With the exception of two key, patience-testing, dialogue-heavy scenes, Quentin Tarantino’s purposefully misspelled “Inglourious Basterds” is a near-perfect movie and one of the most innovative and unique World War II films ever made.
Tarantino’s First Point A to Point B NarrativeTold in chapter form ala “Pulp Fiction” and “Kill Bill,” and not counting a couple of flashback scenes, this movie marks the first Tarantino film not presented out of sequence. For any other filmmaker this wouldn’t be a big deal, but in Tarantino’s case, it’s a major artistic leap. This is a guy whose previous movies would fall flat if their respective narratives were presented in chronological order.
Other than Brad Pitt (and two surprise cameo voiceovers), Tarantino cast this movie with relative unknown Americans and a slew of European performers most U.S. audiences weren’t familiar with at the time (Daniel Bruhl, August Diehl, Michael Fassbender, Diane Kruger, Melanie Laurent, and Christoph Waltz).
The movie was a huge commercial gamble yet overperformed at the box office, taking in over $340M worldwide against a $70M budget, Tarantino’s most financially successful film at the time, until being eclipsed by “Django Unchained.” It also succeeded in forever silencing Tarantino’s detractors who regularly accused him of repeating himself.
Pitt plays Lt. Aldo Raine, a Tennessee-born regular guy whose jutting jaw and clipped delivery is a mix of Billy Bob Thornton’s character from “Sling Blade,” George C. Scott in “Patton,” and Lee Marvin in “The Dirty Dozen.”
Branded Faces and a Baseball BatRaine’s mission is simple but brutal. He and eight guerilla operatives (seven Jews and one disgruntled former German officer) disguised as civilians will capture small cloisters of German soldiers in the fields of France. After scalping (yes, scalping) most of them, Raine will offer a survivor or two the option of providing military intelligence, and living with an ingeniously designed, irreversible facial brand, or getting beaten to death via the Boston-born, baseball-bat-wielding Donny, “The Bear Jew” Donowitz (Eli Roth).
Occupying the gap in between Raine’s segments is Shoshanna Dreyfus (Laurent), the lone survivor of a Nazi slaughter, now the proprietor of a Paris movie theater living with a fake French identity. Shoshanna is the unwilling romantic target of a German sniper (Bruhl) who stars in a recently produced propaganda film where he plays himself, much like Audie Murphy in “To Hell and Back” (1955).
Repeatedly dismissing the sniper’s pushy advances, Shoshanna is eventually presented with an opportunity to exact the ultimate revenge. With some not-so-willing help from her lover-employee, Shoshanna devises a scheme that will take out most of the German hierarchy and thus end World War II.
Most movies about World War II have been fictional, but none have presented the heightened level of believable realism as much as “Inglourious Basterds.” The “what if” scenario Tarantino introduces and sees through to completion in the final act is metaphysical catharsis at its most pure and bittersweet.
The story goes beyond the unimaginable and lands in a spot that is completely plausible. The audacious final 15 minutes of this movie surpasses everything Tarantino has ever committed to film, and that includes the entirety of “Pulp Fiction.”
Waltz’s Breakthrough PerformanceThe standout performance among a slew of standouts is Waltz as Col. Hans Landa, a multi-lingual Nazi detective who surpasses any conceivable definition of the word “evil.” Landa’s surface charm, psychological (and psychopathic) cunning, and abhorrent double-dealing ways makes Ralph Fiennes’ character in “Schindler’s List” look like a distracted used-car salesman by comparison.
Waltz won an Oscar for his work here, and another three years later under Tarantino’s direction in “Django Unchained.”
If Tarantino had trimmed 15 or so minutes from the final cut, this might have been the “masterpiece” that he himself unsubtly suggests in the movie’s final scene.
Even with its minor flaws and overlong length, “Inglourious Basterds” is a vital and required addition to Tarantino’s impressive career canon.