Nietzschean Themes in Tarantino's Kill Bill


It’s no secret that Nietzschean themes play an important role in Quentin Tarantino’s cinematic universe. For example, Mark T. Conard published an article in 1997 titled “Symbolism, Meaning & Nihilism in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction” which discusses the ways in which Marsellus Wallace’s will to power imposes values in the absence of an objective moral framework. Similarly, the name “Nietzsche” appears more than 30 times in the book Quentin Tarantino and Philosophy, and the Italian newspaper Il Giornale has published an article titled “Tarantino, il piccolo Nietzsche” (Tarantino, The Little Nietzsche). Despite all of this, I was still surprised by just how prominent Nietzschean themes are at the end of Tarantino’s Kill Bill films.

1. Beatrix Kiddo’s Will to Power

What is responsible for Beatrix Kiddo’s ultimate success in getting revenge on the assassins who tried to kill her at her wedding rehearsal outside of El Paso, TX? In the opening scenes of Kill Bill, Vol. 1, we get a hint at an answer. The film begins with the assassin called Bill shooting Beatrix through the head. Nevertheless, she still has enough spirit in her to spit blood in his face before passing out. She then lays in a coma for four years, only reviving when a pervert truck driver climbs on top of her after paying a nurse for twenty minutes with her unconscious body. Although the truck driver is more powerful than Beatrix when she is unconscious, he is no match for the highly trained assassin when she revives. Beatrix kills both the truck driver and the nurse before beginning her rampage.

Later, in Kill Bill, Vol. 2, an assassin named Budd and his hillbilly helper attempt to bury Beatrix alive. We learn that Beatrix trained under martial arts master Pai Mei who taught the other assassins in the group, including Bill. We also learn Pai Mei’s tutelage is conditional on the persistent desire for mastery in his students. When Beatrix initially shows some resistance to his antics, Pai Mei asks Beatrix, “Are you aware I kill at will?” Beatrix responds, “Yes.” Pai Mei then asks, “Is it your wish to die?” Beatrix answers, “No.” Pai Mei then commands her to strike him. She tries to, but she is no match for the old man’s skill. After Pai Mei has gotten Beatrix in a position where he can break her arm, he asks, “Compared to me you're as helpless as a worm fighting an eagle, aren't you?” The question is reminiscent of a passage from On the Genealogy of Morals in which Nietzsche states, “That lambs dislike great birds of prey does not seem strange: only it gives no ground for reproaching these birds of prey for bearing off little lambs” (Nietzsche, GM 1.13, trans. Kaufmann, p. 44). Pai Mei then asks, “Is it your wish to learn how to make others as helpless as you were?” Beatrix says yes.

Subsequently, Pai Mei agrees to train Beatrix. Under his tutelage, we begin to see the development of Beatrix’s indomitable will. Tarantino shows Beatrix spending days punching wooden blocks from a hand’s length away until her knuckles bleed. This technique comes in handy when Budd and his hillbilly helper decide to bury her in a wooden coffin because Beatrix is able to punch through the wood despite the lack of adequate space to make a good punch. Thus, Beatrix returns from the grave again, this time rather literally.

I think that we should view these narratives in Kill Bill, Vol. 1 and Kill Bill, Vol. 2 as corollaries. Both stories feature two men mocking and abusing Beatrix. In one scene, Beatrix spits blood in Bill’s face; in the other, she spits blood at Budd. In both scenes, Beatrix should have died, but doesn’t. Instead, she survives because her will to life is stronger than that of her opponents. Moreover, she is able to use all of her characteristics harmoniously to her advantage. She uses her intellect, beauty, physical strength, courage, anger, and determination to get what she wants. It is no coincidence that Beatrix was being married under the pseudonym “Arlene Machiavelli.” For both Nietzsche and Machiavelli, the will is primary and everything else, including reason, is subject to the will. In Kill Bill, Beatrix is ultimately successful because she desired to acquire more power than any of the other assassins on her murder list, including Bill who lacked the will to learn everything that Pai Mei could teach.

2. The Revaluation of Cruelty in Kill Bill

Tarantino’s depiction of cruelty in Kill Bill is also very Nietzschean. For instance, Budd shoots two shotgun shells loaded with rock salt into Beatrix’s breasts before loading her in his truck to be buried alive. As Budd watches Beatrix suffer, he chuckles to himself. He then calls Elle Driver, one of the other assassins, and says:

“You buy a ticket to Texas, and I'll see you here tomorrow mornin’. You give me a million in foldin cash, I'll give you the greatest sword ever made by a man. How's that sound?”
“Sounds like we got a deal. One condition.”
“You kill her tonight.”
“And one more thing.”
“You said one condition.”
“It's a caveat to the same condition.”
“She must suffer to her last breath.”
“That Elle darlin, I can pretty damn well guarantee.”

Here we see the antagonists of the story exulting in cruelty. One gets the feeling that they would agree with Nietzsche that “To see others suffer does one good, to make others suffer even more: this is a hard saying but an ancient, mighty, human, all-too-human principle to which even the apes might subscribe” (GM 2.6, p. 67).

However, we also see the story’s protagonist delight in the suffering of others. In fact, the desire to do so provides the psychological basis for Beatrix’s quest for revenge. Tarantino draws on Nietzsche’s psychological account of punishment in developing Beatrix’s psychology. Nietzsche asks “to what extent can suffering balance debts or guilt? To the extent that to make suffer was in the highest degree pleasurable, to the extent that the injured party exchanged for the loss he had sustained, including the displeasure caused by the loss, an extraordinary counterbalancing pleasure: that of making suffer” (GM 2.6, p. 65). In other words, revenge is transactional. Bill’s betrayal of Beatrix breaks her heart, so she in turn breaks his heart - quite literally by using the “Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique” which Pai Mei had not even taught to Bill. She exacts payment for the pain he caused her by causing him similar pain.

As Nietzsche might say:

‘everything has its price; all things can be paid for’ - the oldest and naïvest moral canon of justice, the beginning of all ‘good-naturedness,’ all ‘fairness,’ all ‘good will,’ all ‘objectivity’ on earth. Justice on this elementary level is the good will among parties of approximately equal power to come to terms with one another, to reach an ‘understanding’ by means of a settlement - and to compel parties of lesser power to reach a settlement among themselves.- (GM 2.8, pp. 70-71).

On this view, man is the measure of all things, as Protagoras famously said. Beatrix measures herself against the other assassins and finds them lacking. For one, she knows the “Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique,” which makes her stronger than any of the others. Consequently, she is able to compel the other assassins to repay her for her suffering with their own pain.

Furthermore, Budd suggests in a conversation with Bill that all value is relative to usefulness. Bill says to Budd:

“I know this is a ridiculous question before I ask, but you by any chance haven't kept up with your swordplay?”
“Hell, I pawned that years ago.”
“You pawned a Hattori Hanzo sword?”
“It was priceless.”
“Not in El Paso it ain't. In El Paso I got me 250 Dollars for it.”

In the film, Hattori Hanzo swords seem to be the only objects which have universal value among the assassins. Although Bill claims to have pawned the sword for $250, we later learn that he has it hidden in his trailer. Swords in Tarantino’s universe seem to be the kinds of things which always have value, at least for the kinds of people that Tarantino portrays in his films.

In Pulp Fiction, Tarantino represents Butch’s transformation by his choice of a Samurai sword over the hammer, baseball bat, and chainsaw when he decides to save Marsellus Wallace. Mark Conard points out:

The sword clearly stands out in the list. First, it’s meant to be a weapon, while the others are not… But it also stands out because the first three items (two of them particularly) are symbols of Americana. They represent the nihilism that Butch is leaving behind, whereas the Samurai sword represents a particular culture in which there is (or was) in place a very rigid moral framework, the kind of objective foundation that I’ve been saying is missing from these characters’ lives. The sword represents for Butch what the Biblical passage does for Jules: a glimpse beyond transient pop culture, a glimpse beyond the yawning abyss of nihilism to a way of life, a manner of thinking, in which there are objective moral criteria, there is meaning and value, and in which language does transcend itself.

Thus, Tarantino portrays cruelty in a very Nietzschean manner in Kill Bill. Beatrix’s psychology conforms to Nietzsche’s psychological account of revenge and punishment. The only things of value in Kill Bill are the kinds of things which are useful for the will to life. According to Nietzsche, cruelty can be very useful for life. Nietzsche claims:

It is not too much to say that even a partial diminution of utility, an atrophying and degeneration, a loss of meaning and purposiveness - in short, death - is among the conditions of an actual progressus, which always appears in the shape of a will and way to greater power and is always carried through at the expense of numerous smaller powers...mankind in the mass sacrificed to the prosperity of a single stronger species of man - that would be advance (GM 2.12, p. 78).

While Tarantino may not go so far as this, he does seem to portray cruelty as an outgrowth of the vivacity of his protagonists. Tarantino’s characters enjoy making others suffer. Cruelty makes life desirable for them.

3. Beatrix, Beyond Good and Evil

In the final scenes of the film, Bill digresses into a long discussion of superhero mythology. Given its importance, I will reproduce it below. Bill says to Beatrix:

As you know, l'm quite keen on comic books. Especially the ones about superheroes. I find the whole mythology surrounding superheroes fascinating. Take my favorite superhero, Superman. Not a great comic book. Not particularly well-drawn. Mmm. But the mythology... The mythology is not only great, it's unique. Now, a staple of the superhero mythology is, there's the superhero and there's the alter ego. Batman is actually Bruce Wayne, Spider-Man is actually Peter Parker. When that character wakes up in the morning, he's Peter Parker. He has to put on a costume to become Spider-Man. And it is in that characteristic Superman stands alone.

Superman didn't become Superman. Superman was born Superman. When Superman wakes up in the morning, he's Superman. His alter ego is Clark Kent. His outfit with the big red "S" - that's the blanket he was wrapped in as a baby when the Kents found him. Those are his clothes. What Kent wears - the glasses, the business suit - that's the costume. That's the costume Superman wears to blend in with us. Clark Kent is how Superman views us. And what are the characteristics of Clark Kent? He's weak...he's unsure of himself...he's a coward. Clark Kent is Superman's critique on the whole human race.

Sorta like Beatrix Kiddo and Mrs. Tommy Plimpton [had Beatrix married her boyfriend, her name would have changed from the pseudonym Arlene Machiavelli to Arlene Plimpton]. So. The point emerges. You would've worn the costume of Arlene Plimpton. But you were born Beatrix Kiddo. And every morning when you woke up, you'd still be Beatrix Kiddo.

Beatrix then asks, “Are you calling me a superhero?” Bill replies, “I'm calling you a killer. A natural born killer. You always have been, and you always will be.” In other words, Beatrix belongs among the strong by nature. She is not the kind of person who can simply marry a record-store owner and live her life as though she were not dangerous. Beatrix was born an eagle, not a worm, a bird of prey, not a lamb. Beatrix is a warrior by nature.

Significantly, the Samurai swords which Beatrix, Budd, Bill, and Butch use come from Japan. In On the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche identifies the Japanese as one of the peoples whose culture has produced great warriors. Nietzsche writes:

One cannot fail to see at the bottom of all these noble races the beast of prey, the splendid blond beast prowling about avidly in search of spoil and victory; this hidden core needs to erupt from time to time, the animal has to get out again and go back to the wilderness: the Roman, Arabian, Germanic, Japanese nobility, the Homeric heroes, the Scandinavian Vikings – they all shared this need (GM 1.11, pp. 40-41).

In addition to the imagery of the bird of prey which he uses elsewhere, Nietzsche conjures up the image of a lion when he speaks of the “blond beast.” The lion is one of the three metamorphoses of the spirit discussed in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. There, Zarathustra says, “The creation of freedom for oneself and a sacred ‘No’ even to duty – for that…the lion is needed” (Z p. 139). For Nietzsche, the lion represents the strong person who has the power to disregard morality, like the assassins in Kill Bill.

Interestingly, at the end of the film, Tarantino displays the following text on the screen: “The lioness has been reunited with her cub, and all is right in the jungle.” We can conclude that not only for Nietzsche, but also for Tarantino the lion is significant. Nietzsche himself may have taken this imagery from the Homeric epics. As Achilles says to Hector, “There are no binding oaths between men and lions – wolves and lambs can enjoy no meeting of the minds” (Hom. Il. 22.310-311). Likewise, Homer relates that “As a lion springs on flocks unguarded, shepherd gone, pouncing on goats or sheep and claw-mad for the kill, so Tydeus’ son went tearing into that Thracian camp until he’d butchered twelve” (Hom. Il. 10.561-564). The Greek heroes celebrate the deaths of the twelve Thracians they killed while sleeping when they return to the camp of the Achaeans.

Unlike the modern man, whom Christian morality has influenced in innumerable subtle ways, the characters of the Iliad delight in overcoming one another. Achilles in his godlike strength is able to live above morality. He has what Nietzsche calls “the innocent conscience of the beast of prey” (GM 1.11, p. 40). Thus, Nietzsche writes, “Achilles, who maltreats Hector’s corpse… is offensive to us and makes us shudder” (HC, p. 33). And should we not shudder? Nietzsche thinks not, for he sees man fully integrated into nature in the character of Achilles. Hence Nietzsche begins Homer’s Contest:

Man, in his highest and noblest capacities, is wholly nature and embodies its uncanny dual character. Those of his abilities which are terrifying and considered inhuman may even be the fertile soul out of which alone all humanity can grow in impulse, deed, and work. Thus the Greeks, the most humane men of ancient times, have a trait of cruelty, a tigerish lust to annihilate… (HC 33).

Like Achilles, Beatrix exercises strength free from social constraints precisely because her nature is strong, and she cannot act other than she is. Consequently, when Beatrix tells Bill that she is a bad person, Bill can say, “You’re not a bad person… You’re my favorite person. But every once in a while you can be a real cunt.” One can imagine Nietzsche whispering in the background that a killer cannot do anything other than kill.

Thus, Tarantino absolves Beatrix of guilt for all of the murdering and killing that she has done. She was born this way, or so Tarantino tells us. She’s a lion, and lions do not lay down with lambs in Tarantino’s world.

4. The True, the Good, the Beautiful, and the Interesting?

Finally, what is perhaps the most Nietzschean theme in Kill Bill is the film’s agonistic affirmation of life. When Elle Driver comes to Budd’s trailer to buy the Samarai sword he took from Beatrix, Budd cooly states that the number one killer of old people is retirement. He explains that when people feel that they have a job to do, i.e. when they feel that there is some purpose to life, they live longer. Our jobs distract us purposelessness, from nihilism. Budd then tells Elle, “I’ve always figured that warriors and their enemies share the same relationship. So now that you're not gonna have to face your enemy no more on the battlefield, which ‘R’ ya filled with? Relief or regret?” Elle responds that she feels a bit of both, to which Budd calls BS. He asks again. She answers, “Regret.”

For the assassins in Kill Bill, the struggle with their enemies keeps life interesting. The contest distracts them from the purposelessness of their lives. Indeed, Nietzsche named his essay Homer’s Contest because it is about the role of the agon (contest) in the Greek world. Nietzsche thought the Greeks used contests as a seduction to life. Contests come in two kinds: 1) those which are non-destructive like the Olympic games, the annual contests among the tragedians, or the competition among philosophers to provide the best account of the world and 2) those which lead to annihilation like the Trojan War.

On the one hand, peaceful contests produce culture. It is from them that the Greeks invented plays, sculptures, poems, science, and philosophy. Awards were given to the best playwrights; sculptors competed to see who could produce the most seductive likeness; the poets struggled to fit narratives within the confines of meter; the first scientists contended with each other to see who could best account of the physical world; and the philosophers struggled against all the rest. Consequently, Nietzsche writes in The Birth of Tragedy, “The same drive which calls art into being to complete and perfect existence and thus to seduce us into continuing to live, also gave rise to the world of the Olympians… Thus gods justify the life of men by living it themselves - the only satisfactory theodicy!” (BT p. 24). Likewise, in Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks, Nietzsche writes:

In other times and places, the philosopher is a chance wanderer… Among the Greeks alone, he is not an accident. When he appears in the sixth and fifth centuries, among the enormous dangers and temptations of increasing secularization… we may suspect that he comes, a distinguished warning voice, to express the same purpose to which the tragic drama was born during that century (PTAG p. 33).

Philosophy, like tragedy, arrived to save Greek culture from meaninglessness. It came as the highest form of contest known to the Greeks, and Nietzsche himself felt compelled to compete with them.

On the other hand, the second kind of contest destroys the cultural products produced during periods of peace. Thus, Nietzsche claims, “If a temple is to be erected, a temple must be destroyed: that is the law” (GM 2.24, p. 95). By destroying the products of culture, violence makes way for the birth of a new culture. This is why Nietzsche says in the opening to Homer’s Contest that “Those of [man’s] abilities which are terrifying and considered inhuman may even be the fertile soul out of which alone all humanity can grow in impulse, deed, and work.” Despite the destruction that violence wreaks, Nietzsche thinks that violence can be seductive. Accordingly, Nietzsche writes, “Today, when suffering is always brought forward as the principle argument against existence… one does well to recall the ages in which the opposite opinion prevailed because men were unwilling to refrain from making suffer and saw in it an enchantment of the first order, a genuine seduction to life” (GM 2.7, p. 67). Just as tragedy and philosophy make life interesting, so the prospect of violence activates the warrior’s innate psychological desire for life.

Consequently, it is only after contending with each of the other assassins and killing them that Beatrix is able to have a new life. She tears down the old temple, represented by the assassins in the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, in order to create a new one, represented by her daughter, B.B.. After war, comes peace. Nevertheless, Tarantino places no culpability on Beatrix for the kinds of destruction she caused in her former life. Instead, Tarantino represents Beatrix as the source of her own salvation; she saves herself by her own might. Her only absolution is the death of her enemies. These are indeed very Nietzschean ideas.

5. Bibliography

Conard, Mark. “Symbolism, Meaning & Nihilism in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction.” Philosophy Now, 1997.

Greene, Richard and K. Silem Mohammad. Quentin Tarantino and Philosophy: How to Philosophize With a Pair of Pliers and a Blowtorch. Peru, Il: Open Court, 2007.

Homer. The Iliad. Edited by Bernard Knox. Translated by Robert Fagles. Reissue edition. New York, N.Y: Penguin Classics, 1998.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good & Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future. Translated by Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage, 1989.

———. “Homer’s Contest.” In The Portable Nietzsche, translated by Walter Kaufmann, US Ed edition., 32–39. New York: Penguin Books, 1977.

———. On the Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo. Translated by Walter Kaufmann, Reissue edition. New York: Vintage, 1989.

———. Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks. Translated by Marianne Cowan, Gateway edition. New York: Regnery Publishing, 1962.

———. The Birth of Tragedy and Other Writings. First Edition. Cambridge, U.K. ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

———. The Gay Science: With a Prelude in Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs. Translated by Walter Kaufmann. 1 edition. New York: Vintage, 1974.

———. “Thus Spoke Zarathustra.” In The Portable Nietzsche, translated by Walter Kaufmann, US Ed edition., 121–442. New York: Penguin Books, 1977.

Siniscalchi, Claudio. “Tarantino, il piccolo Nietzsche.” Il Giornale, March, 2014.