With Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino repeats the feat he first achieved 15 years ago with Pulp Fiction: He startles you out of your movie doldrums, makes you excited (and agitated) about film for film’s sake, and opens your eyes to the infinite possibilities of cinematic storytelling. Basterds isn’t so revolutionary or so finely crafted as Pulp Fiction was, but it crackles with the same energy and imagination and chutzpah — with the sheer, humongous pleasure of a great filmmaker firing on all cylinders, including a few new ones you didn’t even know he had.
Beginning with the phrase “Once upon a time in Nazi-occupied France,” Inglourious Basterds is an exercise in revisionist history — or, perhaps more accurately, a revenge fantasy draped in war-picture camouflage. The movie is more whacked-out Godard than Charles Bronson, though. Payback has rarely felt sweeter or more satisfying than it feels here, but Tarantino takes his time getting there, ingeniously weaving his various (and uncharacteristically linear) storylines, stopping along the way for side excursions into delirious, movie-movie shenanigans. This is not a film for the impatient, for history teachers, or, as is usually the case with Tarantino’s work, for the squeamish.
Much of the gory stuff comes courtesy of the titular heroes. Named after an obscure 1978 Italian exploitation picture, the Basterds are a band of Jewish-American soldiers led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), a Tennesseean with a good-ol’-boy accent who orders his men to bring back 100 Nazi scalps each. “We will be cruel to the Germans,” Raine reasons, “and through our cruelty, they will know who we are.” Pitt plays Raine as broadly as he played the gym instructor in Burn After Reading, and the comic performance initially seems to clash with the seriousness of the rest of the movie, until you develop a feel for the volatile mix of laughs and horror Tarantino is after.
Part of the beauty of Inglourious Basterds is the speed and suddenness with which Tarantino can shift gears, as he does in a long, suspenseful sequence inside a tavern in which a rowdy drinking game turns serious — and then gets worse — when a German major makes a surprise entrance. Despite their eponymous billing, the Basterds are only part of the movie’s large ensemble, which includes Shoshanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent), a Jewish teenager whose family was slaughtered by the Germans and is now living incognito in Paris where she runs a movie theater; Bridget Von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger), a famous German actress who is working as an undercover agent for the British, and Nazi Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), a heinous murderer and scheming genius who proudly refers to himself as a “Jew hunter.”
Tarantino is known for getting strong work from his actors, and the performances in Inglourious Basterds are all uniformly good. Kruger, so blank as the woman whose beauty caused a war in Troy, and Laurent, a French actress little known in the United States, make memorable contributions to Tarantino’s ever-growing roster of strong heroines (Laurent’s steely resolve to avenge Shoshanna’s family’s murder is particularly haunting). But the movie’s standout performance is Waltz’s magnetic portrayal of monstrous evil. Unlike the film’s cartoonish depictions of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels, Waltz plays Landa straight and without irony, as a man so treacherous that he can make the line “Could I have another glass of your delicious milk?” sound like a death sentence.
And yet he, too, fits right in with Inglourious Basterds‘ crazy comic-book universe, where humorous absurdity and piercing tragedy exist side by side. One of the film’s best and funniest scenes is a meeting between Landa and three of the Basterds who are trying to pass for Italians (you’ve never heard anyone mangle “Arrivederci” quite like Pitt does). Just a few beats later, a major character meets a shocking death, and you’re surprised by how much the loss stings. A complaint often leveled at Tarantino is that his movies are about nothing more than other movies, and this one is no exception: From the spaghetti-western undertones of the opening scene set in the French countryside and the self-conscious voiceover narration by Samuel L. Jackson to the apocalyptic (and, I should note, outrageous) finale inside a movie theater, Inglourious Basterds is suffused with Tarantino’s combustible love of cinema.
But unlike, say, Kill Bill, in which there was little going on other than the referencing of other films, Inglourious Basterds stands as an expertly crafted and gorgeously shot (by Robert Richardson) piece of moviemaking in which plot and character are at the foreground. The film runs 152 minutes, yet it is so tightly constructed and compelling that it feels an hour shorter and seems to be comprised of maybe 10 long scenes. I’m sure there are more than that, but the caliber of reverie Tarantino has achieved is so high the movie puts you in a trance of pleasure. I haven’t even mentioned that more than half the film is subtitled or that there’s barely any traditional action in it or that Mike Myers makes a wonderfully strange but effective cameo. Inglourious Basterds transcends the war genre to become its own kind of unique picture: A bloody blast of pure movie bliss.
Cast: Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz, Melanie Laurent, Diane Kruger, Eli Roth, Daniel Bruhl, Til Schweiger, Michael Fassbender, Mike Myers.
Writer-director: Quentin Tarantino.
Producer: Lawrence Bender. A Weinstein Co. release. Running time: 152 minutes. Vulgar language, considerable violence, heavy gore, sexual situations, adult themes. In English, German, French and Italian with English subtitles. Playing at: area theaters.