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.
Review: Saudi Runaway Is a Raw and Immediate Chronicle of an Escape
Camera, character, and cameraperson are one throughout, and the effect is exquisitely suffocating.3.5
Susanne Regina Meures’s invitation into the filmic world of her exquisite Saudi Runaway is by way of a camera that moves as if attached to a body. It’s a mobility completely devoid of the vulgar familiarity of a GoPro, or the numb slickness of a dolly shot that only simulates the point of view of a character. We don’t yet know where the body is headed but we can feel its fear. Camera, character, and cameraperson are one here, and the effect is suffocating. We see people’s heads bare and covered. Our vision is fuzzy. Soon, though, the wind lifts what turns out to be a piece of a garment—the camera’s sartorial filter. We’re moving inside an abaya. That’s where we remain for most of the film: between the body of a young woman, Muna, plotting her escape from Saudia Arabia and the dark fabric of her garb.
The film’s handheld camera suggests a baby being held. Not just because of how tethered it often is to the cameraperson, but because our mostly hazy gaze suggests eyes just getting used to a terrifying world. By the time Muna tells us that she will try to record “everything” and that “it will be dangerous,” she’s stating the obvious. Though it pulsates with raw intimacy, Saudi Runaway does have its share of obvious elements, from the sound of music when we least need it, to one too many shots of a trapped bird, to Muna telling us, midway through the film, that “the majority of society is conservative.” But its conceptual device is so uncanny, so un-mediated by how Meures structures Muna’s original footage, that we can’t help but excuse the director’s attempts to turn the original fragments into a coherent narrative.
The camera in Saudi Runaway is so prosthetic, and its images all but birthed by Muna, that, at first, it’s difficult to accept that someone other than she is credited with directing the film. Must Westerners save brown women so that they can speak? However, Muna’s occasional prefacing of her murmured voiceover account with “Dear Sue” gives us a hint of a transnational sisterly collaboration. The epistolary layer of Saudi Runaway isn’t fully explained, a technique often used in the essay film genre that helps give a video-diary aesthetic a sense of depth while maintaining its mystery. Is Sue the director or an imaginary friend? Is Sue a rhetorical device like one of Chris Marker addressees in Sans Soleil? Is Sue actually listening?
The fact that this writer sat immediately in front of both Muna and Meures at the film’s Kino International screening at this year’s Berlinale made the experience of watching it all the more eerie. Our real-life escapee was clearly now safe and sound in Germany, reacting in real time—with self-conscious sighs and sad moans—to the presentation of her ordeal.
On screen, we learn that Muna isn’t allowed to leave her family home without being escorted by a male relative. That she will only be allowed to drive if her future husband allows her to. That her father keeps possession of her passport, which she can only renew with his approval. “Be obedient and everything will be fine” is the advice that Muna’s grandmother gives her.
All of the film’s faces, apart from Muna’s, are perpetually pixilated, reminding us that these are images captured without her family members’ consent. That betrayal and guilt might be prerequisites for deliverance. The pixilating effect also means Muna “covers” everyone else’s faces while liberating her own, her flight necessitating an exhilarating mix of precision, and risk, and anxiety. But, also, the anger of those she must dupe in order to leave them behind. “Do you really think you can go to paradise and leave me here in hell?” is Muna’s mother’s reaction to her daughter’s courage. Although with the benefit of hindsight, she eventually anoints Muna’s newfound independence with a WhatsApp voice message praising her. As if freedom were contagious, experienceable by proxy, or the sheer power of imagination.
Director: Susanne Regina Meures Screenwriter: Susanne Regina Meures Distributor: National Geographic Documentary Films Running Time: 88 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
Review: Swallow Is a Provocative Me Too Parable in Body-Horror Guise
Fortunately for the film, Carlo Mirabella-Davis continually springs scenes that either transcend or justify his preaching.3
Writer-director Carlo Mirabella-Davis’s Swallow pivots on a queasy premise: the uncontrollable urge of a young trophy wife, Hunter (Haley Bennett), to swallow inedible objects. Hunter first ingests a marble, after touching it as if it’s a talisman, cherishing its assuring tactility. Later, Hunter carefully removes the marble from the toilet after passing it, cleaning it off and placing it on a tray as a trophy. The marble will soon be joined by a stickpin, a lock, and a variety of other increasingly disturbing things. But there’s another wrinkle of perversity to Hunter’s new hobby: She’s pregnant, and the possibility of these objects puncturing her developing child, no matter how irrational, haunts the film.
For a significant portion of Swallow’s running time, Mirabella-Davis maintains an aura of ambiguity, keeping the audience in a state of discomfort as to what Hunter’s ailment precisely means. There are plenty of hints even early on, as Hunter is married to a svelte GQ-ready hunk, Richie (Austin Stowell), who’s more interested in his phone and his job with his prosperous father, Michael (David Rasche), than his wife. Yet Mirabella-Davis initially resists doubling down on the sort of denouncements of the wealthy that come so easy to filmmakers. In his way, Richie seems to care about Hunter, and his mother, Katherine (Elizabeth Marvel), occasionally comforts her. The filmmaker’s initial refusal to totally render these people rich monsters only intensifies the scenario’s mystery and tension.
Mirabella-Davis is also willing to take Hunter to task for her own alienation, as people often tune her out because she has so efficiently rendered herself a dully accommodating and complacent Stepford wife. Her psychological disorder, known as pica, partially appears to be a response to her knowledge of this fact, serving as a contemptuous act of self-punishment, with perhaps an element of sexual gratification. The narrative contains multitudes of subtexts, and Bennett superbly modulates between learned impassivity and outright despair, capturing the pain of a kind of actress who has come to feel trapped in her role. This entrapment is formally complemented by an aesthetic that’s been very fashionable in art-house horror films lately: pristine, symmetrical compositions of stylish, remote residences that express the inhumanity of essentially living in a one-percent fashion catalogue.
Swallow is initially marked by a driving tension, as we’re led to wonder just how awful and crazy Hunter’s habit will become. The film is never as gross as one might fear, as Mirabella-Davis is less interested in shock-jock flourishes than in sincerely rendering Hunter’s physical pain and mental anguish; like Mike Flanagan, Mirabella-Davis is the rare humanist horror filmmaker. As such, Hunter’s choking—the most disturbing detail in the film—becomes a piercing affirmation of her struggle to feel something and be seen.
There’s a strange irony to the film’s second half. As Mirabella-Davis sets about explaining the meaning of Hunter’s predicament, Swallow grows simultaneously more poignant and pat. Dished out in pieces throughout the film, Hunter’s backstory has been self-consciously overstuffed with topical elements of women’s struggles against patriarchal atrocity, from casual objectification and condescension to rape to the struggle to be pro-choice in the United States. (Hunter’s mother is even said to be a right-wing religious fundamentalist.) This psychology eventually waters the evocative premise down with literal-mindedness, so that Swallow becomes less a body horror film than a Me Too parable.
Fortunately, Mirabella-Davis continually springs scenes that either transcend or justify his preaching. Later in the film, a nurse, Luay (Laith Nakli), is hired to keep watch over Hunter. As a refugee of the Syrian civil war, Luay is partially offered up as a device to score points on Hunter’s privilege (he memorably remarks that one doesn’t have time for mind problems when dodging bullets), though he also shows her profound compassion, most acutely when he climbs under the bed with Hunter in a moment of crisis, patting her back with an affection that we’ve never seen extended to her by anyone else.
Near the end of the film, Hunter holes up in a cheap motel, shoveling dirt into her mouth while watching soap operas that peddle the dream of marrying rich and hot—a sequence of profound and wrenching loneliness. And the film’s climax, in which Hunter tracks down a man from her past, Erwin (Denis O’Hare), is equally heartbreaking, exposing Hunter’s swallowing for what it truly is: an attempt at annihilation as atonement, as well as a self-defiling as paradoxical affirmation of control. Hunter resists her status as an accessory by swallowing others.
Cast: Haley Bennett, Austin Stowell, Denis O’Hare, Elizabeth Marvel, David Rasche, Luna Lauren Velez, Laith Nakli, Babak Tafti Director: Carlo Mirabella-Davis Screenwriter: Carlo Mirabella-Davis Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 94 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Interview: Corneliu Porumboiu on The Whistlers and Playing with Genre
Porumboiu discusses the links between his latest and Police, Adjective, the so-called “Romanian New Wave,” and more.
Anyone inured to the downward-facing schadenfreude of Corneliu Porumboiu’s prior features might be taken aback by The Whistlers, the Romanian auteur’s first foray into slick, international genre filmmaking. The title refers to a crime ring in the Canary Islands that uses a bird-whistling language to evade surveillance. A crooked cop named Cristi (Vlad Ivanov) successfully infiltrates the group, but his undercover status is increasingly compromised by his fixation on Gilda (Catrinel Menghia), the sultry girlfriend of the ringleader, as well as by the tight leash his commanding officer back in Bucharest has him on.
Lest anyone think Porumboiu is making a play for more commercial appeal, The Whistlers is choc-a-block with teasing allusions, including repurposed music like Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger” and Jacques Offenbach’s “Baccharole” from The Tales of Hoffman, as well as cinephilic references: One expository dump happens during a screening of The Searchers, while a climactic set piece takes place at an abandoned movie set. I had the pleasure of picking Porumboiu’s brain after the film’s U.S. premiere last fall at the New York Film Festival about his toying with genre, the so-called “Romanian New Wave,” and more.
All your films are playful in my opinion, but with this one, you’re playing with genre.
If you had asked me four years ago if one of my films would have flashbacks, I would have said, “No, no way.” [laughs] With The Whistlers, the way it’s structured, I was interested in the process of learning the language. That determined the core of the film. After that, I knew I needed flashbacks so I can have different types of plot movements happening—so that the main character, Cristi, can look differently at things as they happen, because of language. Double-movement. A parallel structure. After that came the other characters in the film, who play specific roles for—in front of—the camera. Catrinel Menghia plays Gilda, which is an assumed name. We don’t know much about this character.
The femme fatale.
Right. She’s assuming that position. At the end of the day, this is a world of people chasing money. They’re using dialogue to have a fight, you know? So, I knew it was time to look back at the classical noirs. I watched some films and began pulling from them.
The film’s plotlines get increasingly convoluted as Cristi learns more about the world he’s stepped into, the threat of a double-cross always looming over him.
Well, at the end I think you get it all back. My focus was to arrive in the middle, to arrive at a type of cinema linked exclusively to his character, his personality. So, I was thinking in classical noir but not dominated by it.
This is your second time working with Vlad Ivanov, the first since Police, Adjective, nearly a decade ago. Was this role written for him?
Yes. Because in a way I was revisiting the character from Police, Adjective, starting from that. To me he’s an almost theological character. So, at the end of the day, I asked myself if this guy, who’s almost like a military officer, who has a very strict background, can his philosophy last? To find this guy 10 years after, what does he still believe in? Who is he now?
Tell me more the difference between then and now.
Well, in the last film he was someone who trusted a certain system, was a part of it. He had his own philosophy, he knew very well where his power was. A decade later he’s completely lost. He doesn’t know what he believes in anymore. I wanted the difference to be subtle but indisputable. He’s become obsessed with money, his motivations are more harsh.
Is there something about Romania’s economic situation that you’re linking this to?
In 12:08 East of Bucharest, my characters defined themselves in relation to the revolution of 1989, and they believed in communication. In Police, Adjective, you have a boss imposing his own ideology from the top down. In Metabolism, it’s like a game: The director can’t assume his position at the top. Here, my characters don’t believe in anything, they just think in terms of fighting and winning. This is how we perceive the world now, I think.
The transition from value systems to anarchy, or at least a certain realpolitik—even working cooperatively, everyone is looking out for themselves.
I think after the economic crisis, the world changed drastically. I don’t know, the classical noir has a certain vision about the world that’s quite dark, yet was proper for that time. Maybe we can find some similarities today.
Can you talk a little bit about the relationship between this film and Infinite Football?
Infinite Football is about utopia—one man’s political, ideological utopia. He wants to change the game, and what his new game implies is a reflection of the history of Romania. His personal history. But I was doing it in a different way, so I did it like a work in progress.
And you figure into the film as well. You have personal history with these people. They talk to you, talk to the camera, pull you into the frame.
Well, it’s a personal project. Laurentiu, the subject, my friend, he may not have faith in the system, but he has faith in the game, or that his rules will prove themselves. This is the Don Quixote thing of it all.
Spanish and Romanian are not that far from one another, and in order to whistle, the main character has to break his messages down into units of Spanish syllables.
I saw a documentary on TV about La Gomera, the island in Spain. From that I learned about the language of whistling and became very curious. That was 10 years ago. I started to read about the language, and I went to the island where they were teaching it. It was then that I knew I wanted to do a film about the character from Police, Adjective. Being a film about language and codes, I thought I could play with genres; cinema at the end of the day is coding reality, after all. When I write, it’s like going back to the first act, and trying to be there, be present with the characters. Eventually it is them who move me into the story. I have a very particular way of writing. Police, Adjective had eight or nine drafts. I wanted the dialogue to be functional, transactional. And not to go too deep. Each of the characters has a double nature that can’t be opened too much. At the end of the day I’m making these movies for myself. You have to believe in what you’re doing, at least at the beginning of the shoot. [laughs]
I think the first 15 minutes of this film have more edits than all of Police, Adjective. Surely this switch-up is getting you questions from people.
The story called for this approach though. It pushed me to do that.
Critics love packaging things. The “Romanian New Wave,” epitomized by the slowness and realism of your earlier films, is a perfect example. Do you find these categories or tropes at all oppressive?
Well, the truth is it wasn’t a “movement” in the sense of something written down or programmatic. Young filmmakers started working in 2000 and, of course, critics outside Romania don’t know much about Romanian cinema before “us,” so it’s expected that they will put a stamp on new films coming out. For me, each of the directors has their own voice, their own way, developed on its own terms, and for me the movies are especially different now. I’m not offended, but it means I have to speak about my own cinema—none of these generalizations. These critics probably have not seen The Reenactment, or Reconstruction, by Lucian Pintillie, my mentor—the so-called “Old Wave.” This was a hugely important, inspiring film for all of us in my generation. He died before I finished shooting The Whistlers. Regarding Police, Adjective, he told me: “If you cut five or 10 minutes from this film, you’ll have a really good audience.” And I told him, “No.” [laughs]
The generalizations tend to break down, or that’s just the nature of an artist discussing their own work. And the idea of a “movement” implies a finitude or a strategy.
The Treasure was a fable, no? You could find the structure less threatening if you had seen my previous films. Maybe other films from Romania around the same time. But I began to try a nonlinear structure in my documentaries, then applied it to The Whistlers.
Do you prefer the original title, La Gomera, to The Whistlers?
I do think The Whistlers is better. But translated into Romanian, it doesn’t have the same power as La Gomera! Also, I wanted to avoid confusion with Gomorrah.
Review: Autumn de Wilde’s Emma Takes a Classic for a Stylish, Ironic Spin
This lively adaptation plays up the novel’s more farcical elements, granting it a snappy, rhythmic pace.3
Jane Austen’s Emma concerns the mishaps of a self-assured young country aristocrat who prides herself on her savoir faire but who remains, in the terms a certain modern adaptation, totally clueless. A light comedy neither broad enough to be farce nor pointed enough to be satire, the novel lends itself to interpretation as both, given the narrative’s manifold romantic misunderstandings and host of kooky, idle gentry. Without departing far from the text, director Autumn de Wilde’s lively new film adaptation emphasizes the more farcical elements of Austen’s second-longest novel, granting it a snappy, rhythmic pace.
The eponymous gentlewoman, the story’s only three-dimensional character, is played with impressive depth by Anya Taylor-Joy here. On screen, Emma can seem frivolous right up until the climactic moment that forces her into a self-confrontation, but Taylor-Joy’s open, expressive face, so often in close-up, captures Emma’s creeping uncertainty regarding her powers of judgment, as well as her own feelings, even as she continues to act the social butterfly. She’s aided by a screenplay by Eleanor Catton that doesn’t quite resolve the story’s main fault—its concluding romance counts as perhaps the least convincing of any of Austen’s works—but which preserves much of the complexity of its “handsome, clever, and rich” heroine, who must learn to abide by her judgment rather than her vanity.
Emma begins the film at the height of self-regard, the reigning socialite of the small countryside community of Highbury. The 20-year-old has recently made a match for her governess, Miss Taylor (Gemma Whelan), arranging her marriage—well above her station—to the neighboring widower gentleman Mr. Weston (Rupert Graves). She elects Harriet Smith (Mia Goth), a recently arrived schoolgirl of uncertain origins and inelegant manners, to be her next project. She teaches the naïve girl, enraptured by Emma’s ostentatious wealth and delicate bearing, to present herself as worthy of a genteel suitor, manipulating her into rejecting the proposal of hardy local farmer Mr. Martin (Connor Swindells), and encouraging her to pursue the affections of the young vicar-about-town Mr. Elton (Josh O’Connor) instead.
O’Connor plays Mr. Elton with palpable smarm, wearing a perpetual shit-eating grin above the ridiculous splayed-out collar of an early-19th-century Anglican vicar. Here, as elsewhere, de Wilde communicates much of what remains implicit in the novel (like Mr. Elton’s odiousness) via a tidy mise-en-scène redolent of Wes Anderson. The sterile pastels of the elegant clothing and the precise movements of both the aristocracy and their servants (who hover about in the background like strange automatons) give the film’s sudden eruptions of human neuroses a droll, punchy tone—as when Mr. Elton casually mentions that it may snow, and a dinner party suddenly erupts into chaos, the nervous guests rushing to the carriages to get back home.
It’s in one of those carriages that, in a scene played perhaps a bit too broadly, a slightly drunk Mr. Elton confronts Emma with the revelation that he’s been aiming to court her. Naturally, the news of Mr. Elton’s true affections devastates Harriet, whom Emma very belatedly realizes may have been well suited to Mr. Martin, though at this point Harriet has learned to think of the farmer as beneath her. Outraged at Emma’s tutoring of Harriet in the ways of class presumption is Martin’s landlord, Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn), a wealthy Highbury bachelor who, as brother to her brother-in-law, counts as family to Emma and her worry-wart father, Mr. Woodhouse (Bill Nighy). In the lavishly decorated living rooms and salons of their immense estates, Emma and Mr. Knightley bicker in the way that unwitting lovers in Austen tend to, arguing verbosely about the propriety of introducing Harriet to high society.
Emma and Knightley later have occasion to debate the relative virtues of Frank Churchill (Callum Turner) and Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson), who arrive separately in town under much whispered ballyhoo. The young and handsome Frank seems destined to ask for Emma’s hand; Jane, the orphaned niece of local gossip Miss Bates (Miranda Hart), is rumored to be heartbroken after forming an inappropriate attachment to her adopted sister’s husband. Emma is as flattered by Frank’s attentions as she is jealous of Jane’s level of gentlewomanly accomplishment. Catton and de Wilde extrapolate from the novel’s succession of social scenarios to make Emma’s doubt about the shifting social field more comically apparent: One of the funniest scenes has the ostensibly modest Jane follow up Emma’s dilettantish performance on the pianoforte with a beautiful, complex sonata, in front of the whole town.
Emma’s discomfort in her new situation will come to a head when she, with Frank’s encouragement, grossly abuses her privilege as a gentlewoman with a practiced wit, embarrassing herself and wounding an old friend. Emma is interested in such textures of early-19th-century society, if not in the latter’s pace. The film fits so much of Austen’s narrative in by judiciously condensing scenes to suit its more ironic tone, occasionally using transitional smash cuts to get right to the point. The result is a stylish, eminently watchable farce that, despite its old-England trappings, is every bit an update as it is an adaptation.
Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn, Bill Nighy, Mia Goth, Miranda Hart, Josh O’Connor, Callum Turner, Rupert Graves, Amber Anderson Director: Autumn de Wilde Screenwriter: Eleanor Catton Distributor: Focus Features Running Time: 125 min Rating: PG Year: 2020 Buy: Soundtrack, Book
Review: The Trouble with Being Born Is a Chilly Rumination on Memory
In the end, the film suffers from the same issue as its moody androids: enervation borne out of repetition.2
The near future looks a lot like the present in Sandra Wollner’s The Trouble with Being Born, only bleaker and lonelier. That sense of isolation is conveyed right from the start. In the fantastically dreamy introduction, we float through a forest on a summery drift of whispering voiceover and buzzing insects before coming upon a father and young daughter next to a backyard pool. What looks like a relaxing day quickly reads as forced, even icy. While the girl (Lena Watson), Elli, stays by the pool, the father (Dominik Warta) goes inside, only to dash back out again when he sees Elli floating lifeless in the water. “Fuck,” he says. “Not again.” In the next scene, he’s using his phone to reboot the not-quite-drowned Elli.
An android whose deep black eyes and waxily smooth skin—evoking the eerie expressionlessness of Christiane’s face mask in Eyes Without a Face—are the very definition of the Uncanny Valley, Elli was built to replicate the father’s daughter, who disappeared 10 years before. Her reactions are slow and mannered, as though she were puzzling over a bug in her programming instead of playing like a human 10-year-old. Even though her actions are mostly set on a loop built out from scraps of what the father remembers of his daughter, Elli seems to take a mix-and-match approach to those implanted memories, obsessing like an amnesiac trying to make sense of a muddled past. At times, it’s unclear whether the lines in the voiceover (“Mum…doesn’t need to know everything”) are repeated from the human Elli or invented by the android Elli as a way of mimicking her biological predecessor.
The first half of The Trouble with Being Born is narratively thin but heavy with the promise of something more. Inklings of something disturbing in this isolated idyll, that too-close stare of the father and his dressing her just so, are eventually made explicit and disturbing. In one of the more effectively queasy body-horror moments ever put on film, the father removes Elli’s tongue and vagina for cleaning, leaving her naked on the counter. It’s a strikingly disgusting moment, pointing not just to the abuse he subjected his human daughter to, but the casual disdain with which he regards her replacement. But despite the power of this scene and a few others—particularly the wordless shot of Elli watching her father from a distance with the same restless curiosity of the cat flopped next to her, visualizing the unbridgeable gulf between “father” and “daughter”—Wollner continues to fill her film with too little story.
That problem becomes more acute once Elli runs away and the story shifts to another android-human relationship. After Elli is picked up by a passing motorist (Simon Hatzl) who then gifts her like a new toy to his elderly mother (Ingrid Burkhard), still mourning the little brother she lost 60 years before. The ease with which Elli is made into a boy—in the world of the film, reprogramming androids is about as complicated as restarting a smartphone—stands in stark contrast to the violent trauma of abuse that still lingers like a ghost in her flickeringly sentient CPU. But while the setting and the primary human character changes in the second half of the film, Wollner’s narrow view of her story means just more of the same glassy expressions and long maundering silences, like Tarkovsky without the existential pain. At some point, the mirroring begins to feel more like straight repetition without any significant revelation.
In the end, The Trouble with Being Born suffers from the same issue as its moody androids: enervation borne out of repetition. There are some attempts here and there to comment on the replacement of human connection with silicone facsimiles. We almost never see people together. The only time the mother, who spends much of her time walking her dog and wistfully pondering the past, is with another person is when her son drops off Elli. Shopping malls, car-choked roads, and distant skyscrapers dominate the landscape. But rather than truly exploring the ramifications of its futuristic conceit, whether from a broader societal or individualistic and relational perspective, the film just keeps looping back to the same luminously filmed but ultimately blank silences.
Cast: Lena Watson, Dominik Warta, Ingrid Burkhard, Jana McKinnon, Simon Hatzl Director: Sandra Wollner Screenwriter: Sandra Wollner, Roderick Warich Running Time: 94 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
Review: Cristi Puiu’s Malmkrog Wages a War Between Language and Cinema
It all has the makings of a game of Clue, but the mysteries here are linguistic.3
Cristi Puiu’s Malmkrog is based on 19th-century Russian philosopher and mystic Vladimir Solovyov’s prophetic Three Conversations, which, through a series of dialectical maneuvers, addresses such topics as economic materialism, nationalism, and abstract moralism. The film takes place on a snow-covered hillside, where a large pastel-pink mansion sits and Puiu turns the philosophical into drama. Sheltered in the mansion’s walls are a small group of aristocrats that includes a politician, a general and his wife, and a young countess. It all has the makings of a game of Clue, but the mysteries here are linguistic. A Christmas gathering stretches on in what seems to be real time, as the party’s high-minded philosophical and political chatter takes on an increasingly strained air.
That tension is heightened by the obstacles that Puiu uses to discombobulate his audience. Malmkrog is the Transylvanian village where the film takes place, yet the characters, who speak primarily in French, talk of being in Russia. And as they discuss imminent war and the potential outcomes of violence, it’s as if the film appears to exist outside of time and place. Doorways and mirrors obfuscate who’s involved in a conversation, and the characters move through the mansion as though compelled by spirits of the past, with cinematographer Tudor Vladimir Panduru often lighting all those drawing rooms using only natural light sources. Malmkrog exudes a painterly expressiveness that’s a far cry from the cold, handheld aesthetic that typically defines the look of Puiu’s work and the Romanian New Wave as a whole.
The film’s first scene lasts nearly an hour and is a magnificent example of staging. The camera glides left and right, with each movement matched by a change in composition that the actors match as though dancing to the music behind their endless words. This balletic circularity, slow but constantly surprising, recalls Max Ophüls’s fixation on the oneiric, circular properties of time. In a surprising moment of violence, a number of characters die on a staircase, only for them to come back to life a scene later, and without comment from anyone. When Nikolai (Frédéric Schulz-Richard), the mansion’s wealthy owner and Malmkrog’s central figure, looks up the staircase, it’s as if he recalls what previously occurred there. The moment echoes one from Letter from an Unknown Woman where Joan Fontaine’s Lisa stares up the very staircase up which Louis Jourdan’s Stefan and another woman ascended years earlier.
Whenever Nikolai, who makes the domineering Stefan from Ophüls’s 1948 masterpiece seem meek by comparison, utters lines like “prayer is a soap for the soul,” he carries himself like the Sherlock Holmes of moral arbitration. But he’s closer to a 19th-century Ben Shapiro: a pompous rat obsessed with facts and logic, who won’t let a woman finish a point for fear that he won’t be able to counteract it with a cogent counter-argument. It’s not always clear to what extent Puiu is satirizing this type of behavior, given the spectacle of the man’s endless pontificating, and that the other characters only rarely undercut his words with references to his verbosity. Puiu clearly believes in Nikolai enough to make him the mouthpiece for Solovyov’s philosophizing, which makes it harder to buy to what extent these people are being sent up, and how much Puiu wants the viewer to eat up his words wholesale.
With our perspective held hostage in one place, memory and imagination blur into one. When Ingrida (Diana Sakalauskaité) reads from a book, the account of a vicious battle between Cossacks and bashi-bazouks, the effect is rapturous. In this claustrophobic endurance test, Puiu transports the viewer through language to a scene with the epic scope of the film’s runtime. He focuses on listening faces, themselves teleported to a different space.
Like his characters, Puiu wages his own war of discourses, in his case between language and cinema. Whenever Malmkrog seems to have settled into a formal rhythm, the filmmaker flips it, using a different device to interrogate how people talk, and to what extent they listen. One heightened dialogue exchange culminates with the main characters staring out of the window in complete stillness. Then Nikolai starts to move, unstuck from this tableau, and seemingly from time. The boundaries of reality keep getting pushed at, to the point that one almost expects the mansion’s walls to fall and reveal a film set. Later, he glides away from a tea reception to observe the servants, who silently rearrange the house and conceal their own power structure through glances and outbursts of violence that are hidden from the wealthy class. They are like spirits, pulling out chairs for aristocrats who don’t acknowledge them, clearing out items like empty champagne glasses that hint at the echo of a past time.
The creeping dread of history repeatedly overwhelms character and viewer, particularly during General Edouard’s (Ugo Broussot) screed on the world’s necessary “Europeanness,” which becomes a Buñuelian account of fascist tendencies and culminates in the film’s most shocking moment. His wife, the imperious, frizzy-haired Madeline (Agathe Bosch), obsesses over the authority behind language: who may speak, and how. This is the sneaky vessel for a larger discussion on power and control. Living in a religious nation, Nikolai posits, one must first understand what Christianity is, and define national identity from that. The characters situate this in the context of war, and a globe that’s shrinking in the face of technological progress.
But with each scene, Puiu strips away the layers of his ornate style, so that by hour three, all that’s left is the close-up. With Nikolai’s straight face berating Olga, evangelizing on resurrection, the sophistication of the dialogue rarely matches that of Puiu’s aesthetic form. As Malmkrog becomes less ostentatious in style, the redundancy of its philosophizing becomes almost impossible to ignore, having made its conclusions about the inability of the intellectual class in combating fascism through language by the 100-minute mark. Puiu’s assaultive mass of a film speaks to modern times in its depiction of aristocrats indulging in comfortable platitudes as the world edges toward the precipice of chaos, but the Romanian auteur doesn’t entirely make the case for sticking around to listen.
Cast: Agathe Bosch, Frédéric Schulz-Richard, Diana Sakalauskaité, Ugo Broussot, Marina Palii, István Téglás Director: Cristi Puiu Screenwriter: Cristi Puiu Running Time: 200 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
Review: For Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man, the Cruelty Is the Point
The thrill of the film’s craftsmanship is inseparable from its main character’s abuse.1.5
Elisabeth Moss brings unexpected shades to the flimsiest of roles, and she makes it look so easy. Even if you go into writer-director Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man blind, you will know what Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) did to his wife, Cecilia Kass (Moss), simply from the way she moves one of his hands from her belly. Across a taut and nerve-wracking opening sequence, Cecilia orchestrates what becomes increasingly clear is an elaborate escape. If it’s easy to overlook the hoariness with which the camera lingers at various points on some object that portends things to come, that’s because Moss never stops conveying the agony of the years-long abuse that Cecilia has endured, through the surreptitiousness of her gait and the way paralyzing bolts of fear shoot through her body.
That kind of talent only helps a film like The Invisible Man that doesn’t really care about abuse beyond its function as a plot device. After escaping Adrian’s clutches, Cecilia goes to live with a childhood friend (Aldis Hodge) and his daughter (Storm Reid). Or, rather, struggles to live, as leaving the house is too hard for Cecilia to bear. Cecilia never really stops talking about the control that Adrian exercised over her, even after she learns that he committed suicide, thus freeing her to finally put her life back together. But there’s a frustrating friction to such scenes, between an actress sincerely committed to expressing her character’s pain and a filmmaker interested in trauma only as far it whets our appetite for how a psychopathic tech magnate who specialized in optics could possibly torment his wife from beyond the grave.
With his directorial debut, Insidious 3, Whannell effectively goosed an otherwise insipid haunted-house attraction with clever twists on a franchise’s trite dependence on the jump scare. But it was Upgrade, which saw him freed of franchise responsibilities, as well as longtime collaborator James Wan, that felt closer to a coming-out party for the filmmaker. And it practically announced him as a master, if not of horror, then of evasion, for the way his acute sense of movement is so thrilling in the moment that it can make one overlook his rickety storytelling. Upgrade is a film that’s less suspicious of the not-so-brave new world of tomorrow that anti-authoritarian tech bros are rapidly ushering in than it is in awe of what their toys can do. Its meditation on vengeance is closer to justification: that it’s okay that a bro turned half-machine is going on a violent rampage because of what was done to his wife.
The Invisible Man, another distinctly male fantasy set in a more recognizable present-day San Francisco, has even less to say than that, though it seeks to also entertain us with all that a techie can do with one of his toys. And that it does, as in an impressive early scene inside James’s house where Cecilia walks out of the kitchen while making breakfast and a long shot unobtrusively captures a knife falling off the counter and the flame on one of the gas burners being turned to high. The frisson of unease to this and several other scenes, of a man hiding in not-so-plain sight as he mounts a spectacular show of gaslighting, is close to unbearable. And when the titular menace is finally glimpsed, if only intermittently, the straight shot of action-infused momentum that marks the sequence as he lays waste to a small army of police officers inside the hallway of a mental institution feels like a release, for Cecilia and the audience.
But to what end does Whannell really fashion all this style? In one scene, and only one scene, the film tells us that Cecilia is an architect, not to illuminate all that she’s capable of as a creative, but to allow for the moment where she shows up to an interview at an architecture firm and discovers that the samples of her work were removed from her portfolio. That scene, some 30 minutes into The Invisible Man, is the moment where the film starts to provoke a certain queasiness, where it becomes clear that Cecilia only exists, for Adrian and for Whannell, to be terrorized, to be held up in the air, to be flung across a room, to be punched, to not be believed, to be thought of as insane. And to be raped. That this violation happens off screen proves that Whannell has foresight, that he’s aware of the controversy that surrounded Hollow Man upon its release in 2000. But that we must be told that it also took place at an indeterminate time, almost as a matter of course, feels like an icky attempt at not having to actually grapple with the implications of the crime by casting doubt on it.
Out of sight, out of mind. That feels like Whannell’s mantra. Indeed, by the time it gets around to the business of Cecilia being believed, the film starts to collapse under the weight of an increasingly absurd series of plot reveals for the way she turns the tables on the invisible man to feel like anything but an afterthought. Even then, when her tormentor is right there out in the open, it’s still clear that Whannell only thinks of violence in terms of how it can be paid back. Which is to say, he’s consistent. Through to the end, you can’t get off on the thrill of this film’s craftsmanship without also getting off on the spectacle of more than just Cecilia brought to the brink of destruction. Like its style, The Invisible Man’s cruelty is the point.
Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Aldis Hodge, Storm Reid, Harriet Dyer, Michael Dorman, Benedict Hardie Director: Leigh Whannell Screenwriter: Leigh Whannell Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 125 min Rating: R Year: 2020
Review: Guns Akimbo Squanders a Nifty Setup with Excruciating Humor
Writer-director Jason Lei Howden’s humor might have been tolerable if his film was at least reasonably imaginative.1.5
For much of Jason Lei Howden’s Guns Akimbo, Miles (Daniel Radcliffe) is in his jammies, because getting dressed is difficult when your hands are nailed to pistols. Eating and using the bathroom are no easy feat either. With this, the film hits on an amusing setup for physical comedy, as Miles can do little but stumble about as he strives to drive a car or use his phone with his nose. He also must avoid being shot by Nix (Samara Weaving), his designated opponent in a kill-or-be-killed online competition called Skizm. But the film ultimately fails to capitalize on its concept and gets smothered by its smug, abrasive tone.
Miles is a coder for a video game titled Nuts Bust 2, one of too-many examples of the film’s groan-inducing comedy. He’s also a bizarrely self-aware depiction of an internet troll, as Miles admits via narration that, in order to feel worthwhile, he seeks out arguments in comment sections and reports “offensive content.” When he goes to Skizm’s chatroom to tell the viewers off, he runs afoul of the organization’s facial-tattooed leader, Riktor (Ned Dennehy), who at one point says, “I’m going to do a poo-poo in my pantaloons,” because why not? Those guns for hands and his forced participation in Skizm are Miles’s punishment.
Most of Guns Akimbo’s dialogue squanders an intriguing concept through truly excruciating attempts at humor, oscillating between snide comments, gay panic jokes, and capital-A attitude-laden one-liners. In one scene, Miles remarks that the world looks “so HD” because, with gun-hands, he can’t go outside with his face in his phone.
The humor might have been tolerable if the film was at least reasonably imaginative. Radcliffe really digs into Miles’s sniveling bafflement and the expressive Weaving clearly has a lot of hammy fun as the unhinged Nix. But too much of Guns Akimbo consists of unremarkable car chases and gun fights that hardly feel transformed at all by Miles’s unique predicament. We watch a lot of people fire a lot of guns against a lot of concrete backdrops, except Howden deploys a hyperactive camera style that’s always zooming around the characters in slow motion or fast forward. He appears to be going for the Neveldine/Taylor style of films like Crank and Gamer, except he’s not nearly as inventive and most of his flourishes outright distract from the action choreography, sometimes obscuring it altogether.
Worse, Guns Akimbo strains to be self-aware, with Miles assuring audiences via narration that this isn’t one of those stories where he wins back his ex-girlfriend, Nova (Natasha Liu Bordizzo), in the end. And it’s weirdly self-congratulatory for a film that visibly revels in torturing Weaving’s character and eventually has Nova kidnapped for the big climax anyway. The film has even less to say about the sort of obsessive spectatorship that makes up the story’s backdrop, as though simply depicting reality-TV audiences and internet users as assholes is some profound statement. Luckily, unlike Miles, viewers have a say in the matter. They aren’t bolted to the couch and the remote isn’t nailed into their hands; they’re free to quit watching at any time, or simply opt not to watch this obnoxious film at all.
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Samara Weaving, Natasha Liu Bordizzo, Ned Dennehy, Rhys Darby, Grant Bowler, Edwin Wright Director: Jason Lei Howden Screenwriter: Jason Lei Howden Distributor: Saban Films Running Time: 97 min Rating: R Year: 2020
Review: The Assistant Is a Chilling Portrait of Workplace Harassment
The film is designed so that we feel as starved for rudimentary human emotion as its main character.3
With The Assistant, writer-director Kitty Green offers a top-to-bottom portrait of incremental dehumanization, and, on its terms, the film is aesthetically, tonally immaculate. The narrative is set in the Tribeca offices of a film mogul, but it could take place in a branch of any major corporation throughout the world without losing much of its resonance. Offices encourage professional functionality as a way of divorcing people from themselves, leading them to make actions without a sense of complicity. What starts small—throwing co-workers under the bus, neglecting friends due to punishing work hours—can blossom over time into people enabling atrocity under the guise of “doing what they’re told.”
With this psychology in mind, Green fashions The Assistant as a pseudo-thriller composed entirely of purposefully demoralizing minutiae. The film opens with a young woman, Jane (Julia Garner), being picked up from her apartment for work so punishingly early that it’s almost impossible to tell if it’s morning or night. By 8 a.m., she’s been making copies, printing documents, reading emails, and tending to office errands for hours. Other employees gradually drift in, talking obligatorily of their weekends off—a privilege that Jane isn’t accorded.
In these early scenes, Green conjures a peculiar, very palpable dread, her precise, anal-retentive compositions suggesting what might happen if David Fincher were to adapt Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” This dread springs from two places, as the visual palette is silvery and moody, evoking a potential corporate thriller, though the film refuses to move beyond the expository stage and gratify this expectation, and so we fear that we may be trapped with Jane in her tedium. We are, and this is by Green’s moral schematic.
The Assistant is designed so that we feel as starved for rudimentary human emotion as Jane. No names are uttered throughout (the name Jane, which brings to mind the anonymity of a Jane Doe, is only stated in the credits), while the film mogul is only evoked via male pronouns (he’s never seen but often referenced and occasionally heard over the phone, usually in a torrent of rage against Jane for her inability to talk down his wife, who knows of his infidelity). Jane brings another assistant the wrong sandwich, and he treats her cruelly; it never occurs to him, or anyone else, to thank Jane for the tasks she performs for everyone in the office. At best, Jane’s co-workers regard her with a kind of pitying befuddlement, as if she’s not quite real. When Jane eats, it’s quickly and without pleasure, and she’s always alert to being watched. No one speaks of their personal lives. Green springs one perceptive, poignant detail after another, especially when the mogul compliments Jane via email just as she thinks he’s reached his limit with her. This is, of course, a major tool of the master manipulator: praise when least expected, and only enough to keep the person in your sphere of influence and at your mercy.
Increasingly unsettling details seep into this deadening atmosphere. Jane finds an earring in the mogul’s office, which is repeatedly seen from a distance through its open door and becomes a chilling symbol for the mogul himself, suggesting his unshakable presence even in absence. There are jokes made about his couch, which Jane cleans. Young, beautiful women are brought into the office at late hours, and are referenced by both male and female employees with contempt. Growing fearful for one of the women, Jane tries to complain to an unsympathetic H.R. officer who sets about gaslighting her. It becomes evident that we’re watching—from the perspective of a powerless yet ultimately complicit person—a parable about rich, insulated predators like Harvey Weinstein, and Green’s grasp of Jane’s indoctrination into this perverse world is impeccably believable.
Yet The Assistant also feels too narrow, too comfortable with its thesis. The rendering of the mogul as an unseen specter is effective but also dime-store lurid in the tradition of mediocre horror movies, and this device also conveniently absolves Green of having to wrestle with how a Weinstein type might live with himself. George Huang’s similarly themed 1994 film Swimming with Sharks, which is mostly inferior to The Assistant, benefited from such a friction, as its own Weinstein surrogate (played by Kevin Spacey) had a magnetism that complicated and enriched the script’s anger. There’s also something insidious about Green’s evasion, as the mogul’s absence elevates him, mythologizes him, which reflects how people low on the power ladder see powerful exploiters. But Green physicalizes this idea without standing outside of it, challenging it, or contextualizing it; she traps us in a monotonous hell and leaves us there. Her fury with Weinstein and his ilk contains an element of awe.
Cast: Julia Garner, Matthew Macfadyen, Makenzie Leigh, Kristine Froseth, Jon Orsini, Noah Robbins, Stéphanye Dussud, Juliana Canfield, Alexander Chaplin, Dagmara Dominczyk, Bregje Heinen Director: Kitty Green Screenwriter: Kitty Green Distributor: Bleecker Street Media Running Time: 87 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Benh Zeitlin’s Wendy Is a Half-Hearted Spin on Peter Pan
Wendy veers awkwardly and aimlessly between tragedy and jubilance, never accruing any lasting emotional impact.2
Like Beasts of the Southern Wild before it, Wendy unfolds through the eyes of a child. Benh Zeitlin’s sophomore feature puts a new spin on Peter Pan, and not only because it takes on the perspective of a 10-year-old Wendy Darling (Devin France). The film’s modern-rustic settings and costumes and relative lack of fantastical elements—notwithstanding the presence of a majestic, glowing sea creature, referred to as “mother,” who may hold the secret to reversing time—also play a large part in re-envisioning J.M. Barrie’s classic. But Zeitlin’s brand of magical realism strains in its conflicting desires to both demystify Neverland (never mentioned by name in the film), chiefly by grounding it in a rather prosaic reality, and imbue the story with all the enchanting qualities we’ve come to expect from fantasies of everlasting childhood. Like its version of Peter (Yashua Mack), Wendy wants to fly, yet, because of its self-imposed restrictions, it never quite gets off the ground.
Across this tale of a child lurching toward adulthood, there’s a sense of wonder and awe to the sea creature’s brief appearances, and to Wendy’s initial encounters with the free-spirited Peter, who playfully eggs her on from atop the train that regularly roars across the barren, rural locale that houses her family’s rundown diner. But Wendy’s whimsical flourishes, from Dan Romer’s incessantly rousing score to Wendy’s breathy and all-too-mannered voiceover, brush awkwardly against the film’s dour conception of a Neverland drained of all its magic and grandeur. Despite this, Zeitlin strives to capture an unbridled sense of childlike exuberance as kids cavort around the rugged cliffside vistas of the remote volcanic island that Peter calls home. But lacking any of the mystical features typically associated with them, Peter and his cohorts’ behaviors appear overly precocious to the point of ludicrousness; it’s almost as if they’re performing a twee, optimistic rendition of Lord of the Flies.
Unlike Quvenzhané Wallis, whose magnetic presence imbued Beasts of the Southern Wild with a pervasive warmth and soulfulness, Mack is an unfortunately listless presence as Peter. Several years younger than Wendy and her twin brothers, Douglas (Gage Naquin) and James (Gavin Naquin), Peter appears, more often than not, like a six-year-old playing dress-up. His utter lack of charisma and gusto renders him an ill-fitting avatar for boisterous youthfulness, while his occasionally domineering, yet still unimposing, demeanor hardly makes him out to be the inspirational figure that the film ultimately wants him to be. Not only does he allow one boy to drown at one point, he chops off the hand of another to prevent him from aging.
Such events position Wendy as a twisted take on Peter Pan, but these moments are never given room to breathe. Rather, they’re uniformly undermined by the film cutting back to the idyllic adventures of children, in lockstep with Zeitlin’s relentless pursuit of galvanizing his audience through a gleefully idealized vision of the world. This jarring intrusion of darker elements into the story makes for bizarre clashes in tone, leaving Wendy to veer awkwardly and aimlessly between tragedy and jubilance, never to accrue any lasting emotional impact. When Peter buoyantly declares that “to grow up is a great adventure,” one is left to wonder not only why the boy who never grows up would, out of nowhere, embrace this worldview, but why Wendy, or any of the other children, would want to follow such a troubling figure on that journey.
As Wendy stumbles into its final act, where adult pirates attempt to use Wendy as bait to catch the giant sea creature, it becomes even more convoluted, contradictory, and murky in what it’s trying to say about growing up. Wendy eventually begins to stand up to and question Peter, both for his mistreatment of her brother and his harshness toward the adults Peter has excommunicated to an impoverished community on the outskirts of the island. But no sooner does she chide Peter than she’s back on his side, cheering him on as he fights off an admittedly cleverly devised Captain Hook. It’s as if she, much like the film, can’t seem to settle on whether Peter’s a hero or a borderline psychopath, or if childhood is a magical time to live in permanently or a necessary step on the way to adulthood. Rather than meaningfully subverting audience expectations, Wendy instead plays like a half-hearted twist on the familiar tale that ultimately doesn’t change the moral at the core of countless other Peter Pan adaptations: childhood is magical, and growing up is scary but inevitable.
Cast: Tommie Lynn Milazzo, Shay Walker, Devin France, Stephanie Lynn Wilson, Ahmad Cage, Gage Naquin, Krzysztof Meyn, Gavin Naquin, Romyri Ross Director: Benh Zeitlin Screenwriter: Benh Zeitlin, Eliza Zeitlin Distributor: Searchlight Pictures Running Time: 112 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2020