Inglourious Basterds: A Mixed Bloody Bag of Violence and Dialogue
Anyone who has seen the shoot-em-up previews for Tarantino’s newest film, Inglourious Basterds, is in for a huge surprise. Instead of an action-packed romp through World War Two, we get a compelling, frustrating, ambitious, plotless, campy potpourri that raises questions about the very nature of war films. Not that Tarantino necessarily set out to do such a thing, but by taking us into uncharted territory, he has created an indelible film, perhaps his most memorable since Jackie Brown. Visually, it’s his best, and the performance by Christoph Waltz is the best in a Tarantino film since Samuel Jackson quoted Ezekiel in Pulp Fiction. Still, its structural awkwardness, his inability to edit, and a bizarre discrepancy between the subject matter and the tone at times makes it the type of ambitious movie that’s easier to call fascinating than great.
Tarantino’s film is divided into five chapters. The first introduces Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), nicknamed “The Jew Hunter,” sniffing out Jews in the French countryside. This scene is what critics like to call “classic Tarantino,” but it’s better than classic Tarantino– the dialogue is purposeful, not rambling, and the affectations aren’t quirky, cutesy, or ironic… they’re full of menace. The second introduces the Basterds, Jewish-American soldiers headed by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), a Tennessee hillbilly who requires every soldier to bring him “one hundred Nat-zee scalps.” We see them in bloody action, and we learn about the reputation of Sgt. Donny Donowitz (Eli Roth), “The Bear Jew” as he is known in German circles. The third shows a young Jewish girl undercover who owns a movie theater in Paris (Melanie Laurent), and the Nazi war hero/movie star Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Bruhl) who is smitten with her. The fourth shows the British planing to execute Operation: Kino, at the premiere of Zoller’s film at the Parisian movie theater, where all the high-ranking SS officers will be in attendance. Their goal? Kill them, with the help of the Basterds and a German actress (Diane Kruger). The fifth chapter is where it all comes together.
For a film that seems very wide in scope, the plot is relatively threadbare. The first three chapters are solely character introductions, and they take up a good hour and a half of the film. This means the beginning is almost exclusively dialogue-driven, which is more successful at times than others (on occasion, the subtitles make the dialogue seem very stiff and expository). The film is shot so beautifully, however, that the mood is rich and the imagery captivating, even when the dialogue drags. Tarantino’s framing has never been better– in the past, his films at times draw attention to the camera movement, the framing of the characters, and the length of the shot, but never here. Robert Richardson, the cinematographer, should be brought up again around Oscar nomination time.
This film is about ten to fifteen minutes too long, but he’s put his dialogue into such high-tension atmospheres that nothing feels casual or boring. But then, all movies involving Nazis and those trying to kill the Nazis are full of tension automatically, simply for historical reasons. I found myself wondering if all of this dialogue was earning the tense atmosphere, or if it was merely my previous knowledge of Nazis. It’s like the old rule of theater– if things get boring, put a gun on stage. Things can never be “boring” if Nazis are actively on the hunt for your characters. Christoph Waltz’s performance is the anchor, a sensational, over-the-top scenery chewing villain that will likely be give Oscar consideration. Pitt will get no such consideration– in fact, both his dialogue and performance seemed to be straining to get on the same level of memorability as Waltz– but he gives the film a unique, interesting presence.
And there’s the ending. There’s a moment which I will not spoil where something unexpected happens… something where you know the film is taking a turn away from this reality and towards an alternate reality. Yet these unexpected moments are treated casually, as if they’re beside the point, whereas long stretches of time and great pains were taken to make sure other aspects of the film, such as German film figures and Nazi leaders, were given proper due, when they aren’t nearly as interesting. What is the point of this film? I struggle to find one… not that that’s something to condemn a film for, but if it’s a pointless campy bloody film set in World War Two, at least have fun with your alternate reality, don’t simply let it fall by the wayside. For a movie that took 140 minutes to get to a really interesting “what if?” departure from history, it certainly drops the ball instead of running with it, which is a real disappointment– I would have been glad to cut some of the German basement bar scene in Chapter 4, or some of the German film nerd discussion in Chapter 3 in order to see just a tad more at the end, instead of settling for the abrupt, only moderately satisfying ending Tarantino has.
Yet I don’t think there is a way to make this film with a completely satisfying or completely ambiguous ending. Truth be told, the type of movie Tarantino has set out to make was never going to be perfect. It’s an actionless Dirty Dozen, an Ocean’s 11 where instead of stealing millions, it’s murdering Hitler– a fascinating concept that never could have fully delivered. This doesn’t excuse the missteps along the way, such as the editing problems, the dropping the ball with the ending, and some awkward titles and music cues which take the campiness to an extreme (the only wince-worthy moment in the film is when the very familiar voice of David Bowie starts singing one of his 80s songs over a montage… in 1941). It does point out the difficult task Tarantino set out for himself– a story/tone combination that’s an impossible tightrope act.
Still, unlike any of Tarantino’s other films, here’s a movie where his violent fantasies and pitter-patter dialogue raise questions rather than merely entertain– even if you thoroughly enjoy Pulp Fiction, which I do, you have to admit there’s nothing “deep” about it. I’m not sure if these questions were intentionally raised or merely a byproduct of Tarantino putting his usual trademarks in his most epic setting to date. But I still wondered– can a film successfully toe the line between camp revenge fantasy and historical WWII document? Can you have the same sort of sadistic bloody casual deaths in this movie as you can in, say, Kill Bill without it being offensive? If your Nazi character is smarter, funnier, and more charming than your hero (and giving a better performance), do you run the risk of the timeless phenomenon of the audience cheering for a villain… your Nazi villain?
I gave Tarantino a hard time about the movie’s run time and its ad campaign before its release (for the record, the run time is still too long, and the ad campaign outside of the Nazi trailer ultimately successful if misleading). As someone who thought Kill Bill was drawn-out escapist fare, and who wanted to escape from watching Death Proof, I found Inglourious Basterds to be a mixed bag but ultimately compelling. I’m not sure how it will hold up to multiple viewings, but not since Jackie Brown has he made a movie this interesting. It’s over-the-top, clunky, and frustrating… but it’s also engaging, beautifully shot, and host to some terrific actors chewing up some good dialogue. The 153 minutes of film might not work as a whole, but there’s enough that works individually to make it worth seeing.