David Carradine's performance in Kill Bill: Vol. 2 was one of my favourite supporting turns of 2004 and I figured he'd get an Oscar nod for sure. I mean, aside from the fact that the performance is great, he also had that Tarantino career revival magic that worked for John Travolta in Pulp Fiction and Robert Forster in Jackie Brown (though, unbelievably, that same magic failed for Pam Grier in that same film). Alas, it was not to be and the nominees that year were Alan Alda for The Aviator, Jamie Foxx for Collateral, Thomas Haden Church for Sideways, Clive Owen for Closer, and the eventual winner Morgan Freeman for Million Dollar Baby. For me, the solution to slipping Carradine in is easy: remove Foxx, who was also nominated that year (and won) for Ray and whose performance in Collateral was anything but supporting. It seems obvious, but of course Foxx had a massive amount of hype to propel him into a nomination.
In Kill Bill, Carradine has a tough job. He has to make Bill scary and intense - a job he started in Vol. 1 as little more than a disembodied voice - but he also has to make the man human enough that we believe in his relationship with The Bride. From the start of the film Tarantino has Carradine walking that fine line, affectionately (though cautiously) reuniting with The Bride and then sitting back and letting the underlying tension between them explode in the form of an assassination attempt. Later he tells her that he acted impulsively out of hurt ("overreacted," he says) and in a surprisingly short number of scenes, Carradine has managed to give Bill enough shading that we can believe that he believes that he cares for her so much that he just had to destroy her. It's messed up, but what relationship in Kill Bill isn't?
In flashbacks we see Bill and The Bride in happier times (though, not for long, as he's about to drop her off for an arduous training experience), their relationship light and playful. She is obviously enamoured with him and dazzled by his knowledge and he seems protective and caring. It's still pretty creepy because his affection seems so paternal, but it shows another side to the relationship and the characters. A conversation with his brother, Budd, and scenes with his daughter B.B. have much the same effect, showing Bill as a human being rather than a shadowy, unstoppable force of evil. His existence is not defined solely by his desire to torture The Bride, but by a history that has left him unable to disengage love from hate or to solve any problem except through violence. When B.B. asks if he shot The Bride because he didn't know what would happen to her, he says, "What I didn't know, when I shot mommy, is what would happen to me... I was very sad. And that was when I learned that some things, once you do, they can never be undone." He's a man who would cut off his nose to spite his face simply because he knows no other way.
But make no mistake that Bill is a changed man who has learned the error of his ways. He's still perfectly willing to finish the job with The Bride and he's not willing to give her an inch for the sake of making amends. If she's going to make good on her promise to kill him, she'll have to earn it and he'll come at her with everything he has. What I love about the clip above - aside from the Tarantino crafted monologue - is Carradine's calmly sinister manner. He's cool and in control and maybe enjoying it just a little bit as he shuffles through all of the emotions she inspires in him. It's clear that he sees himself less as her destroyer than her savior - he made her the person she was always meant to be and she repaid him through rejection and betrayal. Their relationship is so complicated because Bill isn't a cartoon villain with a one track mind and no connection to human feeling; he feels everything intensely and takes everything personally.
Before Carradine was cast, the role of Bill was apparently offered to both Warren Beatty and Kevin Costner. It's hard to imagine either of those actors in the part (though I have an easier time picturing Beatty than Costner), so completely does Carradine fit. He plays the part like he's wearing a well tailored suit, guiding the character naturally through the plot and leaving an indelible mark. It's an excellent and memorable performance. Too bad Oscar politics got in the way of it being recognized.