(Spoilers ahead, although nothing you couldn’t have read in any review)
There’s little doubt that Quentin Tarantino is the most polarizing director working today. If you don’t believe me, just head on over to the Inglourious Basterds page on the Internet Movie Database, click on “external reviews,” and pick 5 or 6 of them at random. If you don’t find at least one reviewer who thought the movie was a masterpiece and one who thought it was an abomination, I’ll be surprised (hint: if you want to save time, just read Roger Ebert and Kenneth Turan). And then there’s Slate, which decided to have its cake and eat it too, calling the movie “brilliant and reprehensible.”
Anyone who’s seen the trailer for Inglourious Basterds knows the general outline of the story – Brad Pitt, as Lt. Aldo Raine, leads “the Basterds,” 8 Jewish American soldiers dropped behind enemy lines in France to wreak havoc, spread fear, and “kill Nazis:”
My name is Lt. Aldo Raine and I need me eight soldiers. We're gonna be dropped into France, dressed as civilians. We're gonna be doing one thing and one thing only... killing Nazis. Members of the nationalist socialist party conquered Europe through murder, torture, intimidation, and terror. And that's exactly what we're gonna do to them. We will be cruel to the German and through our cruelty they will know who we are. They will find the evidence of our cruelty in the disemboweled, dismembered, disfigured bodies of their brothers we leave behind us and the German will not be able to help themselves from imagining the cruelty their brothers endured at our hands, at our boot heels, and the edge of our knives. And the German will be sickened by us, the German will talk about us and the German will fear us. Nazis ain't got no humanity! They need to be destroyed. Each and every man under my command owes me one hundred Nazi scalps... and I want my scalps!
Suffice to say that the Basterds pursue their goal with gusto, by means conventional (machine gun ambushes) and not (baseball bats). As Aldo Raine, Pitt proves again that he is at his best when he gets to set aside his good looks and have fun with a role. His Tennessee-born, part-Apache Raine is well over the top, but in a good way. In terms of the acting, the rest of the Basterds do their part, but none really stands out one way or another.
But Inglourious Basterds wouldn’t be a Tarantino movie if it didn’t have multiple plots at work. And as with several of his past films, Basterds is told in chapter format, developing several threads of a story that intersect only in the last act. Of the chapters, two represent film-making at its best. The first, titled “Once Upon A Time in Nazi-Occupied France,” begins with an idyllic setting, a farm on the French countryside. A rugged farmer works outside, with his beautiful daughters lending a hand. For a minute, you think you’ve stumbled onto the set of Jean de Florette. But then, the sound of a motorcar is heard, and it carries the Nazi known as “the Jew hunter,” Lt. Hans Landa. Landa is not your stereotypical Nazi goon – he’s polite, he’s charming, and he’s absolutely brilliant. In a seemingly innocent conversation with the farmer in his small home, during which the tension increases until it is almost unbearable, Landa deduces that the farmer is indeed hiding a Jewish family. The result of his discovery is unsurprising.
The portrayal of Landa by Christoph Waltz, an Austrian actor, is magnificent. Waltz captured an acting prize at the Cannes Film Festival for the role, and he should be a lock for an Academy Award nomination. By imbuing the character with charm, wit and intelligence, he creates a Nazi that in the end is more sinister, and more evil, than any I can recall seeing in any movie.
The second brilliant scene occurs when a suave British officer joins the Basterds in a plot which everyone hopes will result in the death of the upper Nazi echelon (including Hitler himself) as they’re viewing the latest cinematic “masterpiece” produced by Propaganda Minister Goebbels. The officer and two of the Basterds are meeting their contact, a German actress turned double-agent, in a small basement tavern. Alas, a group of Nazi soldiers (and one officer) is at the tavern celebrating one of them becoming a father for the first time. And, similar to the first scene, the tension slowly builds until it reaches a climax of sudden and brutal violence.
The other main story thread involves the lone Jewish survivor of the first chapter, who now owns the small cinema where the plot is intended to become explosive. She meets a young Nazi soldier who is a hero for his exploits but also a film buff; he becomes smitten with her and talks Goebbels, his mentor, into moving the premiere of the film (in which he stars as himself) from its original site to her small cinema. And it is in that small cinema where Tarantino pulls off his most audacious move. Unlike some reviews I’ve read, I’m not going to give it away. Go see the movie, and find out for yourself!
Like all Tarantino films, Inglourious Basterds is an exhilarating roller coaster ride. And once again, Tarantino proves that he is a master of dialogue as much as a master of violence. But like an album with one great side, it’s difficult to figure out exactly where in the pantheon it should fall.