At first, I wasn't entirely sure how I was going to feel about Quentin Tarantino's long in-the-works war movie Inglourious Basterds. The opening scene finds Nazi officer Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) interrogating a Frenchman whom he suspects is hiding Jews in his home. The sequence plays out for fifteen minutes and consists of the two men talking. There's definitely a lot of suspense - we know the guy is hiding a whole family under his floorboards, but not whether he will sell them out - yet it distinctly lacks those trademark Tarantino flourishes. It's almost…How do I say this? Conventional.
And Inglourious Basterds is indeed a masterpiece, as I figured out about halfway through.
There are really two parallel stories. In one, a young woman named Shoshanna (Melanie Laurent) escapes the clutches of Landa and the Nazis, who kill the rest of her family. Years later, she is the owner of a small cinema. When the Nazis want to use her venue for a big movie premiere - with every high-ranking official in attendance - she schemes to burn the place down with everyone inside. In the other story, Brad Pitt plays Lt. Aldo Raine, leader of a special squad of Jewish soldiers who have made it their mission to scalp and kill Nazis. They are brought in on Project Kino, a British plot to blow up Shoshanna's theater on the same premiere night. Raine enjoys killing Nazis, but he also makes sure to psychologically torture them first.
The Basterds meet up with famous actress Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger), who is working as a spy; she helps them coordinate the bombing attempt. Meanwhile, Landa is hot on their trail, aware that Raine and company are out there gunning for his kind.
Inglourious Basterds is not so much a movie about war as it is a movie about war movies. As always, Tarantino has absorbed a lot of (mostly foreign) war pictures, found inspiration in them, and combined his influences into something new and original. The fact that so much of the story centers around a cinema is a tip-off that his entire concept - wiping out the Nazis in one swoop - is a filmic fantasy.
The reason why it works is because the director is a master storyteller who knows how to ratchet up the suspense. Consider a very long scene in which two of the Basterds rendezvous with Bridget von Hammersmark at a small pub. There are not supposed to be any Nazis there, but a small group of them have shown up to celebrate: one of them just had a son born hours before. As the scene plays, we know that it's possible the Nazis will figure out what's going on. We also know that, if that happens, guns will start firing pretty quickly. But what makes the sequence so tense is the fact that we know one guy just had a baby. That knowledge pulses underneath the scene, so that we're not only worried that the Basterds will be discovered, but also that a newborn will never get to know his father, even if the guy is a freakin' Nazi. It's little touches like that which make Inglourious Basterds a cut above the norm.
Even at two and a half hours, the picture is packed wall-to-wall with good stuff, from a surprisingly effective non-winking Mike Myers cameo (which almost makes me willing to forgive him for The Love Guru) to Hostel director Eli Roth playing a baseball bat-wielding Basterd, to Brad Pitt's thick Tennessee accent. Yeah, it's over the top, and purposefully so. Aldo Raine is not a real good guy; he's a movie good guy. I love the fact that Tarantino gives us a hero who is larger than life. The story wouldn't work with an actor who took the macho posturing too seriously. We like Raine because he seems more cinematic than authentic.
The best performance, however, comes from Christoph Waltz. If he does not get an Oscar nomination, something is very, very wrong inside the Academy. I was reminded of the first time I ever saw Ralph Fiennes, coincidentally also playing a Nazi in Schindler's List. Watching both actors, I could only ask myself: How can one man be so good at playing someone so evil?
Without giving too much away, Inglourious Basterds has a finale that left me feeling so high, it took hours to come down. I'm not sure how Tarantino has done it, but it has. The film takes the Nazis seriously, yet also manages to indulge in the levity of a dream - one in which the worst thing to ever happen in the modern world was avenged by a few determined people working together. Watching Inglourious Basterds is like sitting in a huge cinema and viewing a great war movie, then stepping through the screen to enter the film itself. I don't know if that idea will make sense to you now, but I'm willing to bet that once you see Tarantino's latest, it will.
( out of four)
Inglourious Basterds is rated R for strong graphic violence, language and brief sexuality. The running time is 2 hours and 32 minutes.
Return to The Aisle Seat