Director: Quentin Tarantino
Writer: Quentin Tarantino
Producers: Lawrence Bender
Stars: Brad Pitt, Mélanie Laurent, Christoph Waltz, Eli Roth, Michael Fassbender, Diane Kruger, Daniel Brühl, Til Schweiger, Gedeon Burkhard, Jacky Ido, B.J. Novak, Omar Doom, August Diehl, Denis Menochet, Sylvester Groth, Martin Wuttke
Every movie that Quentin Tarantino makes is a love letter to the movies; going all the way back to when Mr. Blonde punctuated a standoff with “I bet you’re a big Lee Marvin fan, aren’t ya?” It’s likely impossible any of us not afflicted with his particular savant-hood could ever be summoned to the state of bouncing jabbering geekstasy which inspires him to these genre orgies, movies of careening tone and color he somehow holds together with sheer manic fervor. But you can sure sense him hoping we will get that same high.
His urgent desire to both articulate to and provide for us the bark-at-the-moon joy movies provide him leads to one act of daring after another in Inglourious Basterds, an experience astounding in so many ways you are not likely to even notice on just one viewing. Who else but Tarantino would not only imagine using the cinema as a literal weapon of mass destruction; but get the audience cheering for the characters doing it?
Not only does he do this, not only does he provide a feast of laughs, shocks, blisses, vulgarities, and cult culture dog whistles, he asks the question so subversive it would not even occur to serious directors: why can’t a movie re-write the ending of World War II? If that movie screen is meant to catch the whims of our imagination, what’s wrong with letting it display a punk revenge fantasia that supplies a blood simple solution to the problem of Nazism? In our dirty places, we have to admit, it’s a hell of a lot more satisfying than The Reader.
The marketing may lead you astray – Brad Pitt and his foul-mouthed secret squadron of Nazi-scalping Super Jews are only part of the tapestry here. Like a Sergio Leone protagonist, their capacity for violence gets caught up in the eddies of greater events that started long before their noisy entrance. Tarantino’s Kill Bill certainly threw Leone into the blender but this is a more dedicated tribute; a filmmaker in enough command of his storytelling muse not just to reference the auteur who took Spaghetti Westerns epic, but to stand tall as his brat disciple. QT is a basterd himself, with many camera-wielding fathers.
The story unfolds in five chapters with what you might call a mid-film comic interlude featuring a cameo by Mike Myers (old soldiers Samuel L. Jackson and Harvey Keitel also provide voice cameos). Tarantino develops, with a literary patience you wouldn’t expect of him, two iconic characters fated for a violent reunion; and even that equation does not produce the result you would expect. Austrian actor Christoph Waltz plays Col. Hans Landa, known as “The Jew Hunter” for his ability to smoke out refugee families hiding in occupied France. Waltz, who performs in four languages, and is equally ominous in each, makes Landa a mesmerizing creation – the rare sadist who is not bloodless, his cruelty gives him pride and epicurean relish. I thought of the cautioning lyric from the old Disney song “Never Smile at a Crocodile”: “Don't be taken in/by his welcome grin/He's imagining how well you'd fit within his skin.”
Though Tarantino has a reputation for extreme violence, his real signature is not the hit but the wind-up. The first chapter of Inglorious Basterds consists of an agonizingly-long conversation between The Jew Hunter and a dairy farmer (Denis Menochet) with some secret boarders. Watch Landa’s politeness, his apologies for the foolish bureaucracy he must undertake, the way he asks for more of the dairy farmer’s delicious milk. Watch the inexorable menace produced, not by anything in his words or tone, but simply by the roundabout way he extends the conversation. This is a slowly-circling wolf who makes everyone sweat, even the innocent – just on the off chance they’re not. A Nazi Uniform, and the lethal power and malice it represents at that time and in that place, does everything Tarantino needs to create inherent dread possibilities; the rest is all in the timing, which is exquisite.
One Jewish girl escapes; young Shoshanna Dreyfus, played by a French actress named Mélanie Laurent who has an unmistakably Uma Thurman-esque cast to her wide pupils. She resurfaces years later under a different name in Paris, where she runs an esteemed movie theatre the Nazis wish to use to premiere a propaganda film. Tarantino dresses her as a glamorous tragedy in red, and keeps the luscious tendrils of cigarette smoke always nearby.
That stately trajectory of fate provides a frame into which Pitt, as Tennessee-born roughneck Lt. Aldo “Apache” Raine, and his squadron of “Basterds” can come banging. Pitt is both a great movie star and a deeply-underrated actor when given a colorful character to play; and Tarantino is clever enough to let him be both. Aldo is an outstanding cartoon-tongued hooligan-hero, Pitt takes to the dialogue like a drummer who’s been itching for a solo. And it indicates the expanse of the Tarantino film universe that his character seems instantly of it, yet you cannot find his doppelganger in any prior movie.
The mission of the Basterds is to live in stealth behind enemy lines, but strike at maximum volume and brutality to create terror. We see less of this than you’d predict, but what we see makes impression enough. Although the squad’s loudest member is Sgt. Donny Donowitz, aka The Bear Jew (played by Hostel director Eli Roth and a wooden baseball bat), I most enjoyed watching German defector Hugo Stiglitz. He’s played by Til Schweiger, who can write poems of emotion with his jaw. Mostly ugly emotions.
Like Kill Bill, camera duties belong to master cinematographer Robert Richardson, who has filmed four Martin Scorsese pictures and a dozen by Oliver Stone. Let it not be said he doesn’t know how to act as a grounding wire for a restless director. He seems to be the perfect super-literate collaborator for these walking encyclopedias, his images give Inglorious Basterds both the romance of its higher forbearers, and the horror-show splatter of its meaner.
This movie, in all its raucous, sweeping, bullet-riddled glory, defies categorization. And maybe that’s what the world’s most famous video store clerk has always yearned for – his own inimitable category among the shelves. He has achieved it – if someone asks me what kind of movie this is, I’ll answer “It’s a Tarantino”. And a bloody marvelous one at that.