Shifting restlessly in my seat during the 2 ½ hour length of Inglourious Basterds, a thought occurred to me: “Has Quentin Tarantino gone mad?” Sure, he can get away with rambling dialog about Quarter Pounders in Paris and foot massages. But when did he get it into his head that people will sit still for references to G.W. Pabst and the outsized respect for movie directors in France?
Seriously, I’m a movie geek and I know my Pandora’s Box very well. I follow Cannes and know how silly the French critics can be at times and yet I found these references tiresome. I can’t imagine the paralysis that must have been setting in with other less movie-geeky members of my matinee audience. Put it this way. Are you familiar with Riefenstahl’s “mountain” movies? If not, proceed with caution. They get mentioned, a lot.
Basterds is Tarantino’s take on the World War II war picture. Told in five chapters in a style that mimics Kill Bill all the way down to the same font used on the title cards, it weaves together two main storylines. One of them, led by Brad Pitt, follows a band of American soldiers, all of them Jewish, who set out to scare the Nazis by scalping and brutally killing as many of them as possible. Their quota: 100 dead Nazis killed.
The other storyline involves Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent); a young woman who narrowly escapes death at Nazi hands, years later inherits a movie theater, and ultimately concocts a plan to secure her revenge when the Nazis force her to premiere their latest propaganda picture on her screen. Hint: nitrate film burns very quickly.
Tying it all together is Col. Hans Landa, otherwise known as “The Jew Hunter.” Portrayed as both a ruthless Nazi officer and as an unflappable detective with a hilariously enormous Sherlock Holmes pipe, Landa (Christoph Waltz) is a monumentally magnificent conception. Whether interrogating a French farmer, eating a pastry with Dreyfus, or laughing uncontrollably as he sees through an adversary’s lie; he is mesmerizing.
Waltz should get an Oscar for his work. Unfortunately, no one else registers nearly as memorably. Brad Pitt’s role, other than having a fine opening speech as he recruits the “Basterds,” is little more than an extended cameo. And film director Eli Roth (Hostel) proves once again as the baseball bat wielding “good guy” that he should stay behind the camera, for good.
The opening scene of Landa interrogating a farmer about an unaccountably missing Jewish family is a mini-masterpiece. It has some of Tarantino’s best writing. Its shrewd shift from subtitled French to English and back again is a perfectly executed idea. And the handling of suspense is worthy of the master Alfred Hitchcock.
In fact, many scenes make use of Hitchcock’s techniques and Tarantino even drops the suspense master’s name during a mid-film bar scene. Too bad the techniques only have their intended effect during that one early scene. For the most part, this is the first Tarantino movie to wear me down, to make me yawn, as the characters babbled on and on.
In the final analysis, Inglourious Basterds is a Jewish revenge fantasy. It takes the position that, if some Jewish American soldiers are shown scalping Nazi soldiers and carving swastikas into their foreheads and using a Louisville Slugger to drive their heads “out of the park,” balance will be restored. It’s a sad and stomach-churning miscalculation.
Some great scenes and performances aside, the movie profoundly proves the old saying: “Two wrongs don’t make a right.”