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.
The Time Traveler’s Wife. As a sucker for time-travel romance (I’ve considered joining the dewy-eyed souls who make yearly pilgrimages to the lake where Christopher Reeve went loop-de-loop for Jane Seymour in Somewhere in Time), I’m over the moon about this movie, which smooths out the psychological dissonances in Audrey Niffenegger’s fine novel but is still an emotional workout. With no warning (though often when drunk or stressed), Eric Bana’s Henry is whisked back into the past or ahead to the future, which would be more fun if he knew where he was going and his clothes went with him. At age 40 or so, Henry leaps back in time and wins the heart of a girl named Clare, played by lovely Brooklynn Proulx, then Rachel McAdams. (It’s a measure of my affection for this film that I didn’t dwell on the standard implications of a naked fortyish man calling out from the bushes to a 6-year-old girl.) Ultimately, there’s no explanation for Henry’s gift beyond a “genetic abnormality,” and since he can’t alter the past—“butterfly effect” shmutterfly effect—the film is steeped in fatalism. It ends up evoking all our emotional waverings—the ways in which we abandon lovers to relive the past or anticipate the future, only sometimes connecting in the moment. Gracefully directed by Robert Schwentke, the film has a perfect performance by Bana, rangy and haunted, never at home in his body. The sole jarring note is Henry and Clare’s first dance at their wedding—to Broken Social Scene’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” I might have suggested, “Love Will Keep Us Together.”
Passing Strange. The Broadway rock opera by Stew (just Stew) and Heidi Rodewald is captured on film by Spike Lee, who sells the material hard but doesn’t, for once, interpose himself. A full-throttle onstage band and a singing narrator (Stew again) chart the journey of an African-American youth called, uh, Youth (Daniel Breaker) as he searches for fulfillment—first with his mama (Eisa Davis) on the south side of L.A. (via church gospel, then rock and roll), then in Amsterdam (sex, drugs), then in Berlin (anti-bourgeois rants), then back home, always leaving people who love him behind. The first act is camp, but as the various artistic philosophies accumulate, something magical happens: This musical about the evolution of an artist becomes a metaphor for itself. When Stew (who’s Youth grown up) lectures his younger self that life is “a mistake that only art can correct,” the show’s reason for being couldn’t be more crystalline. The cutting is hyperkinetic, yet Lee is always in synch with the cast’s phenomenal energy. He’s in their thrall—and so are we.
The Headless Woman. Guilt and alienation from Argentina’s Lucrecia Martel, so arty, enervated, and allegorical it might have been made by a European in the early sixties. And yet the lead actress, María Onetto, holds you through the longueurs. The aging, affluent dentist hits something with her car—we barely see it, but we and she know what it is—stops, breathes, closes her eyes, and after an eternity drives away. Everything onscreen conspires to remind her of what she fled: a deluge, a digging gardener, a dead animal on her kitchen counter. Under dry, bleached-blond hair, she blinks slowly, her face placid, her manner blandly abstracted—but you can feel her insides churning, despair carried by acid reflux.
District 9. Part pseudo-documentary, part Kafkaesque conversion melodrama, part astounding splatterfest. To call this the best shrimp-from-outer-space South African apartheid allegory ever made does not begin to do it justice. But it’s a start.
Go to the Projectionist the week of release for reviews of four August 28 openings: Ang Lee’s marginal (in all senses) Taking Woodstock; R. J. Cutler’s The September Issue, a remake of Dracula’s Daughter (just kidding, it’s an Anna Wintour doc); Rob Zombie’s Halloween II, a sequel to his underrated Halloween remake that departs from the John Carpenter storyline for a more “personal” orgy of sadism; and Still Walking, the latest dysfunctional family drama from Hirokazu Kore-eda (Nobody Knows).
Directed by Quentin Tarantino.
The Weinstein Company. R.
The Time Traveler’s Wife
Directed by Robert Schwentke.
New Line Cinema. PG-13.
Directed by Spike Lee.
The Headless Woman
Directed by Lucrecia Martel.
Strand Releasing. NR.