I promised myself that I’d one day get around to reviewing this movie (for whose benefit I DON’T KNOW) and now, nearly two years worth of days later, that time has come. My parents could have had no idea how much I’d take the term “late bloomer” to heart.
Way back in 2009 I said, when it might have been a timely claim, that Up was the best movie of the summer. This was before I caught Inglourious Basterds, which turned out in fact to be the best movie…wait for it…of the YEAR. I’d by lying to say that I was eagerly awaiting this one’s release. Based on the trailer — which heavily emphasizes the QUENTIN TARANTINO-NESS of it all — and also the simple fact that this was a revenge movie about scalping Nazis, I thought it might be at most fun, and at worst Kill Bill with swastikas. Suffice it to say Basterds turned out to be a wildly different movie than the one I (and probably a lot of people) was expecting, and definitely for the better. In place of what most of us assumed would be a patchwork homage to old war movies and spaghetti westerns was instead a deeply original, thoughtful film. One that, while still embracing QT’s beloved hyper-violence, transcends its premise — and maybe its promise — to become a genuine classic.
Marketing and Tarantino history would have you believe that Inglourious Basterds is the story of eight Jewish soldiers, led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), sent behind enemy lines to decimate Nazi troops and potentially kill Hitler. That is not untrue, but as both characters and cinematic elements, the Basterds turn out to be only part of the attraction. Half the running time is devoted to other Nazi-haters like theater operator Shosanna (Melanie Laurent), who three years earlier escaped the execution of her family by SS officers; Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger), a German actress/British double agent; Basterd attache Lt. Archie Hilcox (Michael Fassbender). Not to mention the Nazis they hate, like SS Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) and war hero Frederick Zoller. Slowly their stories unfold and their journeys collide, like Magnolia with fewer White People Problems. It’s a wide-angle Nazi gab-fest!
Which is not to say that Basterds isn’t violent to the point of absurdity. No one who caught the movie amped to see this…
LEFT DISAPPOINTED. But unlike some other entries in the Tarantino Art Therapy Saga, the violence here isn’t just character-appropriate, or cool. It’s actually…sort of cathartic? Here’s the thing, and it’s barely a “thing” because I’m fairly confident we can all agree on it: the Third Reich, in all its peoples and permutations, committed arguably the most heinous atrocities in the history of human civilization. There is no apology you can make, no balm, that excuses or lessens the impact of the GENOCIDE OF MILLIONS. Nazis are awful and beyond redemption, even when they’re illiterate or make for funny houses.
…Who doesn’t want to see a theater full of them gunned down by Jewish soldiers?
Maybe we’re a bunch of sick f*cks who get off on wanton acts of destruction — and maybe the people cheering in my theater were less interested in the psycho-artistic implications of scalping than they were, you know, the scalping itself — but I think there’s almost a need for us to see this sort of physical brutality. In the non-fiction European Theater, Hitler took his own life in a bunker as defeat loomed. Here, we get to see the man repeatedly shot in the face as many of his followers burn to death downstairs. Much as we might not want to say it out loud…isn’t that how we wish it ended in real life, too?
It’s not all wish fulfillment. Early in the film Hitler speaks to a low-ranking Nazi soldier who escaped the Basterds with an arts ‘n crafts swastika to remember them by. We don’t see the knifing. But in the final scene, when Aldo carves his last “permanent tattoo” in Landa’s forehead, the camera doesn’t peel away. It’s physically repulsive to watch, more so than any prior scene, and that’s by design: a “you made your bed, audience, now LAY in it” moment that forces us to stop and think about our twisted blood lust. Like Unforgiven or The Expendables, violence for the thinking cinema-goer.
After 800 words loudly expounding on the ways this “thoughtful” movie is the most violent thing to ever stain your eyeballs, it’s time (for all of us) to grow up and get to it. What sets Basterds apart, even in Tarantino’s own filmography?
By now we’ve revealed (oops!) that Basterds exists in a fan-fiction WWII where Hitler is gunned down, violently, which leads us right to the next point of order: historical fealty. In all but the most obscure of history-based movies, we already know the ending. Rome falls. The Titanic sinks. Not that we don’t care, but we lose that core of drama — i.e. NOT KNOWING EXACTLY WHAT WILL HAPPEN — when the result is already literally on the books. So when someone chooses to throw that book out the window…well, it’s both a dangerous and invigorating tack. But Tarantino is such a strong storyteller that even the craziest moments — and there are, of course, plenty of them — don’t seem out of place, just slightly more elevated than the norm. Meanwhile an already entertaining and suspenseful movie is made more so, with a fresh urgency that could have only come from deviating from the record.
There’s no way to write this without sounding like a douche but…it doesn’t feel like an American film. There’s the foreign dialogue, DUH, but beyond that a sort of respectful dismissal of both a) the movie people expected to see and b) the pace at which any other movie of this kind might move that pushes this slightly east of the Atlantic. It’s slooooooooww going (without being plodding), taking its sweet time both in setting scenes up and then allowing those scenes to play out. Tarantino hits in 2 hours the number of scenes Michael Bay would go through in ten minutes, and in nearly all of them, the central conflict plays out in dialogue and close character interactions. Things are hidden, revealed, and explored…all through conversation. Even more so than some of his classically “talky” movies like Pulp Fiction, Basterds really trades on the power of language.
What does it actually mean to be a “Quentin Tarantino” movie? The guy is arguably the most discussed filmmaker to emerge in the last twenty years, but for what? Character through (pop cultural) conversation? A hip deference to cinematic history? Casual racism? His name is dropped so often, even by nuns and small children, that we’ve maybe forgotten the real abilities he brings to the table. I mean, yes: when you’ve got leathered-up gimps and ear cutting and foot fetishes, it’s probably difficult to convince people you’re not a camera-wielding sadomasochist. But look past the superficial elements of his work (it’s a lot of blood to clean off, obviously) and you’ll find an expert scene-builder and actor’s director, a curious and experimental storyteller, and a HUGE F*CKING TALENT. Anyone who can’t admit that last one is seriously not worth your time.