So, here it is. After well over a year of hype, speculation, dropped hints, and quite a bit of pre-release hand-wringing from various quarters worried about the film’s purported “implications,” Quentin Tarantino’s latest— typically homage-heavy —flick, “Inglourious Basterds,” has arrived in theaters. And while it marks, in some ways at least, a bit of a departure for everyone’s favorite grindhouse renaissance man, in truth, at its core, it represents another venture into territory he’s mined several times already—the good old-fashioned revenge story. The setting has changed, sure, as has the mixture of visual storytelling styles Tarantino employs, but ultimately this is every bit the “gettin’ me some getback” tale that the “Kill Bill” films and “Deathproof” were, albeit less haphazard and more thoroughly-realized than those previous efforts were. Looking back, one can even see how those earlier films were sort of trial (and at times error) runs for what he would ultimately attempt to do with “Basterds,” in much the same way that Lynch had some hit-and-miss efforts with “Lost Highway” and “Fire Walk With Me” before hitting his surrealistic stride with “Mulholland Drive.” Tremors before the big earthquake, if you will. Ripples in the pond before the big fish breaks up out of the water. In any case, “Inglourious Basterds” is definitely Tarantino’s best film since “Jackie Brown,” and probably—hopefully—his final statement on the revenge cinema he’s been obsessed with since then, because it’s hard to see how he could do the genre any more justice than he does here.
“Once upon a time, in Nazi-occupied France—” is how the first of the film’s five “chapter” sequences opens, and this opening scene plays out in exactly the Sergio Leone style its introduction implies, with a long, tense sit-down stand-off between a French farmer and evil Nazi sumbitch Col. Hans Lander, nicknamed “The Jew Hunter” and played with absolutely palpable menace by Chritoph Walz, who steals every scene he appears in. It’s a lengthy scene to be sure, with each passing second upping the tension quota still further, and by the time it ends in a flurry of bullets and sawdust, the audience is awash in equal waves of repulsion and relief. It’s a truly brilliant opening that grabs the viewer by the balls and doesn’t let go — and while the farmer and the Jews he’s hiding underneath his floorboards are all murdered, his daughter gets away, and , in typical Tarantino style she’ll grow up to be a young woman hellbent on payback a la Uma Thurman in the “Kill Bill”s and the troupe of actresses and stuntwomen in “Deathproof.”
In the next chapter we meet the Basterds themselves, a team of “G.I.Jews,” as they’re being called in the reviews, assembled by Lieutenant Aldo Raine, a been-there-done-that-can’t-faze-him-in-any-way Southern Boy caricature that Brad Pitt sinks his teeth into with relish. The Basterds have a simple remit—drop into Nazi-occupied France and “git” their commanding officer “one hunnert” German scapls each . Apart from Pitt’s ultraviolent good ole boy, other standouts among their ranks include Til Schweiger as Hugo Stiglitz, a psychotic German enlisted man with a hatred for authority so deep-seated that it causes him to murder 13 of his commanding Nazi officers, thus prompting his jailbreak at the hands of and conscription into the Basterds, and “Hostel” director Eli Roth and Donny “The Bear Jew” Donowitz, who takes pride in dispatching his Nazi victims with a baseball bat — watching Donny at work is the Basterds’ favorite form of entertainment and, as Aldo says, “the closest we get to goin’ to the movies.”
From there, our scalphunters find their simple mission dovetailing with a covert British mission to take out the Nazi hierarchy, including Hitler himself, at the premier of Joseph Goebbels’ latest propaganda film taking place in the cinema that just happens to be owned and operated by Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent), the daughter of the farmer murdered by Lander in the opening scene. Along the way we get a fun, scenery-chewing cameo by Mike Myers as a British military strategist, film legend Rod Taylor (of “The Birds” fame) as Winston Churchill, plenty of scenes of Der Fuhrer himself ranting and raving, a couple of typical Tarantino seemingly-unrelated-to-anything-but-ultimately-quite-significant subplots (including one about the star of Goebbels’ new film taking a shine to Shosanna) and long scenes played out in tightly-confined spaces, including a brilliant one involving the undercover British operatives in Nazi guise and actual German soldiers that plays out in a basement bar. By the time we get to the big finale in the crowded cinema where the Basterds, the British (who include in their ranks a double agent who is one of the leading ladies of German cinema), and Shosanna and her boyfriend/accomplice all make their move against the German high command at once, the expanse of the movie auditorium and its huge crowd represents welcome relief from the claustrophobic spaces and intense, face-to-face conversation that comprise the rest of the film.
Two things that absolutely must be pointed out to the prospective viewer— one, leave any preconceptions about historical reality at the door. “Inglorious Basterds” absolutely pisses all over history in its quest to craft a satisfying revenge yearn. Two, if you’ve seen Enzo G. Catsellari’s absolutely superb Italian “Dirty Dozen” knockoff “The Inglourious Bastards,” forget that, as well. Tarantino riffs on (or rips off, take your pick) the title for this movie, but that’s it. This is not a remake in any way, shape, or form.
Lots of ink has already been spilled in the service of, and column inches (both print and electronic) devoted to, detailed analyses of real or imagined political subtexts at play in “Basterds.” Is it the cinema’s greatest statement of Jewish pride, showing them fearlessly going after the vengeance they so richly deserved but were too often denied in reality? Or is it a morality play a la Steven Spielberg’s overwrought-and-already-forgotten “Munich,” showing how bloodlust ultimately corrupts the human soul, even when pursued for purposes almost no one would quarrel with? Could it, possibly, even reinforce antisemitic stereotypes by saying “hey, here’s what the Jews could have done if they’d had any balls?” or “Look, give them half a chance and the Jews would have been every bit as sadistic and depraved as their Nazi tormentors?”
My own feeling is that Tarantino himself is probably having a good laugh at all this. “Inglourious Basterds” is none of these things—it’s a distillation, a refinement, of a genre that Tarantino has spent the better part of a decade working within, transposed into a deliberately provocative and ripe-for-overanalysis historical setting so that he can do with the artsy-fartsy, self-important “film analyst” crowd what he loves to do to them best—fuck with them mercilessly. While they’re losing sleep over their quite-often-woven-from-whole-cloth interpretations of the filmmaker’s intentions and equally woven-from-whole-cloth concerns about the audience’s interpretation of said intentions, our guy Quentin can rest easy knowing he’s done exactly what he set out to do—tell a kick-ass revenge story that makes all the right people sweat for all the right reasons. While the “Inglourious Basterds” take out the Nazi Bastards onscreen with no remorse and plenty of out-and-out glee, Tarantino himself is taking out the pretentious bastards of the film world in exactly the same way.
Finally, for those of you with an interest in all things Quentin, my buddy Mark has an interesting—and mercifully brief, in comparison to my own posts—analysis of Tarantino’s use of the “Mexican stand-off” in almost all of his films. Check it out at http://norwegianshooter.blogspot.com.