would that be enough?,” it’s suddenly crystal clear that she’s wondering whether taking care of Alexander would be enough for herself, not for him, her searching eyes foreshadowing her eventual self-reliance. And there’s an icky intimacy unachievable in person when Jonathan Groff’s mad King George literally foams at the mouth in response to the ingratitude of his colonies.
The production’s less understated performances, like Daveed Diggs’s show-stealing turn (also Tony-winning) in the dual roles of the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson and Renée Elise Goldsberry’s fiery embodiment (yes, also Tony-winning) of the shrewd, self-sacrificing Angelica Schuyler Church, benefit, too, from the way that the film’s pacing latches onto Miranda’s propulsive writing. In Jefferson’s return home, “What’d I Miss,” the camera angles change swiftly as if to keep up with Diggs’s buoyancy.
Despite Christopher Jackson’s warm and gorgeous-voiced performance, George Washington remains Hamilton’s central sticking point. While Jefferson receives a dressing down from Hamilton for practicing slavery, Washington, who once enslaved over 200 people at one time at Mount Vernon, shows up in Hamilton as a spotless hero who might as well be king if he wasn’t so noble as to step down. There’s a tricky tension at Hamilton’s core: Casting performers of color as white founding “heroes” allows the master narrative to be reclaimed, but it’s still a master narrative. For audiences familiar with the facts, the casting of black actors as slave owners (not just Jefferson) is an unstated, powerful act of artistic resistance against the truths of the nation’s founding. But for those learning their history from Hamilton, especially young audiences, they will still believe in Washington’s moral purity, even if they walk away picturing the first president as Christopher Jackson.
But Hamilton is complex and monumental enough of a work to hold conflicting truths at once. In attempting to recraft our understanding of America’s founding, it may fall short. In forcibly transforming the expectations for who can tell what stories on which stages, Hamilton has been a game-changer. And as a feat of musical theater high-wire acts, Miranda’s dexterity in navigating decades of historical detail while weaving his characters’ personal and political paths tightly together is matched only by his own ingenuity as a composer and lyricist of songs that showcase his characters’ brilliance without distractingly drawing attention to his own.
Dynamized by its narrative-reclaiming, race-conscious casting and hip-hop score, and built around timeline-bending reminders that America may be perpetually in the “battle for our nation’s very soul,” Hamilton, of course, also lends itself particularly easily to 2020 connections. But the greater gift is that Hamilton will swivel from untouchability as Broadway’s most elusive, priciest ticket to mass accessibility at a moment of keen awareness that, to paraphrase George Washington, history has its eyes on us. The show offers testimony to the power of communal storytelling, just as mighty on screen as on stage. That we are sharing Hamilton here and now offers as much hope as Hamilton itself.
Cast: Daveed Diggs, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Jonathan Groff, Christopher Jackson, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Leslie Odom Jr., Okieriete Onaodowan, Anthony Ramos, Phillipa Soo Director: Thomas Kail Screenwriter: Ron Chernow, Lin-Manuel Miranda Distributor: Disney+ Running Time: 160 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2020
Review: In Family Romance, LLC, Reality and Fantasy Affectingly Collide
Throughout, it’s as though Werner Herzog were more witness than author, simply registering Japan being Japan.3
Werner Herzog’s Family Romance, LLC presents Japan as a place where the technological follies of modernity that many see as embryonic in the West are allowed to blossom unabashedly. The Orientalism inherent to this myth, that of Japan as a high-tech dystopia where human alienation reaches its pathetic zenith, is somewhat masked here by the film’s style, which inhabits that strangely pleasurable cusp between fact and fiction. We are never quite sure of the extent to which situations and dialogues have been scripted and, as such, it’s as though Herzog were more witness than author, more passerby than gawker, simply registering Japan being Japan.
The film is centered around Ishii Yuichi, playing a version of himself, who owns a business that rents out human beings to act like paparazzi, family members, lovers, or bearers of good (albeit fake) news. One of his clients, for example, is a woman who wants to relive the moment when she won the lottery. We follow Ishii as he travels to his business calls, which may consist of going to a funeral home that offers coffin rentals by the hour for people to test out, or to a hotel where the clerks behind the helpdesk and the fish in the aquarium are robots.
The camera, otherwise, follows Ishii’s encounters with his 12-year-old “daughter,” Mahiro (Mahiro). The girl’s mother, Miki (Miki Fujimaki), has enlisted Ishii to play Mahiro’s missing father, who abandoned her when she was two, and make it seem as if he’s suddenly resurfaced. The film’s most interesting moments don’t arise from its largely obvious critiques of simulation, but from the human relationship between Ishii and Mahiro. In the end, the film’s smartest trick is getting the audience to genuinely feel for this young girl on screen, acting for us, all while scoffing at Ishii’s clients for scripting their own emotional experiences.
We know the relationship between Mahiro and Ishii to be false on multiple levels. They may not be professional actors, but they are very much acting, and their interactions nonetheless tap into something quite authentic and emotional. Although their kinship is an act of make-believe, it’s driven by similar malaises that plague “real” father-daughter relationships. Mahiro, who doesn’t meet Ishii until she’s a pre-teen and is presumably unaware that it’s all just an act, struggles to articulate feelings that overwhelm her. Asking for a hug from Ishii is a Herculean task for her. But granting her the hug is also a Herculean task for Ishii, who ultimately confesses to wondering whether his real family, too, has been paid by someone else to raise him. Must a father’s hug be so clinical even when he’s getting paid to do it?
Such moments as that awkward father-daughter hug, a scene where Mahiro gives Ishii an origami animal that she made for him (“It’s delicate, so be careful,” she says), and another where she confesses that she likes a boy all point to the ways in which feeling slips out of even the most perfectly scripted protocols. That’s a relief for the kind of society that Family Romance, LLC aims to critique, one where tidy transactions are meant to neuter the messy unpredictability of human interactions but fail. Emotion slips out despite diligent attempts to master it, forcing even those who stand to gain the most from hyper-controlled environments to eventually face the shakiness of their own ground. Ishii, for instance, is forced to reconsider his business model when Mahiro’s demand for love starts to affect him. Ishii’s fear that he may also have been swindled by actors posing as parents tells us that authors are subjects, too, and that the equation between reality and fantasy is never quite settled.
Cast: Ishii Yuichi, Mahiro, Miki Fujimaki, Umetani Hideyasu, Shun Ishigaki Director: Werner Herzog Screenwriter: Werner Herzog Distributor: MUBI Running Time: 89 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Force of Nature, Much Like Mel Gibson, Is an Absolute Disaster
The film presents its scattershot cop-movie tropes in earnest, as if, like hurricanes, they were natural, unavoidable phenomena..5
If cancel culture truly had the power its detractors ascribed to it, then Michael Polish’s Force of Nature would have probably never starred Mel Gibson. The film stars the one-time Hollywood idol as a trigger-happy retired cop who hurls insults like “cocksucker” at men who inconvenience him. By itself, casting Gibson as the kind of manic, violence-prone cop for which he was once known for playing speaks to the film’s defiantly conservative politics, its will to return to a cinematic era when violent white cops were viewed as good cops. But also having Gibson’s Ray toss out homophobic slurs almost turns this insipid action flick into a statement about Gibson himself, as if the actor’s own record of making such remarks should be viewed as the charmingly impolitic outbursts of an old-fashioned geezer.
Because Ray joins a multiethnic crew of good guys to save the day, we’re presumably meant to view his personality flaws as minor, the attributes of a classical cop masculinity that’s entered its dotage but ready to be awakened for one last shoot-out with big-city scum. The big city in this case is San Juan, Puerto Rico, which, as the film begins, is under siege by a hurricane. Set almost entirely in a cramped apartment building, Force of Nature is part Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, part The Raid: Redemption (or one of its many clones), attempting but failing to imitate both the former’s eccentric take on the clash of extreme personalities and extreme weather and the intensity of the latter’s kinetic, close-quarters action.
Despite being the biggest star on the bill, Gibson isn’t quite at the center of the narrative, even if the meaningless flash forward that opens Force of Nature, of Ray shooting at two figures in the rain, initially suggests otherwise. Ray plays second fiddle to Emile Hirsch’s point-of-view character, Cordillo, the San Juan police officer who refuses to learn a word of Spanish and might as well be wearing a MAGA hat. (“Where is el victim-o?” he asks regarding an incident at a supermarket early in the film.) Cordillo and his new partner, Peña (Stephanie Cayo), are assigned to help move San Juan’s residents to shelters, encountering Ray and his daughter, Troy (Kate Bosworth), at the apartment complex where Griffin (Will Catlett), Ray and Troy’s newly arrested neighbor, needs to feed his very hungry pet.
For those who’ve seen Netflix’s Tiger King, it will be clear from the 100 pounds of meat that Griffin intends to feed his pet that the man illegally owns some kind of wild cat. And if this offbeat scenario doesn’t elicit the laughs it may be aiming for, that’s at least in part due to composer Kubilay Uner’s score, which applies Wagnerian bombast to nearly every narrative event, as if it could will the paper-thin plot into some kind of significance. The tonal inconsistencies, however, aren’t confined to this clash between image and soundtrack. On a visual level, it’s difficult to know what to make of the scene in which Griffin’s pet, kept entirely off screen, drags Griffin into its pitch-black den and mauls him in front of a not-quite-horrified Cordillo, while a gang that Ray identifies as high-end burglars begins a raid of the complex. Neither funny nor suspenseful, it’s a bewildering mash of visual codes.
Led by a ruthless figure known as John the Baptist (David Zayas), the burglars first make an appearance in the second of the film’s two prologues, in which John kidnaps an elderly woman to get into her safety deposit box, before executing her as well as his accomplice in plain sight—a scene that somewhat belies Ray’s later in-the-know description of the gang as clever plotters. The nature of their interest in Ray, Troy, and Griffin’s apartment building is left vague until a late reveal, a nonsensically belated introduction of the story’s MacGuffin that contributes to the feeling of arbitrariness that pervades the film.
While Peña and Ray confront John and his crew, Cordillo and Troy go off to find medical supplies, along the way developing a thoroughly underwritten and ill-conceived romance; Troy is abruptly drawn to Cordillo after he shares his history of accidental violence against a former girlfriend (Jasper Polish). Meanwhile, the wounded Griffin is left under the watch of Paul (Jorge Luis Ramos), a German about whom multiple characters ask, in all sincerity, if he’s a Nazi, and based solely on his white hair and nationality—certainly not on any arithmetic, as the seventysomething man appears far too young to have been a Nazi Party member.
It would all be material for a parody of cheap-action-flick sensibilities: the preoccupation with Nazism, the hollow romance, the valorization of white male rage barely masked behind a rudimentary psychologism. Unfortunately, Cory M. Miller’s screenplay presents all these scattershot cop-movie tropes in earnest, as if, like hurricanes, they were natural, unavoidable phenomena. The truth, of course, is that Force of Nature, much like the consequences of the hurricane that clearly inspired it, is a man-made disaster.
Cast: Emile Hirsch, Mel Gibson, Kate Bosworth, David Zayas, Stephanie Cayo, Will Catlett, Jasper Polish, Jorge Luis Ramos Director: Michael Polish Screenwriter: Cory M. Miller Distributor: Lionsgate Running Time: 91 min Rating: R Year: 2020
Review: John Lewis: Good Trouble Places a Hero in Dialogue with the Past
The film is well-outfitted with telling, thematically rich shards of historical information.3
John Lewis isn’t easily rattled. As a nonviolent foot soldier for desegregation and voting rights in the 1960s, he was severely beaten on several occasions. As a U.S. representative since 1987, he’s contended with a Republican Party that has tacked steadily rightward. John Lewis: Good Trouble presents another, if much less demanding, test for the congressman: Watching his life unspool around him on three large screens in a darkened D.C. theater.
Dawn Porter’s authoritative documentary mixes contemporary and archival material, and the latter includes many rare images, including some that the 80-year-old civil rights pioneer himself had never seen. Porter and her crew decided to show their findings to the Georgia Democrat while simultaneously filming his reactions, and the emotions prompted by this experience are palpable but carefully modulated on his part. Like most successful politicians, Lewis knows how to stay on message, and it’s clear from the moments captured here that he long ago decided which of his private feelings would be elements of his public persona.
One example of this is Lewis’s story about his early desire to become a preacher. As a boy, he says, he would address the chickens on his sharecropper family’s Alabama farm but could never get them to say “amen.” Porter places this anecdote early in Good Trouble, amid comments from family members, so it plays like a revelatory glimpse at Lewis’s formative years. But the congressman, of course, began constructing his biography long before this particular documentary crew arrived. And Porter acknowledges this fact with a scene, toward the film’s end, where Lewis tells the story again during a get-together of former congressional staffers and it becomes clear that everybody in the room already knows it.
Good Trouble, which takes its title from Lewis’s advice to young activists to get into “what I call good trouble,” is partly a testimonial. It includes snippets of praise from Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and Bill and Hillary Clinton, as well as congressional new wavers Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who says she wouldn’t be where she is today without Lewis’s example. Yet the film also recalls moments when Lewis wasn’t in perfect sync with his allies, notably the bitter primary for the seat he now holds in Georgia’s 5th District. Lewis defeated Julian Bond by winning support of the district’s white voters, and by hinting that Bond had a drug problem. Earlier, Lewis had recoiled from the militancy of “Black Power” and lost his position in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.
Lewis doesn’t say much about these chapters in his life, just as he doesn’t reveal a lot when he gives tours of his homes in Atlanta and D.C. A widower, he seems to live alone, though a cat is glimpsed inside the Georgia house at one point. One of the documentary’s most personal stories, about his tearful reaction to the news that his great-great-grandfather registered to vote in 1867, is told not by the congressman but by cultural critic Henry Louis Gates Jr., who unveiled the voter card on the show he hosts, Finding Your Roots. Good Trouble is well-outfitted with such telling shards of historical information, and Porter skillfully fits them together, assembling her subject’s biography thematically rather than chronologically.
Thus, a section on the young Lewis’s battle for African-American suffrage naturally begins in the 1960s before leading to 2014, when a Supreme Court ruling undermined the Voting Rights Act, and ultimately to the 2016 and 2018 elections swayed by voter suppression. The effect is illuminating, if not especially visceral. When the filmmakers arranged this kind of “This Is Your Life” for Lewis, they may not have elicited as much emotion as they’d hoped from the congressman. But they did fashion a microcosm of what the entire Good Trouble shows: the present in dialogue with the past, and a hero in the context of a larger movement.
Director: Dawn Porter Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 97 min Rating: PG Year: 2020
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