06 September 2009
Inglourious Basterds is a war film and revenge picture, but writer-director Quentin Tarantino's muse is what it's always been—the movies. Not just a handful of classics and obscure pictures that only a lifelong film geek like Tarantino would love, but the entire world of cinema—glamorous movie stars, the grand movie palaces of yesterday, star-studded movie premieres, even the film stock.
In Tarantino's mind, movies are all that matter—even history is tossed aside if it doesn't suit his needs. Only he could make a film about a group of Jewish-American soldiers scalping Nazis behind enemy lines and turn it into a love letter to the movies. The pure, unadulterated joy that permeates all of his films and a continued knack for creating memorable characters and cracking dialogue make Inglourious Basterds one of his best.
The "Basterds" are the aforementioned Jewish-American soldiers, led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), whose mission is to spread fear throughout Nazi-occupied France. Scalping, carving swastikas in foreheads, beating Nazis to death with a baseball bat (the specialty of Sgt. Danny Donowitz (Eli Roth), known as "The Bear Jew")—it's all in a day's work. They aren't the only major players, however.
In chapter one (Tarantino divides the movies into five chapters), Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) of the SS, called "The Jew Hunter," interrogates the French dairy farmer LaPadite (Denis Menochet), who is hiding a Jewish family under his floorboards.
After chapter two introduces the Basterds, chapter three takes us to Paris, where the lone survivor of the farmhouse massacre in chapter one, Shosanna (Melanie Laurent), now owns a movie theater—a cinema set to host the premiere of Nation's Pride, the latest film produced by Hitler's No. 2 man, Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth), and starring young German war hero Frederick Zoller (Daniel Bruhl) as himself. Col. Landa is in charge of security for the event.
The plot thickens in chapter four, when the Basterds meet with German-movie-star-turned-double-agent Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) to help them infiltrate the premiere.
Everyone converges in chapter five for a night at the movies.
Anyone expecting a traditional war movie will be disappointed. This is a Quentin Tarantino film, which after six pictures (counting the two Kill Bill volumes as one) is essentially its own genre. Because the cinema seemingly provides his only frame of reference, his movies are much more fantasy than reality.
You have to watch Inglourious Basterds through those eyes. Tarantino makes that an easy task because he constantly reminds you that you're watching a movie through flashbacks, a brief primer narrated by Samuel L. Jackson on the highly flammable nitrate-based film stock that plays a key role in the climax and the use of David Bowie's 1982 song "Cat People" on the soundtrack.
You also must expect dialogue—and lots of it. If there is one thing most of Tarantino's characters have in common in all of his movies, it's that they like to to talk. But simply saying the characters in Basterds talk belittles Tarantino's extraordinary work. This is some of his best dialogue yet, working on multiple levels. Each conversation is a sort of interrogation, whether it's Landa sniffing out the Jews hiding beneath his feet in the farmhouse without ever losing his pleasant manner, the Basterds' straightforward interrogation of a captured Nazi or the Nazis trying to suss out the British-film-critic-turned-spy (Michael Fassbender) posing as one of their own to determine if he is the real deal.
In an ensemble piece, the Austrian-born Waltz makes the biggest impression, bringing Landa alive in a scene-stealing performance that rivals Samuel L. Jackson's unforgettable turn in Pulp Fiction. Waltz won the best actor award at the Cannes Film Festival in May and for good reason. You despise Landa, who revels in his "Jew Hunter" moniker, yet he's so charming and engaging that you almost find yourself forgetting or overlooking the atrocities in which he has been an active participant. We will see a lot more of Waltz during awards season.
All that holds Basterds back from being a true masterpiece are a few casting decisions: Roth, the Tarantino protege who directed Hostel (2005) and Hostel: Part II (2007) and lacks the appropriate menace and screen presence to pull off the fearsome "Bear Jew"; B.J. Novak of The Office as one of the Basterds with little to do or say until the final chapter, it's hard not to watch him and think Ryan the Temp has gone to war; and Mike Myers in a distracting cameo as a British general.
Finding fault anywhere else is a difficult task.
(Rated R for strong graphic violence, language and brief sexuality. 153 minutes.)