REVIEW: Inglourious Basterds [2009]

“F*ck a duck!”

I like to think that the sheer fact Inglourious Basterds got made means that Quentin Tarantino isn’t all talk. Maybe, just maybe, that Whole Bloody Affair DVD compilation of the Kill Bills will come out. For now though, we should all be happy QT is back to form after his, in my opinion, misstep with Death Proof. As with his previous feature films, Basterds is above genres, mixing so much cinematic history and style to become a beast all its own. Parts WWII drama, parts comedy of follies, parts political intrigue, and parts brutal revenge flick, the film is woven together in five chapters, telling the tale of a young Jewish woman’s bloodlust for the regime that murdered her family in cold blood. Beautifully shot, meticulously orchestrated, and lyrically scripted, it is Tarantino’s answer to friend Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood; a statement that says “anything you can do, I can do better”. Is it better? Now that is a tough question, one that numbers cannot truly define. Is it QT’s self-proclaimed masterpiece as he so shamelessly alludes to with the last line of dialogue? I still say Pulp Fiction can’t be beat, but this one definitely makes me take pause.

What I love about Tarantino is his fresh, smart, and generally amusing as hell dialogue. Each film he has written bears his voice and excels as a result. However, as each entry to his oeuvre is made, the sequences seem to go longer and longer. It started with Kill Bill and continued to the extreme in Death Proof with overlong passages that, while not petering out towards the end, definitely contain some dead spaces. The 153-minute runtime here doesn’t necessarily feel long, yet also doesn’t hide itself. Rather than a feeling of boredom, I was anxious to get to the next scene, to see what would result from the previous instance of gravitas. Because this movie is chock full of tense plot points of huge importance. Not one second is wasted, (well, maybe the unnecessarily hokey titlecard to usher a quick film reel history of Hugo Stiglitz and the other Sam Jackson narrated vignette about nitrate film), and the weight of every word and pause is felt. Were scenes drawn out, needing a trim here or there? No. If anything they were just so tightly wound that I couldn’t breathe or wait from the anticipation of what was to come. I’m not quite sure if that is praise or criticism because, while taking me out of the film, I don’t think I’d have wanted it any other way.

Oddities aside, (the Stiglitz freeze-frame wasn’t the only instance of font overkill—did we really need to know the names of the men in the theatre suites?), this is vintage Tarantino pastiche. Right from the start, you aren’t quite sure what is going on. Denis Menochet’s Perrier LaPadite is shot with stoic strength, deliberately moving as he watches Nazi soldiers approach his house. Reminiscent of a Western standoff, the scene is accompanied by a reworked classical music piece I couldn’t quite put my finger on, and the close-ups and camera angles made me look to see when Menochet and Christoph Waltz’s Col. Hans Landa would inch their hands close to their gun holsters for a quick draw. Instead, we get a pipe juxtaposition showing the dearth of proximity their two classes are in—French milk farmer and German SS Colonel. The scene sets the stage for what is to come, showing the incident that ultimately leads to the revenge bent at the film’s core while also showing us the cucumber cool and sarcastic wit of Waltz’s Landa, by far the most interesting creature playing amongst the hyper-reality at hand.

The trailers harp on the Basterds themselves far too much because they are, to me, the least interesting plot thread. Yes, Brad Pitt is fantastic—the coarse Southern accent, the ruggedness complete with horrific neck scar, and the blank-faced comedic timing with his atrocious Italian and matter-of-fact dialogue delivery; and yes, Eli Roth is so over-the-top you can’t help but love “The Bear Jew” without remorse. His lack of acting skill is quite obvious, but his exuberance and intensity more than make up for it. I also really enjoyed Til Schweiger’s Stiglitz, the consummate badass out to kill the bad guys, no matter what side he is on. But, once the initial joy of their brutality and humor dissipates, you realize how thin their role really is. Bounty hunters sent on behalf of the American army, they are out to kill Nazis by maiming, branding, and butchering—mindless fun for sure; intelligent storytelling, not so much. No, that aspect is brought to form by Mélanie Laurent’s Shosanna Dreyfus, once a Jewish girl in hiding, now a woman hiding in plain sight with fake name and papers and a movie theatre to run. By sheer coincidence, (dumb luck?), or divine intervention, the people responsible for her family’s massacre not only come to her door, but the man who ordered the killing arrives himself, making it all too easy a decision on whether to host a propaganda premiere for “Nation’s Pride”, a filmed reenactment of German hero Fredrick Zoller and the one against three hundred odds he overcame.

The conspiracies that form around this premiere, whether between Shosanna and Daniel Brühl’s smitten Zoller or with Diane Kruger’s German actress traitor Bridget von Hammersmark and the Basterds, by way of British infiltrator Archie Hicox, a fun turn by Michael Fassbender, are what resonate. Remembering the scene at a French restaurant between Waltz and Laurent still gives me chills as this woman must control her emotions while sitting across from the man that killed her brother, (what a release at its conclusion), as does the tense basement bar rendezvous between Kruger, Fassbender, and a bunch of Germans on leave to celebrate one’s newborn son. It all culminates with Chapter Five, an exercise in sheer cinematic brilliance, from its wondrous opening with Laurent set to David Bowie’s “Cat People”, to its mix of drama and laughs from Waltz, to its intensity in Roth’s malice, to the massacre of guns, fire, and bodies that ensues. It is poetry in blood and never ceases to amaze, right down to its blatant disregard for historical accuracy. Much like Tarantino’s earlier work that took existing films and appropriated that which he needed to tell the messed up stories in his head, Inglourious Basterds starts with the French occupation background of WWII and springboards out to carnage, espionage, and fiction. The man has style and it is all his own. Welcome back QT and hopefully we can expect a new singular vision sooner rather than later.

Inglourious Basterds 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½

[1] Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) and Sgt. Donny Donowitz (Eli Roth) in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. Photo: Francois Duhamel/ TWC 2009.
[2] Melanie Laurent as Shosanna in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. Photo: Francois Duhamel/ TWC 2009.


4 Thoughts to “REVIEW: Inglourious Basterds [2009]”

  1. […] there’s a rather more comprehensive review here: Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)New Inglourious Basterds TrailerReview – […]

  2. Al Jahom

    Great review – saw this on Saturday and totally agree with your view.

    A great return to form, and a must see.


  3. thanks for reading … yeah, i wasnt quite sure what to expect with this one after hearing not so great buzz from Cannes, but it definitely was great.

  4. […] Inglourious Basterds, review: I think I have to watch it again to hail it as a masterpiece like so many others do—Pulp Fiction […]

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