The common view of Quentin Tarantino as a sicko gore freak (largely due to the ear-slicing scene in Reservoir Dogs, geysers of blood in Kill Bill, and sundry splashy slo-mo dismemberments-via-automobile in Death Proof) overlooks his real gift, which is for long and fraught and winding dialogues before the carnage erupts. Watching his World War II action thriller Inglourious Basterds [sic], you might wish the blood would never come: The payoffs are common, but the foreplay is killer. Even more than his other genre mash-ups, this is a switchback journey through Tarantino’s twisted inner landscape, where cinema and history, misogyny and feminism, sadism and romanticism collide and split and re-bond in bizarre new hybrids. The movie is an ungainly pastiche, yet on some wacked-out Jungian level it’s all of a piece.
The movie centers—no, that’s wrong, it has no center, it’s all over the damn map—it features a squad of American Jews in German-occupied France led by non-Jewish, part-Apache Southerner Aldo Raine, played by Brad Pitt puffing out his jaw to look (in his dreams) like Marlon Brando. “The Basterds” are famous throughout the Third Reich for scalping and/or bludgeoning Nazis. Of course, it never happened: It’s an unabashed wet dream of vengeance. Yet watching Raine grill a kneeling commandant astride scalped Nazis while a nearby Jew (filmmaker Eli Roth) with a baseball bat takes scary practice swings, you so wish it had. What’s not to love?
The interrogation (and brain-bashing) is a much-needed emotional release following the overture, which grounds Inglourious Basterds in the real world—at least through the prism of cinema. To the twang of Ennio Morricone spaghetti Western music (appropriated, like most of the score, from another film), a French farmer watches a jeep filled with Nazis travel the road to his house, close-ups of his anxious face alternating with long shots of the vehicle coming nearer and nearer, his eyes meeting those of his three terrified daughters—the sequence comparing favorably to both Leone and Hitchcock. What follows is an unnervingly polite interrogation over a kitchen table by Nazi Jew-hunter Hans Landa, played by the elegant and insinuating Christoph Waltz. As the camera begins to circle and Landa moves in for the kill and this good farmer edges ever closer to betraying the family he has bravely hidden, each dramatic beat is another turn of the screw.
Inglourious Basterds has two major arcs and many entertaining digressions, one of which is the movie’s pièce de résistance: a furtive meeting in a cellar full of Nazis that builds and builds and builds until your head feels about to explode. The film’s most emotional thread features Mélanie Laurent as Shosanna, the lone Jewish escapee of that farm, who forges a new identity managing a Paris cinema. That puts a movie marquee at the action’s heart, with additional chambers for Diane Kruger as a German leading lady who’s the Basterds’ chief contact (and so much sexier than she was as Helen of Troy) and Michael Fassbender (who starved himself as Bobby Sands in Hunger) as a British commando who’s also a Weimar cinema scholar and (glory be) film critic. (He’s briefed on his Paris mission by Mike Myers as a pip-pip English general and a gnomish Rod Taylor as Churchill.) As Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) attempts to finance his own nationalist German cinema, the Basterds and Shosanna (on separate tracks) scheme to use his delusions of David O. Selznick grandeur to send him and Hitler (Martin Wuttke) to that Leni Riefenstahl mountain in the sky.
I won’t attempt to diagram the narrative, which Tarantino devised over the course of a decade and has the where-the-fuck-did-that-come-from aspect of David Lynch’s mystifying but great Mulholland Drive. (It’s not based on the 1978 war film from which Tarantino borrowed—and cheekily misspelled—the title.) I will say that Inglourious Basterds builds to a hectic movie-premiere climax in which Shosanna plans to substitute her own film for a Goebbels-produced one starring Frederick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), a real Nazi hero recreating onscreen his valorous feat. So you have a Nazi myth exploded by a subversive Jewish countermyth contained within a Tarantino revenge myth that rewrites history in ways that make your jaw drop.
Sadly, Tarantino isn’t up to that phantasmagorical finale, which carries the onscreen title “Revenge of the Giant Face.” It’s choppy and labored, and both the action and Pitt’s performance drift into camp. Yet it gets by (just) on sheer audacity. Tarantino is nutty enough to believe myth can trump history—that no Führer can survive the bloody onslaught of an exploitation auteur. Inglourious Basterds is a revenge movie in which the movie itself is the best revenge.
Next week’s issue is our annual Fall Preview, which means, sadly, no movie column. But dry those tears, folks: Here are notes on some dog-days releases.