4 stars out of four
Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino
Starring Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz, Melanie Laurent, Diane Kruger, Eli Roth, Daniel Bruhl & Mike Myers
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The plot: In Nazi-occupied France during World War II, a group of Jewish-American soldiers known as "The Inglourious Basterds" are chosen specifically to spread fear throughout the Third Reich by scalping and brutally killing Nazis. The Basterds soon cross paths with a French-Jewish woman (Laurent) who runs a movie theater in Paris which is targeted by the soldiers.
My review: Quentin Tarantino is, let's face it, his own biggest fan. His admirers are many and devoted, but no one loves Tarantino as much as Tarantino. We've known this for a while, and the man's reputation as a masturbatory filmmaker has turned off many in the post-"Pulp Fiction" era. The only modern director who might love himself more is M. Night Shyamalan, whose ever-growing audacity is working against him. Tarantino's ever-growing audacity, however, has brought us to "Inglourious Basterds."
How can I best put this? "Inglourious Basterds" is insane. It is 153 minutes of fucking insanity.
Using David Bowie's "Cat People" in a WWII movie is insane. Scoring the rest of the film to Ennio Morricone Spaghetti Western music is insane. Only having five sequences -- five sequences! -- in your two-and-a-half-hour movie is insane. Asking Brad Pitt to do a whole movie with a terrible Tennessee accent is insane. Casting a heavily made-up Mike Myers as a British general is insane.
And the ending? The ending is as audacious as it gets -- and then the epilogue goes further.
There is one thing Tarantino loves more than himself, and it's cinema. All of QT's movies are about movies in one way or another, but none as explicitly as "Basterds," whose plot revolves around the premiere of a Goebbels propaganda film about a German sniper who took down 300 Allies in three days. The entire high command of the Third Reich will be in attendance, and several factions see this as a great opportunity to end the war. Much of the film's plentiful dialogue -- most of it not in English, I might add -- is about film, and the key players include a theater owner (Laurent), a famous German actress (Kruger) and a film critic-turned-British soldier.
The movie itself invites us to cackle with glee as Pitt's Basterds get down to the bidness of killin' gnat-zees. In return, the Nazis cackle as they watch Frederick Zoller (Bruhl) mow down American soldiers in Goebbels' film. Tarantino uses his own movie to show how easily movies can dehumanize the antagonist, no matter how terrible the protagonist might be. Are we, the audience, justified in cheering on the Basterds' lust for revenge? When they carve swastikas into their captives' foreheads, should we enjoy it? Right or not, we do, and Tarantino preys upon the fragility of our own moral compasses throughout the film. (After you see the film, think about this: It's easy for us to condemn the actions of the French farm owner in the opening sequence, but would we fare any better, given the circumstances?)
As in "Kill Bill," the graphic violence in "Basterds" is so over-the-top that it becomes comical. But much of "Basterds" feels like a horror movie, one that uses space, dialogue and editing to build suspense. Three of the film's five chapters (presented in the same fashion as "Kill Bill's" chapters) are built upon long exchanges between people sitting around a table. The third such sequence is almost unbearably long -- but QT rewards the audience with a furious payoff.
Much of this wouldn't work without great performances. Pitt is the de facto star of the film, and he does get big laughs, but the main attractions are Cristoph Waltz and Melanie Laurent. Waltz plays Col. Hans Landa of the SS, a quietly cunning detective known as "The Jew Hunter." Laurent plays Shoshanna Dreyfus, who escapes Landa's death-squad in the film's opening sequence and hatches the cinematic plot to take down the Third Reich. They share a scene in Chapter Three that, in a just world, will be shown twice at next year's Oscars when both actors find themselves nominated.
There's so much more I want to say about "Inglourious Basterds," but I just can't -- too much of it has already been spoiled, I fear, and not just by me. (I already knew the ending going in.) I will say this is a film that demands to be seen in a theater, and demands to be discussed and debated at great length. Love it or hate it, you can't deny its ambition.
Is it a twisted fairy tale? A sick revenge fantasy? An indictment of war? A celebration of war? An insult to the memories of those lost in the war? A fun piece of revisionist history? A mad work of genius? The insane ramblings of a narcissistic child?
It could be all those things. I know one thing for sure: "Inglourious Basterds" is, so far, the best film of 2009.