I really enjoy “Inglorious Basterds.” I know that’s a banal way to start a review but I just wanted that said upfront. I think it’s an engrossing, unwieldy, beautiful mess of a movie. It’s a film that’s ripe with things to bitch about, but overcomes its unevenness with solid payoffs and a devil may care finale. I believe that those who dismiss or reject it outright at first may find themselves reexamining it later. It feels like 3 movies playing around each other and we’re catching bits and pieces of each one that in the end form a Frankenstein styled whole. What’s the biggest thing working against “Inglorious Basterds” and leading me to believe people may give a sideways glance and walk away with a shrug? Its title and its previews. The name and marketing say this movie is about one thing and one thing only, Brad Pitt tearing ass around France with a team of avenging Jews, scalping Nazi’s and loving every minute of it. That’s only a fraction of the story and I think some part of the audience will find itself let down that more skull bashing isn’t contained within its frames. I was glad that there was more to the story.
“Basterds” begins with “Once Upon A Time…” on the screen. When an audience encounters this intro we inherently expect some kind of fairy tale to unfold before us. It’s a phrase that invokes thoughts of princesses, ogres and prince charming. “Basterds” has none of that but a fairy tale it is. Though it is a World War II movie, historical accuracy is not what Tarantino has assembled us for. His film begins with two exceptional sequences of dialogue, suspense and brutality. The first involves Nazi Col. Landa, milk appreciator, sniffing out Jews hiding in the home of French sympathizers. After this we meet Pitt, his Basterds and see what they do to Nazis. A baseball bat hasn’t been so intimidating since De Niro in “The Untouchables.” These gripping opening sequences set a pace that the film doesn’t follow through with. After we’re introduced to the Basterds and the scene stealing Landa, the real meat of the movie begins. “Basterds” eases into the multi-faceted story of Shosanna, a Jew hiding in Paris running a movie theater, the Jew hunting Landa who killed Shosanna’s family, Frederick Zoller, a movie loving, Nazi hero whose adoration for Shosanna goes unrequited, and topping it all off is an English hatched plot to blow up Hitler at a movie premiere taking place at Shosanna’s movie palace. Pitt, his Basterds and their scalp count take a back seat until the end of the movie, popping up only occasionally. It’s essentially like a lot of Tarantino’s work, except no one told the audience to expect any of this
All of these tales run along each other in chapter like fashion, ala “Kill Bill”, most being successful. Tarantino’s inclination towards being undisciplined and unwieldy with dialogue is in full force here. In the past when Tarantino did this, it often left his movie at a standstill. Parts of “Death Proof” are almost unbearable because of his love for his own masturbatory dialogue. Here the scenes in which he’s indulged himself the most feel more well rounded and with an overall purpose. They may be long, almost mini-movies, and they may carry a whiff of the unnecessary, but they all come with a payoff that justifies their length. He has a story to tell and he’s decided to tell it in his own prolonged way, the audience will simply have to deal with it. It was during these prolonged moments that I felt the surrounding movie goers might turn against “Basterds.” “Too much chit chat! Not enough scalping!” But I also kept in mind the old movie adage, “Wow them in the end.” I figured Tarantino planned to counter this possibility of growing audience apathy with a wildly explosive ending and he didn’t disappoint. More on that later. The only part of “Basterds” that feels somewhat flat for me is the part of Frederick Zoller, Shosanna’s Nazi admirer. Though it culminates in a beautiful sequence ripe with stunning imagery and tragedy, the majority of their interplay fails to propel the story in any compelling way. He adores, she rejects, rinse, repeat. Tarantino may have served himself better by cutting back on this material and letting the stronger elements dominate. A few less scenes with Zoller and a few more with the Basterds may have been wise.
The performances in “Basterds” are uniformly excellent. Standing out head and shoulders above the rest is Austrian actor Christopher Waltz as Col. Landa. His part is seething with charm, menace and a love of milk. He’s the most interesting Nazi in ages. Perhaps second only to Bruno Ganz’s delusional Hitler in “Downfall.” Though one only need show a Nazi smiling to illicit fear, Waltz plays the part with such European finesse, we hate that he’s so awful at his core. He makes ordering pastry just a tad spooky. French actress Melanie Laurent is a young discovery of great talent. Playing Shosanna, she is essentially the film’s lead and though stunning to look at, she has great range at her fingertips. Pitt may be the headliner but his is the most one dimensional performance in the film; a hick accent, jutting jaw and cartoonish mannerisms are what he’s made of. Not to imply there’s anything wrong with him here, there’s simply no depth to the part written for him and the movie is not bad off because of it. His scene with redneck Italian is a small bit of comedic genius. But overall it reinforces my belief that an entire film based on the Basterds exploits alone would’ve been a chore to sit through. Director Eli Roth is on hand to display his talent for wide-eyed enthusiasm at dispensing hardcore brutality. No one should be shocked. Tarantino rounds out the rest of his cast with solid unknowns, mostly European actors, and very small cameos from those in his dedicated stock company. Listen carefully.
Let’s wrap back around to that whole end thing shall we? The ending of “Inglorious Basterds” is one of those tense, feverish cases of pure movie bliss. It’s so rooted in implausible nuttiness that one has no choice but to either reject it as a work of insanity or embrace it for the same reason. Tarantino rewrites history with a big, freakin’ grin on his face and I would hope to see more acts of narrative recklessness like this. Flames, bullets and cinema all combust in an explosion of historical, defying bliss. He simply gives history the middle finger, stating that this is his movie and this is how it must end. For once an audience doesn’t have to let its knowledge of history make an ending a forgone conclusion. It’s a fresh touch that this viewer couldn’t help but love.
I strongly believe that whatever appreciation “Inglorious Basterds” generates now will only grow with the passage of time. If Tarantino isn’t growing as an artist, he isn’t, he’s at least keeping his zeal for the riveting and the outlandish fresh and relevant. After the minor letdown that was “Death Proof”, I’m glad to see there’s no more backsliding. He mimics, he copies and in some cases he steals outright, but to date Tarantino has avoided being boring. “Inglorious Basterds” fills me with hope that his tendencies towards prolonged absences at the cinema are over and he will continue to be prolific and exciting.