[Note: If you have any intention of seeing Inglourious Basterds, I recommend you do so before reading this review. I will avoid major spoilers but it’s best to go in knowing absolutely nothing about the film.]
Inglourious Basterds is the first Quentin Tarantino movie I’ve gone into with relatively low expectations. And perhaps that is part of the reason I consider it, after my first viewing, to be right up there with his very best work. I was surprised by this film in a way that reminded me of my dizzy, ecstatic reaction after first seeing Pulp Fiction 15 years ago.
Tarantino hasn’t grown much since that game-changing masterpiece. If anything, he has digressed. While Jackie Brown was an underrated character-rich gem and Kill Bill: Vol. 1 a fabulous ultra-violent genre mashup, they represent his last truly great films. 2004’s Kill Bill: Vol. 2 had its moments but went on way too long without getting anywhere and 2007’s Death Proof was an ill-conceived disaster.
So I went into Inglourious Basterds expecting the Tarantino of the past couple of films. What I got was the Tarantino of Pulp Fiction.
I won’t go so far as to say that Inglourious Basterds is the equal of Tarantino’s 1994 classic, but I do think if it was this film that the relative newcomer had debuted all those years ago, it would have similarly made his name and rocked the cinematic world. Basterds lacks a bit of the jolt factor — but just a bit — because we already know Tarantino has these tricks in his bag.
I must say up front that the title and marketing of Inglourious Basterds are quite misleading. The band of casually sadistic Nazi-killers led by Brad Pitt (and called the Inglourious Basterds) show up in only two and a half of the film’s five chapters. This isn’t a film about them… they are simply part of a large ensemble cast. Neither is this an action or war film in any traditional sense. Very little violence occurs onscreen (though the violent moments are particularly brutal) and the only combat action takes place in a movie within the movie. Those expecting to watch movie star Brad Pitt hunting Nazis for 2 1/2 hours will be disappointed.
If the movie has a star, it is the little-known Christoph Waltz who won the Best Actor award at Cannes and is a shoo-in for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Col. Hans Landa, nicknamed ‘The Jew Hunter.’ Landa is a cunning and cruel detective who enjoys toying with his prey, and Landa sinks his teeth into Tarantino’s dialogue like no actor since Samuel L. Jackson as hit man Jules Wallace.
The second starring role belongs to French actress Mélanie Laurent, who portrays a young Jewish woman given an unexpected opportunity to avenge the death of her family at Landa’s hands. Waltz and Laurent come face to face only once, in one of the film’s most tense moments.
The film is filled with those tense moments, mostly playing out in extended scenes of cautious conversation. Of all the things Tarantino has introduced (or re-introduced) to modern cinema — from non-linear storytelling (good) to pop culture-spewing anti-heroes (bad) — the most admirable is his emphasis on the art of great dialogue. I can’t think of a writer/director working today who can craft a nail-biting scene around simple discussion as well as Tarantino can.
Two scenes in particular — the opening, set in a farmhouse in the French countryside, and a meet up in a basement bar in France toward the end of the film — rank right up there with the Reservoir Dogs ear-slicing scene and Pulp Fiction‘s diner showdown as the most masterful set pieces Tarantino has crafted.
Former video store clerk Tarantino has always let his encyclopedic knowledge of world cinema spill onto the screen, borrowing liberally from the western, war, martial arts, new wave and exploitation films he loves. But Inglourious Basterds takes those cinephiliac tendencies to new heights. He nods to Sergio Leone in the film’s opening, name-drops a handful of French and German directors and even builds a key scene around a war hero movie critic (the fabulous Michael Fassbender). Among the movie’s neatest touches is the exploration of propaganda minister Joseph Goebbel’s leadership of the German film industry, a plot point that allows Tarantino to set his film’s climax in a gorgeous movie theater.
That bit of history is about the only thing true to life in this Word War II film. I’ve read criticism of Tarantino’s revisionism, but for the life of me I can’t figure out why. It’s not as if he’s presenting the film as an accurate portrayal of the Nazi occupation of France — this isn’t JFK. It’s a vision of how the war might have gone had it happened in an alternate universe populated with Tarantino characters. I love the fact that the film isn’t bound by the dictates of history… it means literally anything goes.
I’ve given Tarantino crap over the years for the lack of heart in his films and for his inability (or lack of desire) to branch out from his comfort zone. Once atop a list of the most gifted directors of his generation, he’s been overshadowed by such artists as David Fincher, Christopher Nolan, Paul Thomas Anderson, Alexander Payne and Alfonso Cuaron — directors who have worked successfully in multiple genres and plumbed emotional depths.
But if Tarantino is content to remain a pop-culture fantasist and churn out only movies set in that hyper-cool mindspace he introduced 17 years ago, so be it. If the results are as exciting as Inglourious Basterds, you won’t hear any more complaints from me.