REVIEW: Inglourious Basterds
You know somethin’, Utivich? I think this just might be my masterpiece.
– Quentin Tarantino Lt. Aldo Raine, Inglourious Basterds
I’m inclined to agree. FOUR STARS
What, you wanted more? By now, everyone else has made up your choice whether or not to see the film. This movie’s been reviewed into the ground. It was nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. The conversation on this movie is concluded. Now, it’s your job to watch it. I had the privilege of seeing it again this afternoon, and thus, felt like putting my two cents worth into the fray. As I intend to review all of Tarantino’s work (solely because it’s so fun to watch and write about), I figured I’d get the four star films out of the way.
Inglourious Basterds, is, at first blush, a massive and sprawling love letter to the Second World War movie–a very Quentin Tarantino kind of love letter. The protagonists are the quoted Lt. Aldo “The Apache” Raine, an American soldier who has dropped behind enemy lines in Nazi-occupied France to enact a little guerilla justice on the German occupiers; Shosanna Dreyfuss, a young Jewish girl whose family was brutally slaughtered around her at the age of 19 who has gone into hiding as a cinema operator; and Col. Hans Landa of the S.S., a man whose nickname (“The Jew Hunter”) should be enough to tell you what role he plays in the film.
Tarantino describes Basterds as his men on a mission feature. As this is the director whose slasher movie involved a couple of wicked car chases, you’re right to assume that there’s more going on than meets the eye. Aldo Raine’s Bastards are the men on a mission. The mission is to take out certain members of the Nazi High Command at a film premiere–with explosives, of course. Shosanna owns the theater where the film is to premiere, and is understandably out to avenge her dead family with her own plan to destroy the theater on le Soir des Nazis. Col. Landa is running security for the event, keeping a watchful and villainous eye for our heroes.
Like any Tarantino film, the writing is the meat of the meal that’s on display here. For the first time since Reservoir Dogs, actions unfold from reactions in entirely natural and organic paths, leading to an explosive and inevitable finale. It’s obvious that this film was written, re-written, struggled over, thrown into the bin, rescued from the bin, written and re-written again. Watching every scene with an eye for detail and an ear for dialogue reveals secrets you missed on the first run through.
The movie opens with a conversation between Col. Landa and a French farmer about a Jewish family who used to live in the area but have mysteriously disappeared. Landa, speaking for Tarantino, jumps through linguistic hoops to ask the farmer, as it is his house that he has intruded into with his concerns, if they may conduct the rest of their conversation in English. Couched in Tarantino’s asking for permission to shoot a long, dialogue intensive scene in the movie in English is the cocking of a trigger behind the screen. When it comes back and bites you in the ass, you know Tarantino just loved that part.
But all this talk of the director neglects the cast. Brad Pitt is memetically delicious as the thick-Appalachian accented Aldo Raine. The man isn’t smart. He isn’t a good strategist. He is not a thinker. He’s a joker, and naturally a jovial guy. But his sense of justice is cold, hard and merciless; woe betide you if you should cross his moral boundaries, as you will suffer for your indiscretion. Melanie Laurent is the bitter, punky and quietly rebellious Shosanna. She carries with her a sign, written in her aura, that reads I don’t need you and I don’t want your help. To state the sex appeal of a woman this fiercely independent and concerned with the well-being of those she loves is to understate it. To overstate it is to understate it. She is as magnetic on screen as she is sympathetic for her plight.
Neither of them won an Oscar for their performance. Christoph Waltz, however, did. To say that Waltz in this picture is the embodiment of villainy is to cheapen his performance by associating it with mere villainy. It takes skill to navigate a character that comes off as without flaw on the page and bring to life not someone who we feel resentment towards for being perfect, but admire in a sick and twisted way. Yes, he’s evil. He’s the personification of evil. Evil is alive and walking in this motion picture, and dammit if it’s not as polite and courteous as can be expected. Tarantino started exploring original villains in Death Proof with Stuntman Mike. Like the difference in cinematography between Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, the difference one picture makes is extraordinary. From a bad dude to Oscar-winning evil incarnate–bravo, sirs. Bravo.
I’m not going to talk about the ending. We all know how World War 2 ended. If you want to know how this movie ends, Google it. Tarantino doesn’t think you’re at his movie for a history lesson, and neither do I. I rather like it better that way.
All in all, this is easily his finest feature to date. When I first saw it, I placed it alongside Pulp Fiction as good, but a step below Reservoir Dogs. Where Basterds wins is in the slow creep that went through my mind afterwards as facts fell into place. It told a single story, like Dogs, but in intertwining and interacting tales, like Pulp Fiction. It used segmented storytelling to organize its thoughts, like Kill Bill. It adapted a narrative we are all capable of familiarizing ourselves with, like Jackie Brown. It had a villain, Death Proof.
However, Inglourious Basterds represents the culmination of all of that effort. Of all of that hard work spent evolving into a master filmmaker, of all the mistakes made and all the footage on the cutting room floor. It is all of his movies, and it is greater than them all for it.