There’s a scene fairly early in Inglourious Basterds (no, I haven’t forgot how to use spell check and yes, it’s done on purpose) where Brad Pitt talks to a German soldier whom he wants to recruit to his band of sadistic Nazi killers. Pitt says he “admires his work” and takes pride in his recognition of a skilled artist. Funny, that’s probably exactly what I’d say in an exchange between myself and the film’s writer/director, Quentin Tarantino, if ever the opportunity presents itself.
Of course, I would be admiring Tarantino’s skills as a writer, his flair for creating memorable characters, and the way he takes all of his love and knowledge of films and throws them in a blender to create something all his own. Mostly, I’d thank him for making great movies that I never grow tired of watching.
All of those movies, specifically those he’s written and directed—Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, Kill Bill vols. 1 and 2, Death Proof and now Inglourious Basterds—are fantastic in each their own way. Call me a fanboy, but I love everything he touches, and I don’t apologize for admitting that bias here.
Those of you who disagree with me in part or total have probably already quit reading. For those who are sticking out this review through the end, whether you love Tarantino or hate him, you should listen to this, ’cause this concerns you: Inglourious Basterds will not convert the haters, but it will satisfy and entertain the lovers. I’m not a gambling man by any stretch of the imagination, but I’d have no qualms betting my entire DVD collection, complete with every title listed in the above paragraph, on that.
Some will complain that the film’s structure, pacing, character asides, and lengthy dialogue make for a boring and unnecessarily long running time of 153 minutes. Said moviegoer can’t be wrong if this is the way he or she feels, but I would counter: what the hell film did you think you were going to? Tarantino makes long films with lots of talking. This is nothing new. That’s what he does. If you didn’t like it before, you won’t like it now.
Do I have some issues with the film? Sure, but nothing that turns me off completely. The performance of Eli Roth—a friend of Tarantino and director of the Hostel films—is not up to par with the rest of the cast. He’s not terrible, but his character’s Boston accent is fleeting, dropping in and out from one scene to the next (strange since Roth grew up in Boston).
Another minor quibble is in the film’s structure, which is nearly identical to Kill Bill vol. 1 (even a lengthy, complicated crane shot in the Basterds final chapter is reminiscent of a similar shot at a similar point in Kill Bill). This is yet another revenge story from Tarantino. I’m hoping with this, his third film in a row on the subject, he can move on and pursue a new theme with his future projects. I’m complaining, but not that much. And to be totally honest, I dig the chapter layout, which gives his films a unique flow and the feeling of a moving novel, but it just felt too repetitive in a way I’ve yet to see from Tarantino until now.
Anyone hungry, or more likely fooled by the film’s misleading marketing campaign, needs to be aware this is not a World War II action film by any stretch of the imagination. The trailers for the film have focused almost entirely on the Basterds storyline. This is only half of the story.
The film is laid out in 5 chapters (sound familiar?), beginning with the aptly titled “Once Upon a Time…in Nazi-occupied France.” You will not see Brad Pitt or his gang at all in this first 20-plus minutes. They don’t factor in the larger story until later, and they are only part of a varied cast of characters. In this opening chapter, which contains some of Tarantino’s best dialogue yet and the introduction of one of his most brilliant characters (more on him later), the seeds are planted for the film’s revenge plot. Shosanna Dreyfus, played nicely by the beautiful Mélanie Laurent, escapes death at the hands of the Nazis after witnessing the massacre of her entire family. She will go on to own and operate a French cinema house that is the setting for an audacious and brilliant ending.
Along the line, we learn of the Basterds and their means of Jewish retribution. Pitt, having a lot of fun chewing up many memorable lines like a dog ripping apart a porterhouse, is Lt. Aldo Raine, a hillbilly with Indian blood from Tennessee who leads his men and demands from each of them 100 Nazi scalps. They oblige him, and in classic Tarantino style we see several gory, brutal examples of scalping throughout. The Basterds’ path leads inexorably to Shosanna’s as they team up for Operation Kino (a loving reference, I imagine, to the DVD distribution company).
The goal of Kino? Take out the upper ranks of the Third Reich in one fell swoop—including Hitler himself, who actually makes an appearance here. He is exaggerated and cartoonish as played by German actor Martin Wuttke, but I loved it. I’ve seen the definitive Hitler portrayal in the wonderful German film Downfall, so this take is welcome. It fits perfectly with the tone of this film that is both, let’s say, fantastical and historically revisionist at the same time.
In between all this insanity (and this film is batshit insane in the best and most enjoyable way) we see Mike Myers playing a British officer, Michael Fassbender (so wonderful in last year’s Hunger) as a British film critic recruited to Kino for his knowledge of German cinema, Diane Kruger as a German movie star, and the usual overstuffed pastiche of film references from Tarantino, most of which won’t affect your enjoyment whether you notice them or not. All of which, and for several other reasons I won’t delve into here, leads me to believe this is Tarantino’s love letter to the power of cinema. It’s hard to deny after the credits have rolled.
Some of Tarantino’s best work is on display here. The film looks amazing, shot by Robert Richardson, who photographed the entire Kill Bill saga. Since Saving Private Ryan the audience has come to expect a certain look with World War II movies. You know the look: that grainy, handheld camerawork de-saturated of colors. That is not the look here, and it’s refreshing to say the least.
Tarantino pretty much throws every cliché of WWII movies out the window. He also does his usual thing of showing you the stuff that’s typically left on the cutting room floor of most films in the genre. There are no massive battles, only intimate exchanges of chatter leading up to explosions of violence. The climax of Reservoir Dogs features a standoff between four characters, ending in bloody gunshots. Well, Tarantino puts that to shame in a barroom scene with his best shootout yet that happens so fast and among so many characters you’d need to watch it in slow motion just to see who shoots who.
I really loved this film. It’s better than Kill Bill and Death Proof. It’s also Tarantino’s most suspenseful film to date. His handling of tension is masterful; he pulls the string taught and makes you wait forever until it snaps. So much of the story will leave the audience gripping their seats and biting their nails in anticipation of how each chapter will end. Violence and mayhem is on the precipice of every scene. Like a Hitchcock film, you know something terrible will happen, but you don’t know when.
But it is in the creation of Col. Hans Landa, played vividly by Christoph Waltz, that Tarantino has his greatest triumph. Landa speaks English, German, Italian, and French fluently throughout the entire film (which is about 50% subtitled) and does so with such panache and cunning wit that I dare say he is on par with such recent unforgettable screen villains as Heath Ledger’s Joker and Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh. Waltz plays with Tarantino’s dialogue like a seasoned dancer. The way the words roll off his tongue as well as the subtext he adds to almost every sentence makes for a master class in acting. Look for Waltz come Oscar season.
Quentin Tarantino makes genre movies for people bored with typical genre movies. He is a true auteur, and for that people either love or loathe his films. Rarely is there an in-between. It’s pretty obvious what he thinks of Basterds via the final line of the film (which I won’t spoil here), to which I can’t agree entirely. But this is a great film nonetheless. Just don’t expect something different from the man because he’s making a WWII film. I didn’t, and I enjoyed the hell out of this movie.
Erik McClanahan is a freelance film journalist and critic in Minneapolis. He is also co-host of KFAI’s Movie Talk.
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