When last we met in this space to discuss Quentin Tarantino, I claimed he was ruining American movies. Now I must acknowledge his progress. Now he’s on to European movies.
It will be said that Inglourious Basterds is the wily writer-director’s most mature film, but all that really means is that it’s his least irritating. Tarantino still stirs only the basest feelings. He still loves movies in an unsettling way that makes loving movies seem like a waste of a life; here, instead of a trash-tastic gluttony of grindhouse references, there’s the ersatz sophistication of name-checking G.W. Pabst. Wunderbar.
But at least ol’ QT understands that moviemakers revisiting the plight of Jews during World War II ought now to avoid the gingerly tedious subgenre of Serious Holocaust Drama, so often rendered trivial by the enormity of history. So how about making triviality the point to begin with? How about a cinema-worshipping adolescent fantasy of tense anticipation, mouthy wit, beautiful women, brave men and brutal vengeance — writ large via swastikas carved into foreheads and skulls cracked open with a baseball bat or a hail of gunfire to the face? Better?
Anyway, that’s what we get from Inglourious Basterds, whose mission is to repurpose the war movie as a giddily revisionist genre mash-up, and whose title reconditely misspells the English title of a 1978 junk epic by spaghetti-western veteran Enzo Castellari. Would calling it The Dirtie Dousin or The Gunze of Naevarrohne have been too on the nose? Tarantino’s “Basterds,” collectively a squad of Jewish soldiers behind enemy lines in occupied France, are men on a mission. Their leader is Lieutenant Aldo “the Apache” Raine (Brad Pitt), a war-hardened Tennessee hillbilly who tells them in his dumb, sometimes Dubya-like voice, “Each and every man under my command owes me one hundred Nazi scalps. And I want my scalps!” No exceptions — except maybe for Sergeant Donny Donowitz (Tarantino protégé Eli Roth), known far and wide as “the Bear Jew,” who apparently is excused from the scalping quota because his lethal weapon of choice is the aforementioned Louisville Slugger.
“Watchin’ Donny beat Nazis to death is the closest we ever get to goin’ to the movies!” Raines tells one victim, and in the gruesome scene that follows, it’s only partially reassuring to think that goin’ to the movies is the closest Tarantino ever has gotten to watching anyone beat Nazis to death. But if he knows anything, it’s how to motivate a ’terd: The idea is to get famous, and stay that way, through a reputation of extraordinary cruelty and fearless panache.
Actually winning the war seems like a less of a priority, at least until British Lieutenant Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender) arrives and hatches a plot with the German actress and undercover agent Bridget Von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) to blow up a movie theater full of Nazi top brass. A catch: The theater’s secretly Jewish owner, Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), has a similar plan. That’s because a young German war hero (Daniel Brühl) has taken a fancy to Shosanna and arranged for a propaganda film about his battlefield valor to premiere in her cinema. As it happens, the chief of security for this occasion is Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), known far and wide as “the Jew Hunter,” and more immediately as the murderer of Shosanna’s family. Reputation!
As you might guess from hearing it described, Inglorious Basterds is overwrought with expository contortions. In lieu of strong characterization it has magnetic performances (and even a brilliant one, from the diabolically charismatic, cliche-redeeming Waltz); in lieu of development, sadistic suspense, which inevitably peters into its own kind of tedium. The film’s only use for rigor is emptily academic: Here is how to create tension, its creator tells us (and even when he shows, he tells), over and over and over again.
But he gets by on typical Tarantino gumption. Sure, there is that exhaustingly self-enchanted dialogue, but it’s in multiple languages! Sure, that narration comes in late, out of nowhere, and doesn’t go anywhere, but it’s Samuel L. Jackson! Sure, that music cue seems ham-fisted, but it’s David Bowie! Meanwhile David Wasco’s detail-rich production design and Robert Richardson’s all-flattering cinematography look great. But the movie has no heart.
If reading this is pisses you off, don’t fret: There is one character, a film critic in civilian life, who pays dearly for his failures of perception.