…written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, starring Brad Pitt, Melanie Laurent, Christoph Waltz, Eli Roth, Michael Fassbender, et al.
Inglourious Basterds is a Tarintino World War II film. For some (like yours truly), that’s enough to get us in the theater all by itself. The movie has the typical QT tropes: revenge fantasy, spaghetti western homage, awesomely conceived musical score, foot fetishism, internal film history references, and archetypal genre characters. There’s humor – black humor, subtle humor, clever dialogue humor. There are iconic filmed sequences. Oh, and the violence, of course, waiting there for you like a mugger in the dark.
The plot is pretty straightforward, right out of the TNT Memorial Day War Movie Marathon: Special Forces types (the Basterds), a unit of Jewish-Americans, go into Nazi-occupied France to terrorize, disrupt, and scalp Nazis. Eventually, they are enlisted in a secret British operation to kill Hitler, Goering, Goebbels, and other senior Nazis at the Paris premiere of Goebbels’ latest and greatest propaganda film. Throw in a Jewish girl who survived the slaughter of her family in the film’s opening sequence only to escape to Paris and set up shop as the proprietress of a local cinema and well, there’s your storyline.
Inglorious Bastards works so well due to its use of three primary archetypal characters: the heroine – Shosanna (Laurent), the hardass G.I. – Aldo Raine (Pitt), and the Nazi – Colonel Landa (Waltz). For each of these characters, Tarantino draws on a huge repository of movie tradition. Shosanna is equal parts secret Jew, femme fatale, and vengeful lover. QT films her with loving, almost fetishistic attention to detail (naturally), and she represents the most sympathetic and realistic of the movie’s characters.
Brad Pitt as Lt. ‘Apache’ Aldo skirts the line of satire very closely. He’s a bloodthirsty hillbilly, with his gigantic Bowie knife and jutting lower jaw – one part Billy Bob in Slingblade, one part Lee Marvin, and one part Duke. His team is the Hebrew version of the Dirty Dozen, which also includes German defector and Nazi-killer Sgt. Stiglitz (cue electric guitar riff), the baseball bat-wielding Jew Bear (Roth), and The Office’s B.J. Novak as a reserved and refined scalp taker. Aldo’s Basterd’s are as unforgiving and vicious as you’d like, and Aldo himself chews every scene he’s in to bits. Is he over-the-top? Absolutely, but it’s in a matter-of-fact “we gonna get us some Nazi scalps” fashion that plain works. Proof again of Pitt’s comedic chops and versatility. The scene in the cinema as Aldo and the boys flex their Italian language skills is pure gold.
But the command performance of this movie belongs squarely to Christoph Waltz as the diabolical Col. Landa. The Colonel is everything you need in a Nazi arch-villain – he’s clever, ruthless, deadly, and in the end utterly corrupt. From the opening sequence, interrogating Shosanna’s rural benefactor, to his final bit of bargaining, Waltz dominates every scene. And he does so in no less than four languages. He obviously relished the opportunity to enage in QT’s famous long-winded dialogue. Perhaps the best aspect of this character is the sense of menace he manages to impart, the way he smiles and nods and asks those probing questions that let the other guys (and the audience) know that he’s on to them and the axe is about to fall. IMDB tells us Waltz has been working in Europe for a couple of decades, and hopefully this turn will get him into more American movies in the near future. What a great actor…
Because Tarantino knows how to expertly use his archetypes, because of his reputation for engaging in graphic violence and going against Hollywood convention (even as he pays homage to it), and because of his ability to set the scene for both external and internal conflict, you literally find yourself leaning forward in your seat. It’s dramatic tension at its finest. There are numerous scenes filled with the kind of dreaded sense of anticipation that only the finest films can elicit. Sure, some of the sequences go on a bit too long, and some of the dialogue could be shored up, but this is what QT does, why he’s won so much acclaim.
In the end the real bastards in Inglorious Basterds receive their just desserts. Along the way we get a big dose of interesting filmmaking, off-kilter humor, and an impressive ensemble performance. What more do you need from a visit to your local cinema?