Wednesday, March 05, 2008

The Politics of (Filmic) Revenge: The Brave One and Kill Bill

- Note #1: This post is inspired by pure coincidence. My viewing of The Brave One happened to be just a few days before a double-bill of the two Kill Bill films for my course at university, and, as such, the idea seemed too obvious to pass up. This post contains spoilers for both The Brave One and Kill Bill Volumes 1 and 2. -

- Note #2: This post is, I think, my first attempt at a serious, in-depth comparative study of films and their apparent viewpoints, and, as such, it may have oversights and glitches that I haven't caught. So please, treat it kindly but also feel free to challenge and constructively criticize. -

As is obvious to anyone who has seen them, both The Brave One and the Kill Bill films have one major thing in common: both concern a woman who is brutally attacked and then, upon waking from a coma, sets out to seek her revenge on those who attacked her. Naturally, the films take these ideas in different directions- The Bride (Uma Thurman), after all, is already a trained assassin, but it takes a lot of nervy build-up to the first time Erica Bain (Jodie Foster) pulls the trigger on the gun she illegally acquires in a (ludicrous) backstreet deal with a shady Asian figure. Moreover, The Brave One- somewhat bizarrely titled- retains the revenge aspect for its finale, instead taking Erica on a ride of vigilante justice- while Kill Bill, of course, overtly flaunts its fatal trajectory in your face, not only in its title but in The Bride's "Death List", on which names are heavily crossed out after the people themselves have likewise been erased.

The idea of the revenge film- not exactly a new one to cinema- is a shady area to enter. How can you ever really justify this violence, even if it is simply the central character(s) doing to others what those others did to them? Surely that makes them as low as those they kill, and any film endorsing this- as the revenge film must to some degree, to really have any point at all (unless we're talking some meta-philosophical arthouse film, which neither The Brave One or Kill Bill fits into in any way, shape or form)- morally reprehensible? Edward Gallafent (a professor at my university) makes a most important distinction in his book on Quentin Tarantino- to make this kind of narrative acceptable, the revenge must take place in a world not of our own, an extraordinary one. And this is where The Brave One and Kill Bill most clearly diverge.

Kill Bill is less reality than a hyper- reality, a world without any kind of "normal" policing force against these deadly assassins (the police who appear at the church early in Volume 1 are not only simple observers of the aftermath, but Earl McGraw (Michael Parks) is borrowed from friend-of-Tarantino Robert Roderiguez's 1996 film From Dusk Till Dawn- and he subsequently reppears in Tarantino and Roderiguez's Grindhouse), and one made up of cultural and pop-cultural references, whether they be from other film worlds (i.e. Lady Snowblood, the Dollars films), Tarantino's own back catalogue, or simply ideas (which may or may not be realistic) of different cultures (in Volume 1, mainly Japanese). In this world, a representational one, the Bride's unstoppable requirement for revenge is acceptable, because the people she slays, human though they are, exist in another world, one where violence is an accepted way of life. (Any intrusion into this, from Vernita Green's little girl to the comic figure of the female restauranteur, seems to be Tarantino's way of momentarily showing his audience how "normal" people would see this violence, whether through shrieking alarm or blank acceptance.) The way Tarantino presents the violence also seems to hold this up, whether through the gushing blood of the anime sequence (and the brief scene of Gogo (Chiaki Kuriyama) "penetrating" a guy at a bar) or through the comic sight of the Crazy 88 groaning in a bloody mess across the restaurant floor.

But The Brave One, in stark contrast, not only sets itself in a recognisable universe (New York), but constantly begs you to see it as reality, as something that is completely feasible. And this is where it fails, for, like Kill Bill, it wants you to see Erica Bain's journey of justice as justifiable. Sure, the people that Erica kills are all bad people- killers themselves, or sadistic (male) torturers and threateners- but the film couples this quest for realism with completely ludicrous (and clearly unintentionally so) set-ups. Practically the first time Erica enters a building after acquiring her gun, a crazed man enters and shoots the woman behind the counter. Erica just happens to walk past a pervert who has a drugged woman in the back seat of his car. This intriguing contrast of reality and the hyper-real comes to an interesting point- as Nathaniel noted in his astute review of The Brave One, "Kill Bill... had more ambiguous feeling in virtually every bloody scene. ... None of Erica Bane’s targets have so much as a hint of an interior life." Kill Bill's world may be hyper-real but its characters still feel human- the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad have histories, have scars, have done wrong and recognise the Bride's need for revenge (as Michael Madsen's Budd says, "That woman deserves her revenge... and we deserve to die."). The Brave One's murdered are faceless representations of violence that exist for no reason other than to be despised and quickly shot.

In contrast to Kill Bill's stylizations (which lessen in Volume 2, where more often we experience the brutality of the Bride's final stretches, whether on her side or her opponents- perhaps a reason why Volume 2 is less effective for this argument, although I do think that this is more because it focuses less on blood and more on dialogue), The Brave One's violence- generally shown to us in stark normal speed- is realistic for what I assume were good intentions but which are all the more reprehensible when we reach the film's ending. Having finally moved on from helpful vigilante killings, Erica finally gets a lead on those who attacked her (and killed her fiance), and, having killed two, she stands over the third, ready to shoot. Enter Detective Mercer (Terrence Howard), the police officer who has been puzzling over the mysterious vigilante and who has also formed a frienship with radio presenter Erica, but has arrived on the scene having realized that she is the vigilante and that she is now seeking to exact revenge. As expected, Mercer points his gun at Erica and tells her to give it to him. So far, so moral. But then The Brave One capitulates to something- whether it's the writers' weird morals or simply the star image of Jodie Foster- and there is an abrupt u-turn. Mercer hands his gun to Erica and says to shoot now, because at least it's now legal. This might be a acceptably downbeat twist if it made any sense, but Howard's character has been established as a morally upright officer, and to do his turnabout seems completely illogical with the confines of his character that have been established. And so, instead, it seems like a pathetic attempt to surprise, and, worse, a justification of Erica's killing spree. It's okay to lower yourself to these levels, because the law said it was okay.

You might say that Erica constantly seems to be assauged with guilt and deliberation over her actions throughout the film. (Well, she could have stopped.) But The Brave One offers no movement on these issues. She's been given a way out and she takes it, free and seemingly guiltness to live a life with her faithful dog finally at her side again. Is The Brave One, then, a deeply pessimistic comment on how violence is the only path, and how happiness is never reachable? To try and justify this movie would be to take this path, but the final shot shows you light, hope in visual form- literally, there is light at the end of the tunnel. And Erica has done nothing to deserve this light- rather, her killing has been justified, her way cleared, her conscience lifted. Sure, the Bride has gotten away with her killings too, as well as her daughter, but not only were there never any authority figures to serve as fatal contradictions here, the final image here is that of the Bride writhing on the bathroom floor, stuck between crying and laughing- her mission is over, she has got what she wants and more, but what to feel about this is a mystery- as she watches Bill die, an old man falling over in silence, Thurman's face is a mess of emotion: the Bride has recieved her revenge, finished her journey, but she has also killed the man she loved, the father of her child. The Bride serves as her own judge, recognizes the consequences of her actions, but now has to live her life for her child. Retribution may come back to her in turn ("... if you still feel raw about this, I'll be waiting."), and she knows it. But Erica is free, maybe not happy, but absolved of any guilt and retribution. The Bride is stuck on the floor of a motel bathroom, but Erica can walk freely through Central Park with her dog at her side.


Cal said...

Hey Dave.

You bring up some good points. I admit I never really would have thought of comparing the two, even though their setups are very similar. I guess it's because The Brave One treats the subject completely differently, and in a much different tone too. I did like how it seemed to want to discuss the subject of revenge - sometimes a little too desperately (I'm thinking of the radio phone-in).

The ending of the film is just terrible. It contradicts the attitude of both of its characters. A film like Panic Room got criticised quite a bit for sending the ever-sympathetic Forest Whitaker's character to jail, but for me it was the right decision. I probably couldn't like The Brave One, even if Erica had got what she deserved, because much of her journey plays out as absurd.

I have a question. Why did you prefer Kill Bill Vol. 1 to Vol. 2? I liked the latter more because I felt like I really knew her character, whereas the first was a thrilling exercise, but was pretty thin in terms of plot.

Dave said...

Liking Vol. 1 over Vol. 2 is really something that goes against my usual mindset, but I just found that Tarantino's action was far more interesting than his talk. Even if Vol. 2, I found the visceral scenes- the Elle and Bride fight, punching her way out of the coffin, etc.- more engaging than all of the chatter at the end. Tarantino's dialogue in his previous films was really their driving force, but I just thought he oversold everything here- he hammered home the peeling back of the mysteries and teasers he'd wound into Vol. 1 far too unsubtly. Example: Bill's Superman metaphor. You don't need to try and figure out what he's talking about, because he's going to spell it out to you. In the longest, most roundabout way.

I get that there's more emotional connection because we know more about her character, but I still prefer the way that aspects of that were drawn out in Vol. 1 by sly dialogue or Thurman's performance. Vol. 2 seemed to oversell everything.

Anyway. Thank you for commenting, and I hope that explanation makes some kind of sense.

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