Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds is pure bliss, the kind of cinematic magic that sends me out of the theater lightheaded and smiling, thinking all is right with the world. It’s intoxicating, running over 150 minutes, yet seeming to last barely more than 70. It’s bold, rambunctious, and energized from frame one, filled with nothing more than great filmmaking. It’s the rare type of film that’s so pitch perfect, so fully realized in every detail, that it lifted me into an incredibly good mood that has yet to wear off. Just typing these words, I’m getting so excited I need to take a deep breath. I need to see this movie again, not just to give added boost to my excitement, not to mention my good mood, but to get my head around it. This isn’t a movie that gently allows you to slowly comprehend. This is a movie that assaults you with entertainment, kicks you upside the head with pleasure, and sends you reeling out of the theater while begging for more. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it.
Tarantino has crafted an enormous yet intimate World War II action epic that brings his talents and obsessions into good use and tight control. He’s never been more in control over the elements of filmmaking. In his use of sound, color (those reds!), and composition the film, at times, comes across like a sort of dream collaboration between Curtiz, Hitchcock, Godard and DePalma: Casablanca and Foreign Correspondent meets Made in U.S.A. and The Untouchables. But, for the first time since Jackie Brown, a Tarantino film is much more than the sum of its influences. This is a passionate film, full of beautifully rendered and lovingly detailed characters saying and doing memorable things. This is a patient film, allowing for long, sizzling and suspenseful dialogue passages. This is a perfect apotheosis of Tarantino’s filmmaking, a chance for him to, at long last, put cinema itself in the forefront (a film critic becomes a suave spy at one point!), for Inglourious Basterds is, if nothing else, a grand love letter to an art form, a film where the transient yet permanent impact of film can be both a major theme and a major plot point, summed up beautifully with the shot showing a ghostly image of a face projected on a wall of smoke in a burning theater.
Going in to the film, one can be accused of anticipating a pure blood-and-guts, men-on-a-mission exploitation film, given the marketing focused on the elite team of Jewish soldiers – nicknamed “the Basterds” – dropped behind enemy lines to put fear in the hearts of the Nazis. Even though the Basterds, led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt, in a great, charming, character-actor performance), do their fair share of scalping and bludgeoning in the film, the emotional heart comes from Soshanna (a radiant Mélanie Laurent), a Jewish teen who flees the massacre of her family to eventually become the owner of a movie theater. That theater becomes an important location for the fiery finale, but Soshanna provides an emotional link throughout the film. We follow her growth from a frightened teen to a confident young woman. We care about her and about the plan that she creates in the kind of deep way that only the greatest fictions allow.
The link between Soshanna and the Basterds is the suave and sneaky Nazi detective Colonel Landa – nicknamed the “Jew Hunter” – who comes to us in a brilliant performance by Christoph Waltz, a middle-aged European actor who remains unknown on these shores. He’ll be unknown no longer. In a film filled with great performances, he’s the best. He’s quick witted, hilarious and menacing, delivering Tarantino’s dialogue with perfection. But Tarantino’s strong suit has always been unexpectedly perfect casting which leads to some wonderful performances. Here, he coaxes interesting performances out of such differing people as horror director Eli Roth, Diane Kruger (previously of Troy and National Treasure), and even Mike Myers.
But to get back to Waltz, his Landa (a great character that I loved to hate) shows up in all of the five chapters that Tarantino has broken the film into. Each chapter has only a few scenes, each given a lengthy dialogue scene as its major set-piece. These dialogues – Glenn Kenny has clocked them at about fifteen to thirty minutes each – are tense, funny, suspenseful, riveting and thematically rich. They feature some of the best writing that Tarantino has ever produced, memorable and distinctive while furthering character and plot and, at the same time, allowing the scenes to rise and fall with a sense of natural realism. The dialogue is heightened without being too “Tarantino,” playfully teasing out echoes to films of the 40’s, Leone, and more. These scenes play out like perfectly crafted short stories (chapters, if you will). The dialogue comes in a multitude of languages, all subtitled, and flows with an easy musicality. Often suspense comes from which characters can understand which languages and there’s great fun to be had in following the shifting power structure within the conversations. Through all this talk, talk, talking, the anticipation of the ultimate execution of the main plot grows unimaginably high. There are short bursts of action within each chapter but not until the fifth chapter do all the plotlines – and surviving characters – converge upon a grandly orchestrated and perfectly executed set-piece of suspense and action shot through with humor both quintessentially Tarantino and Marxian (Groucho, Chico, and Harpo, not Karl).
Even with all this subtitled dialogue, and subtle performances, and long scenes infrequently riddled with stylistic embellishments and fast-cut flashbacks (not to mention the score that borrows from Morricone and Bowie), this is the biggest crowd-pleaser I’ve seen in a long time. Every scene was received wonderfully by the audience with which I saw the film. It’s always fun to hear over one hundred people reacting to a film in the same way that you are. We all stared up at the screen and laughed, gasped, screamed and squirmed together. Tarantino knows that an audience – an ideal audience – can be trusted to follow complex lines of questioning and long-winded monologues, to laugh at subtlety and jump on command. Is his film manipulative? You bet. But it’s just as much fun as when Hitchcock famously said he loved playing an audience like a piano. When manipulated by an expert filmmaker, one who’s pushing perfectly crafted buttons, who cares if it’s manipulative?
In its unstoppable pacing and relentlessly entertaining style and craft, Inglourious Basterds reminded me of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Together, they are two World War II movies, in touch with their filmic lineage, that cheerfully warp historical reality in order to go for the jugular. They are unafraid to entertain, and unafraid to get the crowd stirred up and energized by the sight of Nazis getting beat up, shot up, and melted. (Both of them pull from the long tradition of Nazis as villains in pulp fiction including The Dirty Dozen, wherein partying Nazis find themselves torched).They are both the works of filmmakers in total control and using that control to create total perfection in the realm of pure entertainment.
That comparison also brings me to the common criticism of the film that has been heating around the Internet in the days leading up to the film’s release but seems to have cooled some now. Some have said that the movie’s brutality is amoral in the ferocity with which the Basterds treat the Nazis and in this film’s equivalent of the Raiders Nazi meltdown. That’s not an unexpected criticism, especially given the bloodlust bent of the advertising, but it’s completely unfounded by the film itself. The movie is much tamer than you’d expect, especially if you’ve seen the Kill Bill movies or Death Proof (I say that not as a criticism of the violence in those films, but as a means of comparison). Sure, it has its occasional violent moments, and they do earn the film its R-rating, but they don’t exploit World War II itself, nor do they create an irrational hatred of Nazism. The sense of revenge is well-justified, both within and outside the world it creates.
The movie is made up of earned suspense that builds to quick, restrained, flashes of violence. It also contains a built in rebuke, in its final, and most violent, chapter, to audience members who will get a kick out violence for violence’s own sake. (There are spoilers through the end of the paragraph). The characters are sitting in the theater watching a German propaganda film in which a sniper is killing dozens of Allied soldiers. The Nazis go wild, cheering with a ferocity that’s as frightening as it is morbidly comedic. Then Tarantino allows the Basterds’ and Soshanna’s plans to go into simultaneous effect, pulling a sick joke on the characters who had just been enjoying the massacre on screen by making them the recipients of one. This has long been Tarantino’s unsung gift, to at once rebuke and relish screen violence, and he uses it elsewhere in the film, as well, such as a scene where, preceding a Nazi bludgeoning, Aldo Raine tells the doomed man that it is “the closest thing we [the Basterds] have to going to the movies.” (That it’s Eli Roth doing the bludgeoning adds another tricky layer to the moment).
There’s so much to discuss with Inglourious Basterds, so much excitement attached to the way my synapses can’t stop firing with thoughts and memories of the film. I desperately need to see this again. In fact, I should stop typing what has become the longest review I’ve written for the blog thus far, and just go see it right now. It’s the best, most interesting, most entertaining film of 2009 so far, a film well worth discussing and dissecting. At the very end of the film, a character smirks into the camera and says “this might just be my masterpiece.” It’d be a cocky flourish of a finish to the film if it weren’t totally earned. As far as masterpieces go, Pulp Fiction is Tarantino’s first, Jackie Brown is his best, and Inglourious Basterds is his third.