Film Reviews

Inglourious Basterds Quentin Tarantino

Rating - 9/10

A mainstay of the movie geek gossip mill for nearly a decade, Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds has still managed to arrive as, mostly, a surprise.  The known premise, and the thrust of the film's marketing, has concentrated on the titular unit of Jewish American soldiers dropped into France before D-Day for the sole purpose of murdering and terrorizing Nazis.  Of course no such unit existed, and they are a reflection on the breezy disregard for history that is reflected in the playful, handwritten title font that recalls Jonathan Demme character comedies more than reverent war dramas.

The Basterds are broadly drawn cartoons in the grey occupied landscape, barely distinguished beyond one spectacular backstory and a few stock traits among them all.  Providing a single memorable personality is leader Brad Pitt, lending one of his deft character turns as hardbitten Tennesseean Aldo Raine.  Pitt is pretty enough to be consistently under-rated as a character actor, but it is in these roles he shines most, and he now has enough age to step into this grizzled comic strip hero and give the Basterds a charismatic avatar.

Given this premise and these semetic badasses as the marketed stars, not to mention Tarantino's reputation, one might be forgiven for expecting an over-the-top bloodbath.  Indeed, when violence does transpire, it is just as shocking, brutal, and gory as the director has led us to expect.  What is unexpected, however, is how much the star of the movie is Tarantino the writer, and just how little a part the Basterds proper play.  The exploits of the mean lean Nazi killing machines are used for broad relief to the subtler story strands of Melanie Laurent's Shosanna Dreyfus and her personal revenge upon the Nazi menace that murdered her family, personified primarily by sublime villain Christoph Walz as Jew Hunter in Charge Hans Landa.

While the Basterds' adventures are thrilling and Pitt is effortlessly entertaining, the Europeans win the acting derby hands down.  Laurent is every bit as powerful and sexy as Uma Thurman's Bride in Tarantino's Kill Bill films, and lends her own shades of poignance, tragedy and witty, righteous fury to Shosanna.  Waltz rightfully took an award home from Cannes for his indelible villain (and should take the Oscar next year if the Academy has any sense).  With Hitler and Goebbels hilariously reduced to mincing, bumbling clowns, it falls on Landa to be the strong Nazi antagonist.  Waltz is terrifying in the role, but not in any expected way.  Of course he is psychopathic and sadistic, but he is not a snarling beast.  Waltz has Landa take a vain actor's relish in his terror, forcing his victims to squirmendlessly as he dances around them with malicious, conversational playfulness.

Perhaps the most dialog-heavy summer movie this year, Inglourious Basterds takes the form of a series of perfectly conceived anecdotes punctuated with sudden bursts of sharp, bloody violence.  The corresponding episodes are very loosely linked, and no story thread is developed in more detail than it need be.  This is not a flaw, however, as much as a result of Tarantino's confidence as a storyteller.  For the first two thirds, Tarantino creates a hypnotic rhythm of sustained suspense, with every intoxicating, seemingly endless exchange packed densely with multiple layers of deception and the ever-present threat of violence.  Within this framework, it is a perverse relief when, say, we are treated to watching the "Bear Jew" (Tarantino BFF Eli Roth, director of the Hostel movies and a pretty terrible actor with a good look) pummel a Nazi to death with a baseball bat.

Eventually, the main stories converge at a cinema full of Nazis for the debut screening of an eagerly anticipated bit of ultraviolent propoganda.  Up to this point, Tarantino has liberally sprinkled his soundtrack with keen anachronisms (Billy Preston and David Bowie pop up) and freely cribbed his favorite devices from postwar cinema, but has relatively restrained himself (this is nowhere near the pop fantasia of Kill Bill, for instance).  There is a point, however, when the reels switch and the onscreen Nazi fantasy is replaced with a message of vengeance.  It is at that point that Tarantino the beast is unleashed and Inglourious Basterds reveals it's true identity: that of an overdue corrective to such bloody Nazi propoganda.

The apocalyptic theatre sequence boldly, unambiguously relishes the violence and destruction.  A more timid filmmaker may have felt some instinct to deepen the characters or draw a more subtle arc.  Tarantino, however, sticks by his decision to vilify Nazis just as much as they vilified Jews in their charming entertainments.  The film can't help but raise some questions about revenge and sacrifice, but do not mistake Inglorious Basterds as a rumination.  This is not a movie about the psychic toll of it is a revenge movie.  While the bloodthirsty chaos of the climax may seem disturbing because of just how invigorating it is, it is also undeniably beautiful and gratifying in a very visceral way.  Concede these facts and Inglourious Basterds stands as another great movie by Quentin Tarantino.