The presence of a new Quentin Tarantino film is bound to set critic attention ablaze, even when their titles aren’t making their spell-checkers commit suicide. This time the master of the in-film reference is tackling the much beloved motif of killing Nazis, in an alternate retelling of the Second World War, the film follows a troop of various members of the armed forces in their single-minded attempt to kill and scalp as many Nazis as they can find. And, just for a bit of extra flavor, they become wrapped in a plot that could take down the highest of the Nazi order, including the big bad Fuehrer himself.
Those that are familiar with Tarantino’s style of storytelling, the recent Kill Bill franchise having destroyed any remaining excuses the film-going had not to, to whom the nonlinear method of plot progression is already second nature. It’s much more underplayed here than in his previous efforts however, the overall storyline a surprisingly on-rails experience. That doesn’t stop the expected colloquial dialogue and smoldering builds to violence, however, the movie coming equipped with both in spades. The prologue to the film sets the stage for the entire film in an eloquent and silky smooth manner, a Nazi officer dubbed “the Jew killer” eliciting from a farm-owner the exact location of the Jews he is smuggling, through a tri-lingual conversation and buttery demeanor. A ten minute scene escalates to less than half a minute of violence, but with “Basterds” gifts for teasing gunplay the formula works well enough that its repetition throughout the film never feels compensatory or forced.
But the meat of the plot comes not from eradication of the Jews, but of their oppressors, and for such ends we are given the titular Basterds, a rag-tag team of soldiers equipped with just as much unfeeling animosity to the Nazis as the Third Reich themselves. Lieutenant Aldo Raine (a brilliantly ragamuffin Brad Pitt) calls for a bounty of one hundred scalps from his men, nearly every one of them netting a quick vignette of their background. We get to know the ruthless Sergeant Hugo Stiglitz (an underplayed but menacing Til Schweiger,) and the jovial baseball-bat bashing Sergeant Donny “The Bear Jew” Donnowitz (an overrated but enjoyable Eli Roth) with particular care, giving just enough to wish for their success as they shoot, bludgeon, and carve swastikas into the heads of their foes. Traces of edits are starkly apparent, however, as most of the Basterds aren’t given their respective screen time, some even inexplicably disappearing half-way through the film (where did that Basterd from “Freaks and Geeks” go?)
The actions of the Basterds send appropriate chills down Nazi spines, but a concurrent plotline of a soldier-cum-war-hero-cum-film-star’s rise to fame provides the glue to tie our heroes to their ultimate victory. Fredrick Zoller (an ineffective Daniel Bruhl,) a private famed for holding down a strategic point against 300 Jews, falls for a local French theater owner, his intoxication with her causing him to insist the venue for the premiere of his filmic escapades be switched to her cinema. This causes the theater owner, Shosanna Dreyfus, (a thrilling Melanie Laurent) to come face to face with Nazi leadership, including the “Jew Killer” Colonel Hans Landa, who murdered her family in the film’s opening. This change to her locale sparks dual plans of revenge, one from Shosanna herself involving flammable nitrate film, and a more organized vengeance from the Basterds and British Army, which allows for several lengthy cameos to traipse across the screen (including an odd but functional British Mike Myers) to play their – usually doomed – role in the proceedings.
The film pans out into a lengthy expose of the two plans, their motivations stewing as the film’s premiere is slowly pulled into focus for the climax. Despite its length the film is expertly paced, the often hilarious dialogue bridging the gaps between the anticipation of violence and the violence itself. The biggest engrossment by far is the performance of Christoph Waltz as Colonel Hans Landa, an exquisite portrayal of merciless villainy that rolls off the tongue as effortlessly and romantically as the four different languages he speaks over the course of the film. The love for the character stems directly from just how good he is at being evil, a love for his cruel job giving him a morbid relatability, his almost cartoonish breaches of emotion instantly giving him a delightful melodrama. It’s less of a prediction than a deep desire, but I for one see the only performance so far meriting the Best Supporting Actor academy award. If the academy has any sense, they’ll see it too.
Even with Tarantino’s disregard for the fourth wall, all of this characterization would be aimless without a solid design. In this respect, “Inglourious Basterds” is practically impeccable. World War II France and the wilderness surrounding it are rendered in both grungy decay and despicable elegance, emphasizing the dichotomous separation between the lavish Nazi lifestyle in the center of the derelict occupied culture it oversees. The costumes also reflect a separation of class with ease and striking detail, then top-of-the-line European fashion sharing scenes with bleak and dusty army uniform. None of the set or costume design visually grips as much as other representations of the era have, the effort going only so far as to maintain a depth of realism despite the director’s attempts to the contrary. The fidelity becomes so entrenched by the latter half of the film that even a garish – and perfect – montage utilizing David Bowie’s “Cat People/Putting Out Fire,” cannot break the tableau it is injected into.
Like its story, “Basterds” feels the most mainstream of Tarantino’s films when it comes to the cinematography. Occasionally sweeping epic camera maneuvers will highlight a German party or slow-encroaching zooms will hint at an enemy’s or ally’s approach, but for the most part, the film’s focus is simple enough for the visual expression of it to occupy a sort of middle-ground of cinematic flair. That doesn’t reflect poorly on “Basterds” at large, but the obtuse lack of a dramatic camera does give the film an overall sense of standardization, especially within the director’s larger library.
“Inglourious Basterds” is the Tarantino film literally everyone can enjoy. Those turned off by the recurrent cursing or complex story meandering will find a more streamlined, but nonetheless expertly executed, slice of revenge-porn. Violence is teased with near surgical precision, and an above-average design keeps a visceral and tangible reality inherent throughout the process. Buffered by an unbelievable antagonist and splendid acting throughout, “Basterds” gouges itself into your memory and stands out, even in the crowded orgy of Nazi-hate films.