After a pair of misfires (Kill Bill Vol. 2, Death Proof), Quentin Tarantino is back in rarefied air with Inglourious Basterds — a slice of revisionist World War II history that’s visually opulent, unrepentantly tense, swiftly violent, unpredictably anachronistic and exceptionally comedic.
Not just for the presence of Brad Pitt, this is Tarantino’s Ocean’s movie — beaten and bloodied up into something simultaneously larkish and substantial with its tale of scalped Nazis and vengeful Jews.
Though not exactly his most mature or progressive work (Jackie Brown), it’s the best film in which Tarantino has corralled his hodgepodge of strengths since Pulp Fiction.
Bless Tarantino, too, for introducing American audiences to Christoph Waltz — an Austrian actor who here plays the ruthless Nazi Col. Hans Landa. His villainy is as methodical and suddenly painful as a needle under a fingernail, and Waltz immediately injects menace and mayhem into every chapter of the film.
Basterds opens in a beautifully pastoral French countryside, punctuated on the soundtrack by the strains of Beethoven’s Für Elise meshed with Ennio Morricone’s recognizable guitar flourish. (Unable to secure Morricone to score the film, Tarantino has poetically plundered his best work, with a dash of David Bowie’s “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” later for good measure.)
Tarantino takes his time with this scene, one of his most mesmerizing — establishing Landa’s pursuit of Jews and those who would hide them with sustained character beats. He’s a German Jules Winfield, only with no thirst for redemption from a vicious life of hunting and extermination. Landa’s stature and stateliness are his sharpest weapons, and every bit of his torment will be official and recorded.
This prologue gives the full measure of reasons to fear Hans Landa. He’s anal-retentive, exacting, patient, playfully homicidal and fallibly human in the most grotesque way possible. The man eats strudel the way he tears into his victims — little nibbles mixed with ravenous bites. As memorably manipulative as Heath Ledger’s Joker, Waltz deserves a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.
If a plug of chaw, wet and mealy in the corner of a hillbilly’s mouth, could talk, it would sound something like Aldo Raine (Pitt), a brusque backcountry lieutenant.
There’s magic in Pitt’s mangled English. Just try not to smile at this line: “Doggie doc’s gonna dig that slug out your gam, and you’ll be ready to walk the rouge car-pet.” While Pitt realizes he’s the star power here, it’s a damn good time to watch him be even more gleefully goofy than he was in Burn After Reading.
A human Yosemite Sam, Raine is the Tennessee-born ringleader of the Inglourious Basterds. They’re a specially selected military hit squad of Jewish-American soldiers tasked to deliver 100 Nazi scalps.
Their all-star is Sgt. Donny “The Bear Jew” Donowitz (Eli Roth, director of Hostel), who bashes in brains with his bat. Their ringer is Hugo Stiglitz (Til Schweiger in a near-mute turn reliant on crack facial expressions), an infamous German soldier who’s abandoned the Nazi party.
Landa and the Basterds will meet (Landa and Raine, especially, in a tantalizing showdown). But both will unknowingly cross paths with Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent, with all the poise of a young Catherine Deneuve). She’s one of few Landa has left alive, and she seizes the opportunity for revenge as owner of a Paris theater.
Throw in a dash of British intelligence, Italian imposters and a pair of German-propaganda film stars, and Inglourious Basterds is a movie that’s international without straining.
It’s emblematic of Tarantino’s comfort in this film that it feels so effortless and organic. You can sense that in the fringes of Robert Richardson’s cinematography, too — far more encompassing as it is of nature and the human form than seen in any previous Tarantino film.
Sawdust, moths, leaves, dust, smoke, carbonation, beer foam, blood and pillowy lips — it all leads to one of the decade’s most haunting motif payoff shots. (Also, Tarantino and longtime editor Sally Menke — the Thelma Schoonmaker to his Martin Scorsese — also provide such sly rhythm to their comic opportunities throughout.)
There are those who might knock Tarantino for “wasting his time” on a tale like this. Yet by weaving in parables about propaganda and the propensity for cinematic flourishes in wartime, Basterds earns all eruptions into violence. They’re fast, consequential and linger longer than any gratuitous counterpart. To spoil details would ruin the riveting suspense and contagious bloodlust Tarantino generates.
Moral relativism isn’t part of Tarantino’s plan here, but why would anyone expect it to be? This is, after all, a movie that introduces Hitler in a billowing cape worthy of a comic-book villain. With purposeful misspelling to fit intentionally brash rewriting of history, Basterds is what Tarantino’s back-half of Grindhouse should have been.