Quentin Tarantino changed my life. I’m more aware than you of how unoriginal that sounds, believe me, but it’s true. Senior year of high school, I rent Reservoir Dogs and suddenly everything’s different; it wasn’t just the outbursts of violence or anything like that, no - it was the WORDS. I loved to read and I really liked hearing well-drawn characters talking in an interesting way (I was also just beginning to get into Elmore Leonard, which was quite fortuitous, timing-wise), and here was a movie that was almost nothing but fantastic dialogue. It was like being thunderstruck, and I couldn’t tell enough people about this little flick that literally no one else I knew had heard of. Some people I recommended it to “got it” and others thought it was boring - precisely for all the reasons I couldn’t get enough of it. Then Pulp Fiction came out, suddenly everybody knew QT was a genius, and he didn’t feel like he was just “mine” anymore. But that was okay. It just meant that I had been ahead of the curve, or it felt that way, anyway. I’ve watched every single thing he’s directed or written and I’ve adored - yes, I said adored - ALL of it. I actually like True Romance better than any of the flicks he’s done himself, but probably just because I love that script more than anything else he’s written. Now, roughly half a decade after his last outing, the phenomenal Kill Bill, the man has returned with what is most likely his greatest achievement as a writer/director yet - his take on a WWII epic, Inglorious Basterds.
Once upon a time in Nazi-occupied France, there were some good guys and then there were some seriously evil motherfuckers. The good guys included a band of Jewish-American soldiers assembled by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) to wage guerrila style war on the SS; to terrorize and slaughter and strike fear into the hearts of the wicked. Their tactics worked so well, word spread about them all the way up the ranks to Hitler himself, and they became known as “The Basterds.” They quite enjoyed the names the Nazis had given them and took great pride in them, specifically Sgt. Donnie Donowitz (Eli Roth), dubbed “The Bear Jew,” who was infamous for beating German soldiers to death with a baseball bat. However, one of the aforementioned “evil motherfuckers” had also received a moniker due to his reputation, and that was “The Jew Hunter,” SS Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) - a title he had most certainly earned. Landa never considered himself to be evil, exactly; he’d simply been given a job to do and did it so well that his achievements - such as they were - preceded him. He saw himself as more of a detective, and indeed, had he been born in a different place and time, Landa would have made a superb one, aided by his razor-sharp cunning and keen intelligence. A young Jewish woman, Shoshanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent), had been lucky enough to escape Landa’s clutches; the rest of her family (alas) was not so lucky, and were summarily executed by SS soldiers. Four years later, Shoshanna was living under an assumed name in Paris and running a movie theater. As fate would have it, Joseph Goebbels - third in command under Hitler - had directed a new pro-Nazi propaganda film, Nation’s Pride, detailing the exploits of a young German war hero named Frederick Zoller (Daniel Bruhl). Not unlike Germany’s answer to Audie Murphy, Zoller starred in the film as himself and had become quite the celebrity before the film had even opened. Young Zoller met and developed quite the attraction for Shoshanna, which led to Goebbels deciding to premiere Nation’s Pride in her theater.
All of these threads and others converged on the night of the premiere, also including but not limited to: British officer and former film critic Lt. Archie Hickox (Michael Fassbender), the relative flammability of film stock, famous German actress and double agent Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger), and the ability of American soldiers to pass for Italian. For Aldo Raine had a plan - since almost all of the most important members (even Hitler) of the Third Reich would be in attendance that night, why not bomb the theater? There was, however, no way he could know that Shoshanna had a plan of her own. . .
I’m just gonna put this one out there and say that Inglorious Basterds is a superb piece of cinema, one that feels like a European film filtered through QT’s very American sensibilites - it’s got enough verve, wit, audacity, and unabashed joy of movies themselves to fill a score of films. It made me smile broadly and gave me chills, tensed my muscles with anticipation and made my heart pound with excitement. It’s a mainline shot of adrenaline to rival Vincent Vega’s wake-up call to Mia Wallace more than ten years ago. Quentin’s love affair with the art of filmmaking and cinema itself flows like lifeblood through every frame, through every solitary second of this remarkable achievement. His skills as a writer have never been more evident, and his unmatched talent for casting has never been so spot-on. Every actor acquits themselves above and beyond expectations, including the smaller roles such as Mike Myers (yes, THAT Mike Myers) playing a British officer to Til Schweiger’s German soldier turned Basterd to the French dairy farmer (Denis Menochet) hiding the Dreyfus family. In fact, to use the farmer as a perfect example - Menochet is only onscreen for about ten to fifteen minutes (the opening sequence of the movie, or “first chapter” as Quentin would prefer to call it), yet it’s all right there on his face, the weariness and the fear of being found out and the sadness that tires him down to his bones. He may in fact have the saddest eyes I’ve ever seen and it was impossible for me not to be moved.
It’s no secret that QT just LOVES to let his characters talk on and on, and I’m sure that like his other movies, there will be those who find this movie to be interminably boring (“Where’s the good stuff? What’s all this friggin’ talking shit? Where’s the goddamn action-packed war movie the trailers promised me? This sucks balls!!!”) - and all I can feel for those people is pity. I respect that it’s not for them, but I wish they could just appreciate it and love it and revel in every last bit of goodness that this flick has to give. And when he has actors of this caliber delivering such fantastic dialogue. . .Jesus Christ. All I know is that I’ve got my eyes wide dreaming and I’m in movie heaven. Pitt is wonderful as our American hero, of course, drawling his lines out with an enjoyment I haven’t felt from him in awhile, and Aldo’s a great character to be sure - as is Donnie, who I definitely wanted to see more of. Roth, who all of us horror geeks revere (or should), manages to play a psychotic character as likeable and fun. Diane Kruger has her moments too, and proves that she’s more than just a pretty face. The two greatest performances though, come from what I feel are the other two of the three main characters (sort of, anyway; I’ve been going back and forth since I saw it, but I DO know that as much screen time is given to Shoshanna’s story as the Basterds‘): Christoph Waltz as Landa and Melanie Laurent as Shoshanna. Waltz in particular should be holding an Oscar for Best Actor soon, if there’s any justice - but realistically, he’ll probably just get nominated for Supporting, but he’d better win that at least, dammit. The way he plays the character is outright amazing, and one of the finest pieces of acting you’re likely to see. Landa is arrogant, but not without reason; he’s the smartest man in any room he’s in, and he knows it. He’s by turns slimy, calculating, insightful, threatening, and gleeful in every one of his triumphs. Just go see him bring this man to life and try not to be impressed. As for Laurent, she gives Shoshanna depth, resolve and a smoldering soulfulness; as my grandfather would have said, “That girl’s got sand.” I’ve never seen her in anything before but I’m certainly looking forward to whatever she does next, especially if she can make me care as much as she did here.
I could say more and go on forever, I’m sure: about the excellent choices of music that Quentin continues to pull out of his bag of tricks; DP master Robert Richardson’s beautiful widescreen photography, so sumptuous and inviting; the iconic entrances QT provides for his characters; and certainly the long sequence set in a basement tavern, a mini-masterpiece of writing, direction, performance and most of all tension - this single scene is as perfect as movies get (now or ever). But I’ll just end by saying that I’m pretty sure this may be Quentin Tarantino’s masterpiece - the culmination of everything he’s ever done, wrapped up in one stellar package for us all to enjoy. I’ll have to watch it a couple (or fifty, most likely) more times to be sure, but I believe it’ll prove me right. It’s the best movie I’ve seen this year, and was well worth the wait.