Inglourious Basterds

Since 1994’s Pulp Fiction, whenever a new Tarantino film is announced, I read about it and find myself thinking about how stupid the film sounds. Usually watching the first trailers does little to assuage that feeling. But every time (every time) I actually see the movie, I end up loving it. Tarantino’s latest film, Inglourious Basterds, is no exception to this rule. It sounds lame: “… a group of Jewish-American soldiers known as ‘The Basterds’ are chosen specifically to spread fear throughout the Third Reich by scalping and brutally killing Nazis.” But it is a truly exceptional film, Tarantino’s best since Pulp Fiction and the best film of the year so far.

In truth, the short description above is only a small portion of the movie, and it’s the one that we’ve all seen in the trailers for the film. It concerns Lt. Aldo Raine (played with campy glee by Brad Pitt) and his small group of Basterds who hunt down and brutally murder Nazis. The other main plot thread deals with a young Jewish refugee named Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent) who narrowly escapes from the famed “Jew Hunter” Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz, in an award-winning performance). The rest of her family is not so lucky. She now runs a movie theater in Paris, and the premiere of a German propaganda film at her theater has attracted the entire German military leadership, up to and including Hitler. As you might imagine, this premiere interests both the Basterds and Shosanna for obvious reasons…

This is a thouroughly Tarantino film. If you like his style, you will love this film. It features many of his common tropes, including massive chunks of dialogue, the use of violence as a comedic element, and some interesting, offbeat casting. He also fits in his usual foot fetish, as a plot element no less. There is some winking at the audience, especially when it comes to the various asides (narrated by Sam Jackson), and Tarantino’s camera moves fluidly and frames the action well. As with all of Tarantino’s films, this one is a referential dream. The film is played as an homage to Spaghetti Westerns, 40s Noir and of course the WWII drama/action film, with tons of other filmic references thrown in for good measure (including the Tarantino staples of B-Movie, Grindhouse, and Exploitation). In particular, films like The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, Once Upon a Time in the West, and Cinema Paradiso are all practically direct references. All of Tarantino’s films have this obsession with movies, but in this case, the obsession becomes a literal plot element. The climax of the film takes place in a movie theater. A British soldier is chosen for his assignment because he was a movie critic as a civilian. And so on. It doesn’t take a genius to see the developing theme here.

Like James Berardinelli, I was also reminded of two somewhat recent WWII films: Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book and Bryan Singer’s Valkyrie, two films which explore similar themes ideas but which pale in comparison to Basterds. Black Book will retain a good reputation and it’s heroine shares a certain kinship with the heroine of Basterds. Valkyrie will not fare so well, perhaps playing Fail-Safe to the Basterds’ Dr. Strangelove (i.e. a straight movie completely outclassed and overshadowed by a comedic take on the same material)…

I already mentioned the dialogue, but it is worth further examination. There is a lot of dialogue in the movie and those who do not like Tarantino’s tendency to rely on such speachifying will probably not like this movie. That said, this is his best work since Pulp Fiction, and it is not nearly as indulgent as his script for Death Proof (which grated on a lot of people, even though I think that was the intended effect). This isn’t just Tarantino wanking with words, he uses them to wratchet up the tension to almost unbearable levels before releasing it all with fast, brutal action. There are several notable sequences, but the opening scene and a later scene in a bar stand out. I’m sure Tarantino will get dinged for making such a violent movie, but when you look at it closely, there really isn’t that much actual violence. To be sure, what is there is quite graphic and disturbing, but the dialogue-driven buildup to these events seems to increase the suggestive and sometimes even humorous nature of the violence. It reminded me a bit of how I felt watching Kill Bill:

Do you remember the scene in Pulp Fiction where Vincent blows Marvin’s head off by accident? Somehow, Tarantino is able to make that scene, and the ensuing events, funny. Not ha-ha funny, it’s still black comedy, but funny nonetheless. You don’t really know why you are laughing, but you are. And that is what this movie is like. It’s like two hours of that one scene in Pulp Fiction.

Basterds isn’t quite as heavy on the black comedic violence as Kill Bill, but Tarantino definitely employs that same style for the violence here. Of course, there’s plenty of other humor in evidence here as well, to the point where it’s tempting to call this movie an action/comedy. The setting of the film doesn’t exactly lend itself to humor, but Tarantino does a deft job making the proceedings fun.

The violence and dialogue are not simply an ends unto themselves, they actually serve the story. And it is quite an audactious story at that. It is so unabashedly American (and at times, British) that I have to wonder how it will play in the rest of the world… Indeed, it’s not surprising that the film did not screen well at Cannes (I’m interested to see what Alex thinks of it, considering we are honor bound to compare notes – his initial reaction seems positive). In any case, the film’s plot and especially its ending are bold and adventurous (I don’t want to ruin anything, so I’ll leave it at that), and all the characters you meet along the way are fun and well drawn. Brad Pitt is clearly enjoying himself while hamming it up (which is appropriate) as Lt. Aldo Raine. It’s easy to forget how good he can be in movies like this, and this is his best role in years. He gets a good portion of the funny lines and stories from the set about Pitt walking around in character indicate that Pitt really liked playing this character. Christoph Waltz’s turn as Colonel Hans Landa is brilliant and twisted. The character plays out like a Jew hunting, Nazi version of Columbo. Charismatic and disarming, he draws you in and makes you comfortable before pulling the rug out from beneath you. He plays the character with a slightly effeminate panache and you grow to hate him pretty quickly. Surely one of the best villains of the year. Melanie Laurent has what is probably the lead role in the film, though, and her performance as the strong-willed Shosanna Dreyfus is quite good, though not as showy as Waltz or Pitt. The smaller, supporting roles in the film are equally well casted and performed. I was a bit worried about the casting of Eli Roth as one of the Basterds (he’s not known for his acting abilities – Roth is most famous for being the director of the Hostel films), but he turned out fine and the Basterds wind up taking a backseat to the rest of the film, so his presence is somewhat limited. Martin Wuttke plays Hitler as a caricature, an interesting take that will no doubt be the basis for a second wave of Hitler Gets Banned style parodies. I didn’t recognize Mike Myers at first, but his 5 minute appearance as a British General is quite funny, and it’s a nice bit of quasi-referential casting there (i.e. hearing Mike Myers do a British accent, you can’t help but think of Austin Powers, even though the scene he appears in is played straight). Michael Fassbender has a nice supporting role as well, and I could probably keep going on and on about the casting and performances in this movie.

I always hate it when reviewers say this sort of thing, but I honestly didn’t realize that the film clocked in at a rather long 153 minutes. It feels exactly as long as it needed to be and it’s paced very well. In the end, Tarantino has crafted a great film, the best I’ve seen in a long time and the first one I’m giving 4 stars to since The Dark Knight (and one of only 3 in the past few years). If you really hate Tarantino, you probably won’t like it. If you don’t mind some of his typical eccentricities (i.e. dialogue, violence, uh, feet? etc…), you’re in for a treat. I’m amazed that after all these years, Tarantino is still able to surprise and thrill me. **** (4 out of 4 stars)