Inglourious Basterds (United States, 2009)

August 18, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Inglourious Basterds Poster

With Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino has made his best movie since Pulp Fiction. He has also made what could arguably be considered the most audacious World War II movie of all-time. If you think there are rules for this sort of motion picture, guess again. And it's not just that Tarantino is using the spaghetti western as his template; it's that the sheer unpredictability of where all this is going makes it compelling from beginning to end. Even the film's occasional artistic flourishes (such as chapter titles and out-of-period music pieces) work within the context of what Tarantino is trying to accomplish. This is clearly an attempt by the director to expand his range and step outside of the comfort zone in which he has worked for the majority of his career.

Tarantino brings to Inglourious Basterds his not inconsiderable knowledge of films. The movie is awash in references - some subtle, some obvious - that run the gamut from D-grade exploitation flicks to A-list classics. This is not, as has been reported in some places, a remake of the 1978 feature The Inglorious Bastards, although the title is an homage. Reportedly, some of Tarantino's nascent versions of the screenplay used elements of the earlier film, but those are mostly gone in the final edition. This is pretty much 100% Tarantino, which could be good or bad, depending on your opinion of the man's work.

The plot follows two stories and, expectedly, brings them together at the end. In the first chapter, we are introduced to Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent), a French Jew hiding with her family under the floorboards of a dairy farmer's house. The farmer is visited by the outwardly charming SS Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), who has earned the nickname "The Jew Hunter." Unlike the average movie Nazi, this guy is smart - Sherlock Holmes smart. He quickly deduces that the farmer is harboring fugitives and has his men open fire at the floor. Shosanna is the only one to escape the massacre. She flees to Paris where, when the movie catches up with her later on, she is running a movie theater under an assumed name.

The other story follows the adventures of Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) and his merry group of American "Basterds." They have parachuted into France behind enemy lines and are wreaking havoc. Their goal: kill Nazis. They don't take prisoners; they take scalps. They have become so infamous that even Hitler knows about them. Churchill and the British high command send in one of their own, Lt. Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender), with a plan. New intelligence indicates that nearly the entire German upper echelon will be at a small theater in Paris for the premiere of a new propaganda film. The goal is to blow up the theater and kill as many of Hitler's top men as possible. To facilitate this, the Basterds will make contact with a double agent, German actress Bridget von Hammersmart (Diane Kruger). She will get them close enough to plant the bomb. Of course, the theater in question is the one owned by Shosanna.

Tarantino loves dialogue and, between taut, brutal action sequences, there's a lot of talking. The conversations aren't as elliptical as some of those in the director's previous efforts, but there are some intriguing moments - a Nazi providing a detailed comparison between Jew-hunting and rat-hunting, a 20 questions-like guessing game with the answer of "King Kong," and a reverse Cinderella encounter in which having a foot to fit the shoe is not a good thing. (Tarantino gets his trademark foot fetish shot in this scene.) There is a point to the talk, however, that goes beyond the filmmaker showing off his skill with words. All these scenes precede instances of sudden, violent action and the threat of bloodshed is heavy in the air. With every sentence, the tension mounts. Tarantino uses these sequences to prime the audience, teasing them until the suspense is nearly unbearable, then releasing it in one explosive burst.

Watching Inglourious Basterds, I was reminded of Paul Verhoeven's Black Book and Bryan Singer's Valkyrie, both of which contain themes and ideas that are echoed here. This is no Schindler's List. It's not about nobility or sacrifice. It's about the dirty, bloody side of war. Yes, there's heroism, but a lot is hidden away in order for those who receive medals to retain a patina of valor. Inglourious Basterds is suffused with dark humor - so much so that it's tempting to label it an action/comedy. There are laugh-out-loud moments, and not one guffaw is the result of something unintentional. This is nothing new for Tarantino, who has always interwoven humor with violence, but its incorporation here, amidst some of his bleakest material, is refreshingly unsettling.

Most Tarantino films feature at least one high-profile actor in a major role and, in this case, it's Brad Pitt. From his opening speech about the mission - one that recalls monologues from The Dirty Dozen and Patton - Pitt is clearly in character. His capabilities as an actor are often overlooked because of his high-profile off-screen image, but he takes chances and rarely gives a bad performance. (It's no coincidence he's liked by the Coen Brothers and Soderbergh.) As Raine, he's in top form, getting most of the best lines and generating a lot of the humor. The role is unlikely to garner Pitt an Oscar nomination, but it will be remembered.

Pitt's co-lead (although they never share the screen) is French actress Melanie Laurent, with whose body of work I am unfamiliar. She stands out - good looks and good acting. The character is nicely written, indicating that any previous problems Tarantino may have had with penning strong female characters were corrected in Kill Bill. She's from the same mold as Black Book's lead - as deadly as she is attractive, and ruthless beneath the seemingly unprepossessing exterior. Diane Kruger is the only other woman with a significant role in Inglourious Basterds, but Laurent is more memorable.

Christoph Waltz won an acting award at Cannes for his portrayal of Landa the Jew Hunter, and it's one of those deliciously twisted roles designed to unsettle audiences. He's like the lion who curls up at your feet and purrs as you stroke it, then suddenly jumps up and rips off your arm. It's a charismatic portrayal that shows how insidious evil can be. Perhaps that's unfair - Landa is not so much evil as he is coldly logical, amoral, and opportunistic. The character is a formidable adversary; Waltz is a formidable thespian.

There's a little stunt casting involved, although not as much as there might have been had scheduling conflicts not kept Adam Sandler from appearing. The role he was to play went to Eli Roth. It's interesting that the director of the "torture porn" Hostel movies should appear as a soldier who loves to beat Nazis to a pulp with a baseball bat while everyone around cheers. ("It's the closest thing we have to a movie," comments Raine at one point.) The only one who sticks out like a sore thumb is Mike Myers (playing a British general). He's not very good and he's not sufficiently camouflaged to avoid calling attention to himself.

Inglourious Basterds isn't as fresh and freewheeling as Pulp Fiction, but Tarantino is now an established director and a known quantity. That he is able to successfully pull off some of what he does in this movie is a testimony to his skill at both writing and directing. Yes - he borrows heavily and shamelessly from other movies, but it's in the unique fusion of those sources and styles that he achieves his success. Despite having so many antecedents, Inglourious Basterds quickly carves out its own niche. The running length is a gaudy 153 minutes, yet the film moves so smoothly and the moving parts come together so cleanly that the time passes easily. This is the movie I have been awaiting since Pulp Fiction. It's one hell of an enjoyable ride into the nightmare that was Nazi-occupied France, and thinking you know how it all ends doesn't make it so.

Inglourious Basterds (United States, 2009)

Ranked #2 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 2009
Run Time: 2:33
U.S. Release Date: 2009-08-21
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: Some German, French, and Italian with English subtitles
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2:35:1