Revenge and the Family Romance in Tarantino's Kill Bill

By Dawson, Lesel | Mosaic (Winnipeg), June 2014 | Go to article overview

Revenge and the Family Romance in Tarantino's Kill Bill


Dawson, Lesel, Mosaic (Winnipeg)


Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill realizes a primary revenge fantasy in which the murdered victim is also the triumphant revenger who seemingly rewrites the past and resurrects the dead. Avoiding revenge's conventional tragic ending, the film moves toward romance, the genre associated with reunited families and wish-fulfilment.

Critics such as Steve Chibnall, Yvonne Griggs, and Stevie Simkin have demonstrated the ways in which early modern revenge tragedies have been taken up and reconfigured in contemporary cinema, in particular within the gangster film. Early modern revenge tragedy and gangster films frequently focus on a socially isolated figure with whom the audience feels an uneasy sympathy, and both are concerned with family reputation and masculine codes of honour. Both genres also revel in "male-dominated violence and excessive body counts," depicting a bleak and exploitative social world in which authority figures are either absent or corrupt (Griggs 121). And in both the central protagonist dies as the consequence of his pursuit of revenge, as is evident in early modern plays such as Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy and Thomas Middleton's The Revenger's Tragedy, and nineteen-sixties gangster films such as The Killers and Point Blank. As Robert Murphy observes in relation to Get Carter (1971), Carter's eventual death "is less a matter of satisfying the demands of censorship morality codes than of completing the structure of revenge tragedy. Having fulfilled his task of vengeance, Carter must die" (132).

Less attention, however, has been paid to the ways in which revenge tragedy is adapted in other film contexts, in particular the action film. A prime example of this is Tarantino's two part revenge saga, Kill Bill: while critics have offered detailed accounts of the ways in which Tarantino uses and pastiches a variety of films and subgenres, they have not discussed the more radical ways in which he transforms the underlying structures of revenge tragedy. Specifically, in Kill Bill, the protagonist's ability to win against the odds reverses the pattern by which the revenger dies as a consequence of her vendetta. Instead, Beatrix Kiddo's successful revenge restores to her the daughter she believes to be dead, thus realizing a primary fantasy of vengeance. As Robert Watson explains, "Revenge commonly proposes to repeal a loss by imposing an equivalent loss on the entity that caused it, and blood-revenge implies that life can be restored like stolen money" (44). Revenge thus implies, as John Kerrigan observes, that "deaths can be cleared up. Expiation offers to cancel, to free, even [...] to bring the dead back to life" (85). In this context revengers manifest Freud's classic "compulsion to repeat," returning to the past in order not only to gain a measure of control over it, but also in hope of undoing what has happened (24453). Jodie Foster describes "the classic delusional function" of revenge succinctly in an interview about The Brave One (2007), a film about a woman's vigilante quest to avenge her fiance, whose brutal murder she witnessed (Watson 56). According to Foster, her "screen alter ego lives in the fantasy that maybe if she re-creates the moment her boyfriend is killed, 'this time the ending is different. Maybe he'll come back'" (qtd. in Abramowitz). Underlying the revenger's masochistic repetitions is a more fundamental hope that the past can be rewritten and the dead restored.

From this perspective, Tarantino's Kill Bill: Volume 1 and Kill Bill: Volume 2 offer a unique representation of revenge in that between them they contain a literal enactment of what is normally a fantasy in the mind of the revenger. In Kill Bill, the murdered victim is also the triumphant revenger, who seemingly comes back to life to rewrite the past and resurrect the dead. Indeed, Beatrix returns from the dead not once but twice: not only does she awaken from a coma after being shot at close range, but she also manages to break out of a coffin after being buried alive. …

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