Stars: **** out of Four
Summary: Audacious, shocking, funny, brilliant, and challenging storytelling. More than entertainment, Tarantino uses the guise of a war movie to shoot holes in our conceptions of onscreen violence.
Review: Quentin Tarantino is an auteur if there ever was one. His striking, consistent, and audacious style is unmistakable and unmatched. His films are often condemned by the morally conscientious for being violent and sexually explicit, a charge I have issues with, but will not answer in this review. His cinematic reputation is marked by blood, swearing, and crime. One would think, from a popular conception, that his films are concerned with reveling in the dark side of life. I would contest this openly. And ‘Inglourious Basterds’ provides an excellent reason why.
The story is dark, to be sure. “Once upon a time, in Nazi-occupied France”, after all, is the story’s setting. Blood is bound to be spilled. The film opens with a truly chilling conversation between a Nazi villain known as Colonel Hans Landa — who I would call one of the greatest screen villains of all time — and a French farmer. Hans Landa, as an aside, is played by Christoph Waltz, an unbelievably good actor, but not well known in the states. Hopefully this movie will change that. Anyway, the farmer is hiding a Jewish family beneath his house, and Landa knows it. Tarantino has always been noted for the strength of his characters and the writing in general, and this film is certainly no exception. The tension builds and builds throughout the scene, a solid ten minutes of rising horror. Only one Jewish girl escapes the ordeal alive, spared for the hell of it by Landa as she runs away from a sudden machine gun massacre.
This girl grows up to become a cinema owner, through a series of events that the theatergoer is not privy to. I had the privilege of reading the original screenplay Tarantino typed out, and there is a solid hour of events missing from the final cut, scenes I believe were filmed and should end up on the DVD/Bluray with any luck.
Meanwhile, the Americans have organized an elite fighting team of Jewish soldiers, dubbed the ‘Basterds’ by the Germans. They are literally terrorists, waging guerrilla warfare behind, around, and between enemy lines, killing Nazis without mercy.
Eventually, both stories converge at the cinema, and let’s just say it becomes hell on Earth as history is dismissed in a brilliant checkmate by Tarantino. Seriously.
This is not a simple revenge fantasy, however. Killing Nazis may be the Basterd’s goal, but in the end, if the audience is really paying attention, they may have second thoughts about such simple moral terms. In the end, there is no “them”, no heartless enemy we can kill without blinking. They are real human beings, and we are just as evil as they are. Just about everybody in the story has the chance to be a, well, bastard, and to be a good guy — or at least a decent individual. Tarantino brilliantly exposes the truth that war, and any violence for that matter, is hell for everybody involved. The violence, though brief, is utterly devastating and quite realistic. There are not really any improbable escapes or awesome firefights. There is a Mexican Standoff where everybody involved, and even some that weren’t, is killed, except for one person. The violence is played at real time, without any of the slow-motion, Matrix-inspired action gimmicks. There aren’t any moments where we are called on to enjoy the violence, just to watch and to experience the emotional and sociological implications of seeing those sorts of things happening. It’s both awful and necessary to the story Quentin’s telling.
The cinematography, unlike all the Michael Bay, rapid-fire bullshit that’s so popular these days, is nearly perfect. Forget 3-D, this is immersion in the scene. During the Mexican Standoff, we are placed at the table, and forced to watch the characters interact organically, patiently, as they — and thus, we — try to figure out how to get out of the situation. The tension is palpable because we are really invested. Going hand-in-hand with the sheer patience of the cinematography is the way the characters are fleshed out. Tarantino has claimed more than once that he allows his characters to literally drive the story, rather than following the common practice of moving your principal players around like sprites in a video game world, and it’s extremely well evident. These are people. Thank God, then, that the violence is so sparse, or else we’d feel like the characters were being disrespected. Instead, they react to violence like any real person would, and we find ourselves caught up in sympathy.
Part of the complete package of humanity, of course, is humor. Tarantino breaks with convention and even laces the humor directly into his filmmaking style, with wacky captions and musical stingers. It’s a style that must be seen to be believed, and it’s hysterical. Even the villains get to be the comics.
After all was said and done, history had been changed, and the credits rolled in typical Tarantino fashion, I walked out the theater reminded why I fell in love with Tarantino’s work. Not only is this one of the best movies of the year, it’s one of the best movies Tarantino has made, right behind the cult classic ‘Pulp Fiction’. In the words of Quentin Tarantino through the character Lt. Aldo Raine, “You know, that right there just might be my masterpiece…”