My favorite parts of the Kill Bill movies come in the time between Budd showing up in Vol. 2 to just after his death.
The Budd parts of Kill Bill show what I like about Quentin Tarantino and what he seems to specialize in: Being weirdly ambivalent about what tone he’s trying to strike, often even within a single scene. Tarantino movies will shift from highly stylized and theatrical one minute to undermining that theatricality the next, or they will celebrate excess but follow it with a heartfelt moment that’s almost sentimental, then throw in a streak of zany for good measure.
Take Budd’s death scene. He’s just collected a cheap little suitcase full of hundred-dollar bills from Elle Driver, his fellow assassin. (In case you can’t IMDB it: He’s played by Michael Madsen and she’s played by Daryl Hannah.) Budd starts pulling out the money and finds, buried there, one very angry black mamba.
Nothing very Tarantino so far, I’d say. But look now: The snake bites Budd in the face, and the next minute is just the man hurtling around his kitchen, groping for relief of any sort, before he crumples on the ground.
It’s an undramatic death. It’s not glamorous, just ugly, but not so ugly that it’s horrific. Maybe a little horrific, since his face swells grossly as he lies on the floor, and distended faces are a particularly unsettling form of mutilation, I think we can all agree. Even so, the death scene is not played up in any way, really; it’s more what you’d think death-by-poisonous-snake would actually be like if you had to witness it in real life. Tarantino choosing this way to show Budd dying is itself a tad unexpected, since in effect we expect a more momentous death when we see one on-screen, much less when we see one in a Quentin Tarantino flick.
Even if Tarantino was trying to strike a certain tone, he quickly takes the scene in a radically different direction. Elle Driver lights up a smoke to watch Budd as he writhes on the floor in his death throes. “I’m sorry, Budd. That was rude of me, wasn’t it? Budd, I’d like to introduce my friend, the black mamba,” she says, in a mock formal introduction. “Black mamba, this is Budd.” You can see already where this is odd: One the one hand, you have Elle wisecracking like some sort of James Bond villain even at the moment of Budd’s death, but the death itself is not like a Bond movie at all — it’s more like a documentary, almost banal.
It gets stranger. Elle sits, still smoking and looking casual, to monologue at length about some facts about the black mamba she dug up online. She whips out her notebook and starts reading her verbatim notes from whichever website. Tarantino twice cuts to a close-up of the notebook, where we can actually see the words she’s reciting.
The implication: Elle transcribed this encyclopedic paragraph from the Internet, apparently thinking, “Oh, I know what I’ll do! I’m going to explain this to Budd with a theatrical, expository flourish as he’s lying on the ground with a nasty-looking puffed-up face, dying from snake venom!”
I guess what’s really curious about this scenario is that Elle, in her transcription, didn’t stop at some point and have some meta-thought along the lines of, “Gee, it’s awful strange that I’m planning out this incredibly stagy and contrived-seeming scenario for dispatching Budd, complete with monologue on the lethality of the snake I’m killing him with. Maybe I should skip it and just slice off his head? I mean, what if something goes awry and the snake doesn’t get him and I don’t even get to plop down all leisurely-like to deliver my data?”
It’s not absolutely implausible that Elle Driver would write down this information. It’s only that the scene is a little too much to be naturalistic, but only by just so much that you can barely tell it’s going too far; the movie comes right up to the line of dramatic credibility and sticks its toe over it. I wouldn’t be so convinced that this effect is purposeful, of course, if this phenomenon didn’t crop up again and again in Tarantino’s stuff, and if he hadn’t outright named one of his movies for a genre of entertainment known for its absurd excess.
As if the scene had not hit enough registers between Budd’s mundane death and Elle’s absurd Internet-factoid monologue, there are two more. As Budd takes his final gasps, Elle sincerely laments that the Bride (i.e., Uma Thurman), a noble warrior, was killed by as big a loser as Budd. She seems to sincerely consider this a tragedy, and in a really twisted fashion it’s actually touching that she gives a damn. So there’s a kind of (bizarro) emotion injected into the mix, one that isn’t fake.
Finally, as Elle’s scooping up the money scattered on the floor, she calls Bill and – again with a flourish – she explains where he can go to find the grave of “Beatrix Kiddo.” This is the first reveal to the audience of the Bride’s real name, and it’s accompanied by a sequence showing a teacher doing roll-call in a primary school. Strangely, Beatrix Kiddo, when she raises her hand, is the fully grown Uma Thurman.
(Is this inspired by Annie Hall?)
This is Tarantino: the touching and sad intermingled wildly with the oversized and overblown, an admixture then combined with a dose of inanity. I don’t know if the combination ever “works,” but I’m admiring of Tarantino for even trying. Often it occurs to me that a wildly inconsistent tone in a movie is the province of two distinct groups: 1) failed art and 2) real-deal auteurs who are so in control of what they’re doing that you understand they must be purposefully muddying the tonal shifts of their movies.
In the end, maybe Kill Bill is number 1, but I’m convinced it’s number 2. In any event, believing it’s number 2 lets me enjoy the movie far more.