Inglourious Basterds is Tarantino in top form
Before ‘Nazi’ became a convenient, all-purpose analogy for anyone who disagrees with your political views, it was the name for members of a fascist movemen responsible for the most protracted, detestable act of violence in the modern age. As misguided as they are, there’s a reason zealots on either end of the political spectrum use ‘Nazi’ as shorthand for ‘vile beyond measure.’ It’s because nearly everyone can agree: If ever there were villains you could watch shot, scalped and burned alive for more than two hours, without even the slightest twinge of remorse, it would be the members of the Third Reich.
Enter writer-director Quentin Tarantino, master cinematic stylist and a sucker for a good revenge yarn. Inglorious Basterds, his latest, explores what would happen if a wild bunch of Jewish-American soldiers, pissed off and thirsty for Nazi blood, were set loose behind enemy lines prior to the invasion at Normandy. They are known only as The Basterds (the misspelling is unexplained and presumably intentional), and they have one goal: To strike fear into German hearts through a campaign of unmitigated cruelty and brutality. That’s the pitch, anyway. The story itself — split, as always, into chapters — is actually a tapestry in the vein of Pulp Fiction. The title and promotional materials sell Inglorious Basterds as two hours of madcap Nazi killin’, but it’s a little misleading, as you’ll spend less time with the Basterds than you might anticipate. Instead, a solid
portion of the film focuses on concurrent plots involving a German double agent and a French cinema owner with a grudge of her own. These threads converge in a killer final chapter that, while maybe a bit messy plotwise, is classic Tarantino. Also surprising is that the burst of activity that closes the film is one of only a handful of action scenes in this action movie. The two hours that precede it are largely set-up, and Inglorious Basterds often feels like little more than a series of tense conversations at dinner tables, generally between one character trying to hide something and another trying to find it out. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The template is established in the best opening scene Tarantino has ever directed, between French farm owner Perrier (Denis Menochet) and Nazi investigator Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz). It’s drawn out, perfectly scripted and acted, and establishes Landa as a deliciously loathsome villain. The scenes that follow are generally of a comparable quality, though the repetition causes the film to sag a bit around the middle of the fourth chapter. But Basterds is consistently elevated by a cast of terrific German and French actors, with not a weak performance among them (my favorite was the captivating M’lanie Laurent, who plays the aforementioned cinema owner). And let’s not forget the Basterds themselves, particularly Brad Pitt as their leader, Aldo Raine. Sure, his accent is ridiculous and recalls a certain Mr. Leghorn, but he brings the same magnetic levity to this performance that he did to his underrated turn in last year’s Burn After Reading. He has solid support from Eli Roth, BJ Novak, Til Schweiger and the rest of the scalp-hunting soldiers, all of whom appear to be having a great time here. The enthusiasm is contagious. The film’s alternate history motif might be off-putting to people who have had a steady diet of earnest WWII movies, but I found it refreshing and quite a bit of fun. Basterds reminded me of one of those Golden Age comic book covers depicting a brave American superhero pounding some cowardly Nazi. Appropriately, its central conceit will be familiar to fans of The Dark Knight — to wit, yes, there is a big, mean thing going bump in the night, but it’s fighting for the good guys. Basterds also represents a bit of a departure for Tarantino, whose career so far has been long on gangsters, con men and ninjas. He specializes in conversations about trivial subjects that are really about something else entirely (foot massage, anyone?), so his dialogue is a natural fit in a setting like pre-liberation France, where saying what one meant could have had dire consequences. The Basterds are almost like comic relief dropped into this tense setting, and through them Tarantino manages an unexpected trick: His war movie is at once poignant, light-hearted and incomparably suspenseful.
To comment on this article, e-mail Glen Baity at glen.baity@ gmail.com.
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