Around the midpoint of Quentin Tarantino’s new film, Inglourious Basterds, a character is questioned about the inclusion of a director’s name on her theater marquee. “I’m French,” she responds. “We respect directors in our country.” That’s the first of two comments aimed as much at off-screen critics as it is towards other onscreen characters, but it’s also one of handful of references Tarantino makes here about films and filmmakers in general (and their power in particular). His new movie is a deliriously cinematic experience filled with brilliant dialogue, fantastic performances, sudden violence, and assured directing. Fancy adjectives aside, Inglourious Basterds is also a shit-ton of fun and possibly the most entertaining movie of the whole goddamn summer.
It begins with one of the best opening scenes I’ve seen in quite some time. A dairy farmer in 1940’s rural France swings his axe at a stump outside the small shack he shares with his daughters as four Germans approach on motorcycles. Upon arrival the Nazi officer requests to talk with the farmer alone inside his home. The two men discuss milk, nicknames, duty, vermin (actually the Nazi does most of the talking)… this goes on for roughly twenty minutes or more, but it’s never less than fascinating. Why is a scene of two guys chatting one of the best and most interesting of the year? Two big reasons… Christoph Waltz’ stunning portrayal of Col. Hans Landa and Tarantino’s razor-sharp script. We’re moving towards something violent and terrible, and even before the camera slowly dips below the floorboards to reveal a family of Jews hiding for their lives we know that not everyone will live to squeeze another cow udder.
That first scene represents chapter one out of the five that comprise Inglourious Basterds, and it also serves to encapsulate all that makes the movie great. There are laughs, both legitimate and nervous, it introduces an extremely talented new actor to American movie-goers, and an inexorable tension leads you firmly along moving from whimsy to curiosity to terror… The rest of the film follows that formula, but it does so by periodically shifting the ingredients a bit. Some scenes are laugh-aloud funny, some are brutal and cringe-inducing, some are emotionally heavy, and some will have the audience cheering and clapping. The remaining four chapters introduce us to the Basterds, the mysterious and beautiful owner of a Parisian theater, a British OSS-led assassination plot, and then culminates in thirty-minutes of pure bliss filled with suspense, heartbreak, surprises, and grindhouse-inspired carnage. It’s a beautiful thing to behold.
It needs to be said that regardless of what the marketing for the film is trying to tell you, the movie is about more than just Brad Pitt and his rampaging Basterds. Which should also tell you that this is not a full-on action movie. There are three story threads running through the film that all wind together towards an explosive finale. (I’ll give a brief rundown of each, but my preference for movies that are strong in story and plot is to let the audience experience it for themselves.) Pitt’s squad of Jewish-American soldiers played by Eli Roth, BJ Novak, and others is formed with a simple mission… terrorize and kill as many Nazis as possible. They do so in brutal and bloody ways, and in the rare circumstances where they do leave a survivor it’s with a lasting mark by which to remember them. A second storyline finds the British OSS planning and orchestrating a bold and decisive assassination. A low-key (but still miscast) Mike Myers is the general behind the plan who sends Lt. Archie Hickox (Michael Fassbender) into France to lead the mission alongside the Basterds. The third thread, and the source of the film’s heart and soul, follows a Jewish woman named Shosanna (Melanie Laurent) who’s hiding in plain sight in German-occupied Paris. A famous German soldier becomes smitten with her and arranges for her theater to host a high profile premiere for a new propaganda film by Joseph Goebbels. She’s spent the last several years trying to survive simply by blending in, but when the opportunity arises it’s her actions that lead to the film’s incredible final conflagration.
Much praise has already been bestowed upon Waltz’ Col. Landa, and the performance deserves every bit of it (and more). Landa is a master interrogator and detective (he even pulls out a pipe early on that would make Sherlock Holmes jealous), and Waltz presents his evil machinations as part of an irresistible and infectious force. Even knowing what Landa’s intentions are you can’t help but be charmed and mesmerized by Waltz’ charisma, playful spirit, and winking expressions. He’s the loquacious Nazi uncle we all wish we had as children… at least until he knows you’re his, the laughter and smiles disappear, and he stares at you with a icy and predetermined resolve. At which point you’re completely fucked. Waltz could play nothing but interrogators for the rest of his career, and I would never tire of watching him work. (And while that may be better than his current resume of German TV movies, I hope he actually gets a bit more variety.) Laurent’s is the other fantastic performance here as Shosanna runs the gamut of emotions from loss to love to fear to rage. Watch the scene in the cafe where she meets Landa unexpectedly for the second time, watch her beautiful but terror-filled face as she silently pleads not to be left alone with him, and see if you aren’t moved. (And if you’re like me you’ll also immediately begin adding her other work to your Netflix queue.)
Tarantino wisely eschews his love of time manipulation in favor of telling a straight-forward (well linear anyway) story. And while he doesn’t play with time, he most certainly toys with history. By that I mean he doesn’t let history get in the way of the story he and his characters have to tell, and it’s a welcome freedom. He also changes his tune when it comes to the film’s soundtrack. With one surprising and anachronistic exception, the film is absent his usual selection of pop and rock cues. Instead we get an incredible score from Ennio Morricone (not original, but still perfectly used) that drives the action, suspense, and emotions equally well. Another Tarantino habit has been the inclusion of odes and homages to films of the past, and while he still does that here he also gives some more direct and meaningful love to the cinema itself. The theater is a beautiful reproduction of the kind of experience modern day cineplexes haven’t offered in years, and here Tarantino turns it into the final battleground between good and evil. His camera follows Shosanna loading film into the projector, her hands working the sprockets and spool box doors efficiently and lovingly. The propaganda film, Nation’s Pride, is meant to rally the Nazis, and Tarantino’s film around it is meant to rally the modern day audience (and it succeeds).
Pitt’s performance shouldn’t surprise anyone, but it may serve as a reminder that he’s at his best in roles that lean oddly comedic. Some may see his Tennessee mountain-man as a caricature, and while I’m open to that argument his commitment to the character and delivery of some of the film’s funniest lines has won me over regardless. Most of the remaining performances are solid, but two of them stand out as less than that. On the minor end, Fassbender misplays his British film critic-turned-soldier by over-doing the “jolly good” bits of dialogue most severely when we first meet him opposite Myers. The fact that Myers gives the more subdued performance of the two is shocking to say the least. And then there’s Eli Fucking Roth. He plays a Basterd nicknamed “The Bear-Jew” by the Nazi soldiers who’ve heard tales of him bashing in heads with a baseball bat. The character is imposing enough to overcome most of Roth’s suckage, but not enough of it. He murders every piece of dialogue he’s given, misses every comedic beat (aside from one involving Italian hand gestures), and his expressions consist solely of smarmy smirk or pursed-lipped psycho stare. It’s almost enough to wish Tarantino had played the role himself… okay, that’s not true, but Roth is pretty damn bad.
There are a handful of smaller issues in addition to Roth’s poor thespian skills including a light feeling of inconsistency that runs throughout the film. Tarantino’s use of subtitles is generous and much-appreciated, but there are a handful of scenes (or even parts of otherwise translated scenes) that exist without them. These aren’t just background dialogue snippets, these are characters front and center saying things I don’t understand when a minute later their words are again transcribed for my uni-lingual ears. The inclusion of Samuel L. Jackson’s voice narrating Stiglitz’ introduction and a very short lesson on nitrate-based film gets a laugh from the audience, but it’s distracting as hell. And even if it wasn’t, to use it only twice in a 153-minute film seems unnecessary and gimmicky. And speaking of Stiglitz’ stylized intro, he’s the only Basterd who gets such a lead-in. Regardless of how enjoyable that mini-movie intro is (and it is very cool), it again stands apart from the rest of the film. And to show how open I was to finding faults with the film, I also took issue with the opening credits that change fonts four times… why? It stands out and takes the attention away from the excellent opening theme music.
These are valid criticisms, but their presence doesn’t make the film any less enjoyable. As wild as things may get, Tarantino always demonstrates a firm grip on what we’re seeing and hearing. This is easily his most mature and assured film, and while it’s filled with his stylistic touches it’s devoid of idiosyncrasies that exist just for the sake of it (although Jackson explaining the properties of nitrate film to us comes close). His writing here avoids unnecessary detours into wacky pop culture tangents meant solely to up the ‘cool’ factor, and he shows an almost mastery of character, dialogue, and pacing. I’ve always felt the abundance of critical praise heaped on him over the years was misguided, but it turns out it was just premature. His skills and confidence as a director have now grown into that praise, and he strikes a knowing balance between moments of quiet reflection (no, really) and scenes of balls out sudden violence. The film is filled with beautiful and striking images… a shot framed by an open door as a girl runs for her life, cameras that glide up and over walls to follow their prey, the face of a laughing ghost flickering within some smoke, deaths marked by brutality and sadness. Have you ever cared about or found yourself worried for a Tarantino character? Probably not… at least not until now.
The pain, violence, and absurdity of every World War II genre film ever made has probably played before Tarantino’s eyes at one point or another. Inglourious Basterds is him filtering it all through his wit, enthusiasm, and artistic abilities, and turning it into his best film yet. Yes, I said it… this is his best film yet. It’s also big film-making at it’s best… not big in budget, effects, or pretense, but big in spirit, intentions, and entertainment. The film is 153 minutes long and not one of them is boring or artificial. It may be an unexpected adventure of unusual proportions and design, but it’s still the most glorious adventure of the summer.