Kill Bill | Setups and Payoffs Part One

Like Hannibal in The A-Team, I love it when a plan comes together, but especially when it happens in a screenplay in the form of a terrific, unforeseen Payoff to an earlier Setup. If you can call back to an earlier scene and reward me for remembering it, then surprise me with a clever way to use that knowledge, you’ve got me.

The second half of Kill Bill: Vol. 2 has some of my favorite payoffs and they’re all linked to the flashback sequence entitled “The Cruel Tutelage of Pai Mei,” in which The Bride (Uma Thurman) receives her training. Firstly, I love training sequences and this one has some really cool details with a hearty dose of humor to go along with it. But it’s still a flashback, which is inherently the story going backwards, in other words, not the crucial “active storytelling” wherein every scene advances the story and brings about some kind of change.

So writer/director Quentin Tarantino makes sure to do two things:

  • Bookend the flashback sequence with the beginning and ending of a scene in the present timeline that advances the story and causes change, and…
  • Since it’s the Midpoint, which should launch new lines of action to push to the end of Act Two and/or the Climax, he pays it off twice more at those two signpost beats.

In the training sequence, we learn three things:

  1. The Bride was abused by her mentor Pai Mei but always respected him as a Master and grew to love him.
  2. The Bride spent weeks toughening her hands by punching wooden beams.
  3. The Bride asked to be taught the “Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique” but Pai Mei refused.

Going into the flashback, we saw The Bride buried alive in a coffin. Coming out of the flashback, we return to the coffin; she’s panicking as the oxygen runs out and all seems hopeless. Until she begins to punch her hand through the wooden top of the coffin. The wood splits, dirt pours into the coffin and she escapes. It’s a thrilling and satisfying moment, much more so than if we had not just seen the flashback that showed us the hell she went through to toughen her hands for this feat.

Later, when she’s battling one-eyed Elle Driver (Darryl Hannah) in the trailer, both women pause to face off and trade some barbs. Elle reveals that Pai Mei (who also trained her) plucked out her eye when she called him an old fool. Later, she got her revenge by murdering him! This sends The Bride into a rage — she charges Elle and the two warriors cross swords — it looks like Elle is going to overpower our hero, when, suddenly, The Bride plucks out Elle’s good eye! I couldn’t help but cheer at that one. (And I must admit that I also enjoyed when she squished Elle’s eye under her foot.)

In the Climax, The Bride finally meets up with Bill, numero uno on her off list, and we know there must be blood. This is what the entire saga has been building up to. Hell, it’s in the friggin’ title — she has to kill Bill! So when they have a rather relaxed conversation and he even lets her spend time with her daughter, it’s disarming to us and the tension builds. When Bill acknowledges that the time to duel has come, a sword fight breaks out, as expected (since The Bride has dispatched many a combatant with her trusty Hatori Hanso blade). But this time, we’re surprised when the battle comes to an abrupt ending — The Bride unleashes a move we haven’t yet seen but we know immediately what it is: the five point palm exploding heart technique!

Even Bill is shocked that Pai Mei taught the secret method to her. Obviously,she was taught it offscreen in the flashback and we were led to believe it never happened, for the express purpose of strengthening this payoff.

Go to: I Love You, Man: Setups and Payoffs Part 2

Good Luck and Happy Writing,

Dan

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