Monday, August 24, 2009
In Theaters: Inglourious Basterds
I’m still not entirely sure what to make of INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, even though I like it. It’s an extraordinarily well made movie that basically delivers what it promises, but it does so in the last way you would expect. At this point, I’m convinced that Quentin Tarantino genuinely enjoys confounding audiences; what’s been promoted as a simple war movie about a group of Jewish-American soldiers killing as many Nazis as possible is, instead, a more complex story about revenge and propaganda and art, that nonetheless, in the course of events, involves killing a whole bunch of Nazis. It’s definitely the most challenging project Quentin Tarantino has undertaken since the underrated JACKIE BROWN, and it succeeds in provoking a lot of conflicting emotions in the audience; it’s alternately thrilling that arguably the most evil group of men in history are getting theirs, horrifying how brutal it all is, amusing how blatantly the story disregards history, and fascinating how it gives us an alternate narrative. It’s powerful on a level I never expected.
The Basterds (sic) are a company of Jewish-American soldiers organized under Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), who teaches them guerilla tactics so that they can be parachuted behind enemy lines in advance of D-Day and set about striking terror into the Axis forces by killing anyone and everyone in a Nazi uniform (excluding undercover operatives, one presumes.) Word of their prowess spreads to Berlin almost overnight, thanks to them occasionally letting one or two be released with swastikas carved on their foreheads. Meanwhile, in Paris, Frederick Zoller, a German sniper turned movie star (Daniel Brühl) falls for a theater owner (Mélanie Laurent), who unbeknownst to him is the sole survivor of a Jewish massacre carried out by the sadistic and enigmatic S. S. officer Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz.) Frederick’s affection for her, which she barely acknowledges, leads to the premiere of his self-starring biopic being moved to her theater. Knowledge of the premiere, which is sure to be attended by top Nazi brass, reaches the British, who plan to blow up the theater, and enlist the help of the Basterds for what they call “Operation Kino”. What they don’t know is that the theater owner, called Emmanuelle Mimieux but really named Shosanna Dreyfus, plans to burn down the place herself.
So there’s a lot more plot to this movie than you’d think, and the brutality you expect, while present, isn’t quite wall to wall. The film lets scenes build slowly to eruptions of swift violence, creating suspense from the growing realization of what’s coming. The film plays a lot with expectation and rhythm, though it’s unlikely to frustrate audiences quite as much as DEATH PROOF did. (It is worth pointing out that I think DEATH PROOF was not only awesome, but justified the buildup completely, but to explain why I’d have to spoil the whole plot and this isn’t a review of that film anyway.) Frankly, I think you have to respect a director who understands the importance of the setup, and rewards attention to the little things, and here Tarantino does both.
Much has been made of the performance of Christoph Waltz as Col. Landa, with good reason. On one level his character is not all that unusual; World War II movies often have a Nazi who is capable of being pleasant, is motivated by something other than pure anti-Semitism, is fiercely intelligent, and is all the more hateful for being so complex. And yet Waltz takes it one step beyond, makes Landa a fully three-dimensional character, with a silly demeanor masking the fact that he is usually the most perceptive and intelligent person in the room. The actor’s already won a prize at Cannes for his work, and hopefully he’ll get a push for Oscar consideration as well. Brad Pitt plays Raine with a broad accent and comic flair, which leads to some brilliant moments in the film’s final act. Laurent is a striking beauty in the thoughtful French New Wave mode, and to a certain extent her character’s attitude about film stands in for the changing attitudes that would sweep the continent when the war was over. Of course, the Germans get Diane Kruger as film-star-turned-informant Bridget von Hammersmark, so it balances out.
In blatant defiance of modern action movie aesthetics, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS features rich, natural colors, long takes, and a steady hand at the camera at virtually all times. It’s a pleasure to look at, at least when the Basterds aren’t scalping their enemies (Raine wants 100 Nazi scalps per man, though there’s no indication where he keeps them.) The music, as per usual, is a compilation from other sources, mostly Morricone, which befits the film’s spaghetti Western tone.
The climax is something I don’t want to spoil but feel the need to discuss anyway. Normally when a movie changes history, it fools around with things the average audience member isn’t likely to notice; obscure personages get their personalities screwed with, battles are altered, America takes credit for British victories, etc. (Seriously, I’m surprised they even let U-571 be released in the UK.) What happens at the end of INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS is a fiction that should be obvious to anyone who wasn’t completely asleep during every history class he or she ever took, and also missed out on the History channel, a lot of other WWII movies, there was an episode of FAMILY GUY- I’m sure there will be people who don’t know it’s fake, but for them there is no hope. In any case, it’s an astounding scene- it’s cathartic and hellish, a portrait of pure revenge that makes the whole film a sort of replacement narrative, how things ought to have ended, but even though just about everyone has it coming, there’s something kind of hard to watch about it.
Of course, that’s the beauty of the film; it’s not clear how you’re supposed to feel about anything. The picture is alternately thrilling, disgusting, hilarious, and elegiac, and the overall effect is that of a true rollercoaster. INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS is Quentin Tarantino’s best film in a long time, and another great example of something weird and original sneaking into mainstream cinemas. Something very interesting is happening with the movies this year.
Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino