Inglourious Basterds

dir. Quentin Tarantino

originally posted Aug 24, 2009, 6:21 PM

My first semester of film school was in 1995, when Quentin Tarantino had a firm stranglehold on the imaginations of every would-be future auteur between the ages of 16 to 23. He was about as cool as you got back then, but that was at a time when there was some mystery to the man behind Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction (not to mention True Romance and Natural Born Killers).  In the years since then it's practically become fashionable to label the guy's work as immature and peg him with a lack of restraint or decent self-editing capabilities and paying far too much attention to his pet obsessions. He's given plenty of ammo for these accusations, and to be certain there's some truth to be had in them as well. There's no doubt he's a foot fetishist obsessed with violence, revenge, general badassery and the rhythm of his own dialog, just to name a few. I understand that some of these things can get in the way of telling a story and a lot of people might point to Death Proof, his half of the Grindhouse experiment, as proof positive of his shortcomings as a meaningful writer/director or that he is becoming increasingly indebted to these limited themes and predilections to the detriment of his films. I can understand all these criticisms but I can't exactly abide by them.

And for almost as long as the backlash has been brewing, there's been rumor of his World War II project -- his men on a mission film, Inglourious Basterds.  At one point it was to feature a collection of every A-list action star still breathing (kind of like the Expendables project Stallone is working on now) alongside against-type casting like Adam Sandler and Jack Black. Signs pointed to a movie about a group of ass-kickers kicking Nazi ass, getting out of scrapes and doing it all with Tarantino's patented cool.  Charting the path that this screenplay likely took over the past 10+ years would be an interesting look at how he's become less interested in simply reveling in the things he finds cool and instead deconstructing them. Even the Basterds of the title, now a small group of unimposing, scalping proficient Jewish soldiers (really the exact opposite of your typical action heroes), are more the back-up singers here than the main attraction, despite being led by Brad Pitt's Aldo Raine. The real star is "Jew Hunter" Hans Landa -- think impossibly charming evil Nazi Sherlock Holmes -- and his prey, Shosanna, the girl who got away. But perhaps more surprising is that Inglourious Basterds is not only the most entertaining movie of the year but it also manages to be the savviest and most personal of his films.   

Maybe it's because I don't mind an indulgent director when the themes and fetishes are as entertaining as Tarantino's. Maybe I can overlook the (seeming) lack of a delicate touch when the end result still manages to resonate and create intricately detailed worlds I'm happy to get caught up in. Inglourious Basterds, perhaps more than any other film, is a perfect deconstruction of what Tarantino is great at.  You have a woman (Shosanna) being given a shot at revenge on the one hand, a group of badassmotherfuckers (the Basterds) doing their dirty deeds on the other and at its center you have the enigmatic villain (Hans Landa, played with relish by Christoph Waltz in what is sure to be an Oscar nominated performance). This time these archetypes of Tarantinism are given their own separate attention until the grand finale. And for once, a film by Quentin Tarantino is given a payoff worthy of the build-up. A pay-off that raises some questions, but ultimately succeeds through sheer audaciousness and masterful execution. Not since Barton Fink has hellfire consumed so vividly on film.

A trait that can also grind on some is Tarantino's relentless fanboy pastiche modus operandi.  This can go hand in hand with his so-called immaturity since the claim is that rather than construct original scenes to form a unique vision, he makes movie quilts out of scenes, music and ideas from his vast encyclopedic knowledge of semi-obscure genre films.  Oddly enough, for a film that lifted its title wholesale from a lesser-known Italian produced b-movie from the 70s, Inglourious Basterds feels wholly original and decidedly more personal than, well, just about anything he's done. The movie has its share of hat-tips, most noticeably in the recycled music cues he loves to use, but his love for film, language and violence emerges here in a much more honest and sohphisticated way than any genre mash-up. In Basterds, film is what brings people from around the world together - it's a common language, one of the most powerful tools available, can bring the dead back to life and, ultimately, in Tarantino's universe, can defeat even the most powerful of evils and change the course of history.

Yes, through the power of film, a Jewish French farm girl hiding out as a German theater owner and a motley crew of nebbish cutthroats bring down the Third Reich. And this is what will always have me coming back to Quentin Tarantino's work - while some might say he's frustratingly underdeveloped, to me, he is still one of the most unpredictable filmmakers out there. When he is working from his own story, there is no telling where it's going to take you. You might be able to guess what some of the pieces are going to be - that there will be some lengthy soliloquies, bursts of violence usually preceded or followed by those borrowed music cues - but you never know who's going to live or die, if the film's even going to be mostly in English or even if history as we know it will be adhered to. And those soliloquies are still killer. Basterds proves the man's skill at being able to ratchet up the tension with next to nothing but well timed dialog. The scenes with Hans Landa top even those great Ordell moments in Jackie Brown where Sam Jackson took his time sweet talking you into the trunk of a car before pulling the trigger.

If there's one thing Quentin Tarantino loves more than film, it would be language. Like the naked toes of a pretty girl, the man fetishizes the spoken word. And for the first time, with Inglourious Basterds, he takes that obsession of his to the next level and makes it part of the film. Tarantino has taken great pride in making a WWII film that not only features actors speaking in the language their characters are supposed to speak in but makes nationality, accents and the delicacy of language itself an important part of the story.  If he did set out to make a film that would render it impossible for another WWII film to serve up a bunch of vaguely British sounding actors, I think he's succeeded (the second weekend box office tally will be a better look at how receptive mainstream American audiences are to a largely subtitled American movie). Attention to dialect indeed makes the espionage all the more suspenseful even when an ignorant American like myself can barely tell the difference between an Austrian and German accent. It makes Brad Pitt's oddball Tennesseean accent, which has found its objectors, all the more sweetly perverse. His performance reminded me in more than one way of Marlon Brando, who was always quite playful with his vocal performances.

Pitt's performance, and really all the performances across the board are fantastic. Pitt is clearly having fun with the role and while that might rub some the wrong way, there is a fascinating quality to his creation that makes you want to inspect closer. Part Brando, part Clark Gable, part John Wayne - Aldo Raine (along with the rest of the Basterds) doesn't represent any sort of complexity in human nature but rather the opposite. The Basterds are bullets let loose in Europe for one purpose and Pitt lets his recruits know what that purpose is early on and that there's no room for second guessing. It's what makes WWII the ideal setting for this story; there's no fuzziness when it comes to taking down Nazis. Hans Landa is no different in his mission. He's just as good at his job as the Basterds are at theirs, and he revels in knowing this and toying with his prey like a cat with a mouse. He doesn't doubt for a second what his role in the war is.

Christoph Waltz and Tarantino have created one of the most charismatic villains I can recall and he's pure joy to watch on the screen as he goes about his business. When he crosses paths again with Shosanna, years later after her escape, it's when it quickly dawns on her that her purpose in life is now to bring this guy down. Melanie Laurent gives Shosanna wonderful vulnerability and continues Tarantino's winning streak in creating brilliant female roles for actresses to shine in. Her conflict with a German soldier who takes a liking to her and her movie theater represents the only real moral fuzziness in the film but its significant and Laurent beautifully carries the emotional weight of Shosanna's situation through to the end of the film and beyond. Her story will certainly be a feather in Tarantino's cap for a long time to come.

Tarantino is still making films where just one particular scene or a couple minutes of screen time for an actor can make a lasting impression. Just as no scene in this film isn't without caring detail, neither is any character. While I'd have loved to see more background on the individual Bastards, it's a great kick to see BJ Novack (Ryan from The Office!) and Samm Levine (Neal from Freaks & Geeks!) kicking Nazi ass and taking scalps even if we remain in the dark about their backstory. But when I think of amazing one-scene roles I think of everyone involved in the rendezvous gone wrong scene, especially Diane Kruger as Bridgette von Hammersmark, who's role as the actress in over her head is actually quite significant. And August Deihl as the unwelcome rendezvous crasher, Major Hellstrom, the guy who smells a rat. I've never seen anyone drink from a glass boot with quite the menace Deihl manages to pull off. And Denis Menochet should get special mention as the dairy farmer who gets put to the question by Hans Landa in the amazing 20 minute opener. These minor but major roles have a long tradition of greatness in the Tarantino universe going back to half the amazing cast of True Romance.

For all of the attention Tarantino has gotten for the words he puts in people's mouths (and those that come out of his), there really can't be enough said about how adept he's become at visually piecing his scenes together. At times I can find his desire to break his movies into chapters a bit of a misstep since it can often defuse momentum and give you the feeling that you're constantly re-starting rather than getting deeper into the story. But I didn't have that problem at all with Basterds. Each chapter, aside from the odd Mike Myers extended cameo scene (which I did find pretty amusing), fell right into place for me and I found myself anticipating the chapters and looking forward to the next one rather than being let down by the transitions. Basterds, more than any of his other films, really does feel novelistic in its structure which makes the film unfold in a way that can come off as slight but actually is nicely layered and well-executed. Shooting scenes that are 90% dialog and making them crackle and snap isn't the easiest of feats and in all these "talky" scenes leading up to the finale you can see the motivation behind each cut and find purpose in every lingering shot and movement of the camera. What he has done to bring the tension and humor out of these scenes, especially the stunning opening confrontation between Hans and the man hiding Shosanna and her family and the ill-fated rendezvous scene between the Basterds and Bridget von Hammersmark, is simply masterful from top to bottom - from sound and set design to the wonderful acting. He's crafted scenes so finely tuned that the moment they were over I couldn't wait to go back to them and pick apart the details.

The violence that spawns from these confrontational scenes felt much more in tune with the story and plot than usual. I have no problem enjoying the excesses of Kill Bill but I felt the individual acts of violence in Basterds meant more - they have a specificity to them and carried a certain weight. There are some cut-aways to the Basterds in action that are there for no more reason than to jolt the audience a bit and flesh-out their escapades but the acts that they do carry out on the Nazis are specific. They scalp them for a reason, not necessarily because it's simply a badass/fucked-up thing to do.  Aldo Raine is quite proud of his native American lineage and not only that but it is indeed the sort of thing that would strike fear into the heart of any man who came across one of their victims.  Or take the rendezvous at the German pub that breaks down into a small massacre - a flurry of violence that unfolds in the blink of an eye.  Yet each action that takes place is clearly taken into full consideration as to what that character would do with their last second of life.  The same can be said for the final sequences as well (which I will refrain from going into detail about).  Each action that takes place is story driven and cathartic for both the audience and the character involved.

This kind of detail that Quentin Tarantino puts into all his films is so attractive to me.  He makes films about things he obsesses over that give ample material for audiences to in turn obsess over. The level of artistry that goes into the story and technique behind his films, especially Inglourious Basterds, makes claims of immaturity ridiculous. I'd be mighty surprised if another film comes along this year that generates the same kind of electricity that was bouncing around through the audience that I saw this with or provides the same level of excitement and sheer entertainment that got me buzzing as I left the theater. But I wouldn't be surprised if Tarantino manages to pulls it off again down the road. At this point, I would only be surprised if he didn't.