Better late than never…
Tarantino did it. With promises of splattery, wet violence he lured the cap askew, “F”-dude lunk into seeing a layered and character-centric foreign language film. I’m not sure what percentage that mob of lowest common denominators makes up by way of the roughly 4,250,000 people who saw Inglourious Basterds this last weekend, but if the crowd I saw it with was a sample, shaggy energy drink swilling douchebags were at least 60% of it. Which goes to say Tarantino tricked me, too. I went into Basterds with a healthy dose of trepidation at the grue most of the audience was salivating for. Compounded by Eli Roth’s incessant pre-release blather about gore, slaughter and violence, combined with the childish glee so many had about it’s promise of debraining by baseball bat, I’d written it off as cheap and tawdry.
Inglourious Basterds is neither. In fact, it’s one of the most engrossing, rich and satisfying films I’ve seen in years. Not to say it’s a masterpiece on the same scale as The Godfather or Saving Private Ryan— right now Basterds feels a little too confectionery– but if it’s very, very close. Like so many masterpieces before it, Basterds contains the essential elements of what makes great films great: tactile characters, engrossing narrative and cinematic heft that carries you from open to close with the same immersion and smile-inducing satisfaction experienced after savoring a great meal.
Kicking off in Nazi-occupied France, Inglorious Basterds quickly introduces us –via a masterfully orchestrated conversation of slow burn–to the beating heart of the film: its primary characters Colonel Hans “The Jew Hunter” Landa and Jewish refugee Shoshanna Dreyfus. It’s only after this relished introduction that we’re introduced to the Basterds of title as lead by Lieutenant Aldo Ranes (as played with enthusiastic ham by Brad Pitt). A squad of Jewish avengers, The Basterds are sent into Europe ahead of Operation Overlord to scalp, carve, ballistically aerate and bludgeon righteous Jewish fear into some goose-stepping Nazis.
While perforating the French countryside on their 100 Scalps Tour of ’44, the Basterds are given a heads up– by way of German movie-star informant Bridgette Von Hammersmark (as played by National Treasure’s Diane Kruger)– that Hitler and all his Nazi Yes-Men will be viewing the latest propaganda film from Joesph Goebbels in the same theater on the same night. What no one knows is the screening will be occurring in a theater covertly run by Shoshanna– the Jewish woman who escaped from Landa in the opening scenes four years earlier. Of course, Shoshanna has plans of her own. In fact, everyone has plans– plans which all go down in a fantasy serving of hard-boiled revisionist history.
Despite holding the film’s title, the Inglourious Basterds are background characters (only three are even mentioned by name)– the American component needed to inject some good ol’ rootin’ tootin action and chest-thumping bravado into the proceedings. The Basterds do their job, but after viewing Inglourious Basterds and reflecting on the “(insert star) is a Basterd, etc.” ad campaign, you have to realize everyone in this World War II fantasy is an “Inglourious Basterd”. Everyone harbors their own slice of deficiency and by film’s end, everyone gets what’s coming to them.
In the mean time, conspiracies, events and run-ins leading up to and through the finale all talkily unspool with crackling, pomade-slicked aplomb. Considering the film is 2 hours and 32 minutes long with a large chunk of running time devoted to no less than four lengthy (and fantastic) scenes of layered “I know something you don’t” dialogue coasting between tense and jovial, that’s no small feat And while they’re all capped with explosive, tension-diffusing violence, it’s the character’s smoldering game of patiently waiting to play their rhetorical cards that enriches the experience. And while Basterds does have its mandatory run-ins with bloody body damage, there’s also a bit of subterfuge running through this film. Tarantino lays out the bloodshed not entirely as a matter of fun, but as a matter of fact. Against odds, Tarantino gives most of Basterd’s violence a “meaning” card by imbuing his characters with empathy triggers and humanity, allowing the violence (save for one quickly cut money shot in the finale) carry more weight than many might foolishly perceive in a shallow veneer of simple and sadistic glee.
Not that Inglourious Basterds isn’t stamped with trademark Tarantino flourishes like rough violence, exposition set to kitschy musical hits of yesteryear, chapters , name placards and Samuel L. Jackson– it is. It’s just that Tarantino subtly restrained himself, with virtually every aspect of the film coming off as the beneficiary.
Inglourious Basterds also heralds, hands down, some of the best casting of the year. Christopher Waltz, a seasoned European actor relatively unknown to American audiences, plays the Nazi SS villain Hans Landa. With oily, charming and disarmingly smooth grace, hes’ as fine a villain as any committed to the screen in a performance assured to be considered through Oscar season. Playing the consummate professional who takes more joy in his investigative prowess than its result, Landa is also the straight foil to Pitts enjoyably hammy American Aldo Raynes. Still, while these two are the standouts (in addition to the sultry and wide-eyed Shoshanna as played by Melanie Laurent), the film is also populated with a bumper crop of supporting characters who breathe life and energy into every frame of the film*.
Sadly, if there’s one complaint, it’s that this cache of supporting characters –for all the time spent in fleshing them out– are given short shrift. When a character serves his/her purpose in the story, they’re out. There’s no sentimentalizing, no deathbed soliloquies, no slow-mo “Nooooooooo!”s– and while it feels somewhat heartless, the choice is revealing. Tarantino invests a lot of love in these characters, but when it’s all said and done it’s apparent he only has eyes for four– the fourth being the denouement. Still, while Inglourious Basterds is more invested in the destination than many of the characters who propel it there, with characters so fun it’s a minor gripe.
I could go on. The complexities and layers of this film could be debated and uncovered in a review three times this size. Needless to say, if I sound like I’m raving, it’s because I am. Inglorious Basterds is a solid winner– a shining example of why we all love movies and just the kind of potentially cerebral bang that summer needed as a sendoff. As a film close to 2/3 subtitled and spoken in French and German, audiences who may never have bothered with “having to read subtitles” may well be lured into spending 2.5 hours with this one, and walk out loving it.
*Eli Roth’s neanderthal “Bear Jew” excluded. Sorry.