Film: Inglourious Basterds

By chapter three of Inglourious Basterds (2009), it occurred to me that I’d gone into the movie wanting to dislike it. I really enjoyed Quentin Tarantino’s early work, right up to Jackie Brown, but he started to lose me after that; Kill Bill in particular really exhausted my patience. Part of me was expecting this one to be another excessive, unrestrained, self congratulatory visual feast of empty calories.

Well, Inglourious Basterds is still occasionally excessive, unrestrained, and self congratulatory, it’s definitely a visual feast, but it’s not remotely empty, and I loved it. The movie has nothing to do with the old Italian action pic from which it liberated its title, except for the WWII setting.

There’s no real high-concept summary here. There’s a group of brutal Jewish-American resistance fighters working behind the lines in occupied Europe, headed by hilariously drawly Brad Pitt, spreading terror throughout the Reich with their Nazi-killing atrocities. There’s a gloriously awful German colonel, Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), and a young Jewish woman, Shoshana Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), who escaped his clutches. There’s a British secret agent on a mission (Michael Fassbender) and a beautiful German film star (Diane Kruger) working against Hitler’s regime. And there’s a German propaganda film, a small theater in Paris, and cameos galore by the German high command. Like Tarantino’s best work, the film plays out in a series of a shorter stories, all interconnected. While it all builds up, you just hope it’s going to pay off.

It does, in ever unexpected and occasionally shocking ways. While it’s a war film and a spy film and a historical film, what struck me most about it is the sheer suspense — scenes that start quietly are always rife with tension and escalate in unsettling ways. It also manages to be, by turns, dead serious and hilariously funny, without ever feeling like a distracting tonal clash. The elements just work together.

My admiration for the film isn’t entirely unconditional. Sometimes implying violence is just as effective as graphically depicting it, but you’ll never convince Tarantino of that. There are moments of distractingly anachronistic music; one sequence in particular struck me as a “look at this cool song I like!” decision. At times the film, which is generally incredibly immersive, becomes less so by drawing conspicuous attention to its technique.

But I guess it wouldn’t be a Tarantino movie if there weren’t lots of auteur-y filmic choices to quibble over. In the end, Inglorious Basterds is a pretty amazing film that nobody else could have made. And really that’s kind of the best reason to watch Tarantino’s movies. Somtimes it’s much more fun and rewarding to occasionally argue with a perverse filmmaker than always agree with a more conventional one. Tarantino’s won me back…for now, anyway!

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