Bryan Singer’s 2008 World War II film Valkyrie demanded a great deal from its audience. It told the tale of a group of plotters who were willing to risk their lives and commit treason against their fatherland to bring about the end of an unrepentantly evil regime. It told their story in the guise of a thriller, despite the film’s ending being a matter of historical record. And it asked us to root for this company of heroes even knowing that their plot would fail.
Quentin Tarantino’s latest outing, Inglourious Basterds, makes no such demands on the audience. He doesn’t strain or even test your historical knowledge. He simply asks you to live in his world for a while. And apart from the uniforms, World War II iconography, and an encyclopedic knowledge of 30s and 40s cinema, this film takes place largely in a fantasy world.
Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) is the leader of the Basterds, a group of Jewish-American soldiers who will sneak behind enemy lines to kill (and scalp) as many Nazis as they can. The title and trailer would have us believe this is what the film is about, but this is not an origin story. The Basterds are merely a backdrop to a broader tale of revenge. As the Basterds plot to destroy the Nazi leadership, Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent), a French Jewish girl, bides her time incognito as the owner of a Parisian cinema, and plots revenge for the murder of her family at the hands of the SS. Also in the mix is Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger), a beautiful turncoat German film starlet, Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), a German sniper and war hero-cum-actor, and SS Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), known colloquially as “The Jew Hunter”.
This is easily Tarantino’s most ambitious film. More than half of the dialogue is in subtitled French or German, and the labyrinthine plot is scarcely contained in the film’s 2 1/2 hour runtime. The film feels like a teaser for a much larger story, and yet we are still privy to enough brilliantly crafted character moments that it feels complete.
The finest acting in the film is that of Christoph Waltz as SS Colonel Landa. He somehow manages to combine an outwardly cheerful demeanor with such simmering, underlying menace that each of his scenes will have you on the edge of your seat. Tarantino’s strength has always been in crafting lengthy scenes of gradually increasing tension amid seemingly innocuous dialogue, in which the question is not whether the scene will end badly; the question is “how badly” and “for whom?”. Waltz’s performance works masterfully within this framework; whether interrogating a dairy farmer under suspicion for harboring Jews, or conversing over Parisian strudel with a potential enemy, Waltz’ every facial tic gradually reveals his true intentions, as he leads the conversation exactly where he wants it to go. He is one of Tarantino’s most complex and well-crafted characters, and Waltz plays the part immaculately.
Also noteworthy is Mélanie Laurent. Shosanna is a familiar character, seemingly drawn from the same well as The Bride from Kill Bill. Nonetheless, Laurent ably combines a quietly sorrowful demeanor with an unflinching desire for revenge. Denis Menochet gives a strong performance in an early interrogation scene, and Diane Kruger does a fine job as the fictitious German film starlet. If there’s one thing Cate Blanchett taught me as Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator , it’s that I’m seldom disappointed by actresses playing actresses.
Which brings me…to Brad Pitt. When I first saw the trailer for this film, I thought that Pitt could ruin this film for me. He seemed woefully miscast as the Dirty Dozen-esque leader of the Basterds. And if Lt. Raine and the Basterds had more screen-time, that may well have been the case. But somehow, Pitt pulls it off.
He plays the character so brazenly over-the-top that it quickly becomes evident that this is not a character that is looking for anyone’s approval. Lt. Raine has come here to
chew bubblegum and kick ass have fun and kill Nazis, and maybe speak some unapologetically bad Italian along the way. He is essentially a cartoon character. He has a scar across his neck from having his throat slit at some point in the past, which is never explained, but one can assume he has Chuck Norris-like longevity.
Many of the other Basterds are similarly cartoonish, although I don’t have much to say about their performances, given that they have so little screentime. Tarantino brings in such unassuming young actors as B.J. Novak (“The Office”) and Samm Levine (“Freaks and Geeks”) and invites us to watch as they graphically scalp dead Germans.
He also brings in Eli Roth, and I must confess, I’m having a hard time figuring out why Roth is in this film. He plays Sgt. Donny Donowitz, known to the Germans as “The Bear Jew”, owing presumably to his appeal to a very specific subset of the gay community, and his propensity for beating Nazis to death with a baseball bat. The part was originally conceived for Adam Sandler, but rather than lament what might have been, I’ll simply speak to Roth’s performance. His delivery of dialogue, most of which he simply screams at the camera, is easily the worst in the film. He might well have ruined his scenes if not for the fact that he so looks the part of the Bear Jew. Roth may not be a strong actor, but he certainly can pull off a terrifying “bloodlust face”. And what’s more, he looks like he could kill me even without the bat. So with that in mind, I’ll simply say that Roth is a talented horror director, and he should probably stick to that from now on.
Inglourious Basterds is, like many of Tarantino’s films, an unrelenting depiction of brutality. Both the Basterds’ and Shosanna are unforgiving in their determination to wipe out the Nazis (“a Nat-see ain’t got no humanity!” barks Lt. Raine), and the parallels to the Nazis’ own brutality are almost certainly deliberate. The film does not seek to pardon anyone, but it does seem determined to simultaneously reveal both the humanity and brutality of all participants in war – and how the desire for revenge can lead people to commit previously unconscionable atrocities. And how in the end, no matter which side you’re on, all you want to do is go home, take off your uniform, and try to forget it ever happened.
“But that doesn’t sit well with me”, says Lt. Raine, as he gleefully carves a swastika into a German soldier’s forehead. “You know,” he says, turning to Private Utivich, who has just finished scalping yet another Nazi, “This might just be my masterpiece.”
FilmWonk rating: 9 out of 10