Tarantino's Rollicking, Rocky Rewrite Of WWII

Brad Pitt wide i i

hide captionBrad Pitt puffs out his jaw to play Aldo Raine, a part-Apache Southerner in Quentin Tarantino's new film, Inglourious Basterds.

Francois Duhamel/TWC
Brad Pitt wide

Brad Pitt puffs out his jaw to play Aldo Raine, a part-Apache Southerner in Quentin Tarantino's new film, Inglourious Basterds.

Francois Duhamel/TWC

Inglourious Basterds

  • Director: Quentin Tarantino
  • Genre: Action, Drama, War
  • Running Time: 152 minutes

Rated R: Strong graphic violence, language and brief sexuality

With: Brad Pitt, Eli Roth, BJ Novak, Mike Myers and Michael Fassbender.

Quentin Tarantino often caricatures himself. Interviewed in a rollicking documentary about Australian exploitation movies, Not Quite Hollywood, he describes a female revenge flick in which a half-naked woman is tied to the front of a car: "If you like outrageous cinema," he babbles, "you live and breathe for this! You're going, 'Who the [bleep] thought of that??!'"

That is, of course, the cry Tarantino wants to elicit from us watching his films. But if such provocations were his only motive, Tarantino wouldn't be a major director. His World War II revenge fantasia Inglourious Basterds, set in German-occupied France, is certainly a collection of who-the-bleep-thought-of-that set-pieces. But it's also a switchback journey through his twisted inner landscape, where movies and history, misogyny and feminism, sadism and romanticism collide and create bizarre new hybrids. The movie is an ungainly pastiche — yet, on some wacked-out level, it's organic.

The overture is stunning. To the twang of Ennio Morricone Spaghetti Western music, a French farmer watches a jeep filled with Nazi soldiers travel the long road to his farm. Close-ups of his anxious face alternate with long shots of the car coming nearer in a way that compares to both Hitchcock and Sergio Leone. What follows is an excessively, unnervingly polite interrogation over the farmer's kitchen table by Nazi hunter Hans Landa, played by an elegant and insinuating actor named Christophe Waltz. To watch Landa slowly move in for the kill in a protracted shot of both men is to understand that Tarantino, for all his infamous gore, is at his best in drawn-out dialogues humming with subtext that precede the carnage. He's a master of torturous foreplay.

Inglourious Basterds has two major strands and many minor ones. The most emotional part of the film centers on Melanie Laurent's Shoshanna Dreyfus, a Jew who escaped from that farm and forges a new identity running a Paris cinema. The other half follows the title brigade, "the Basterds" for short; they're American Jews led by non-Jew part-Apache Southerner Aldo Raine, played by Brad Pitt puffing out his jaw to look like Brando. The Basterds are famous for scalping or beating in the brains of Nazis. Sure, it never happened. But watching Pitt's Raine taunt a prostrate commandant, you so wish it had.

I won't attempt to diagram the narrative, which is full of digressions that are more fun than the main line. But I'll say that Inglourious Basterds builds to a chaotic climax in that cinema, in which Shoshanna schemes to blow up top Nazi brass at the premiere of a Goebbels-produced propaganda epic starring a real-life Nazi hero — a blue-eyed young Aryan who happens to be wooing her, unaware she's a Jewess. Shoshanna plans to substitute her own subversive movie, so you have a Nazi-created myth interrupted by a Jewish counter-myth, both contained within a Tarantino genre-fueled revenge myth that revises history in a way that will make your mouth drop open.

But I'm afraid on the level of pure staging, Tarantino isn't up to the phantasmagorical climax, Operation Kino, which carries the chapter title "Revenge of the Giant Face." It feels choppy and labored, and both the action and Pitt's performance drift into camp.

One problem is that Inglourious Basterds peaks half an hour earlier, in a beer cellar full of Nazis: A British agent and film scholar (Michael Fassbender) and two of the Basterds meet with a gorgeous German movie star (played by Diane Kruger) who's working undercover. The scene goes on and on and on, endlessly digressive, so that you're both laughing and on the brink of screaming with dread. It's that — not the bloody scalpings and splatter — that makes you say, "Who the [bleep] thought of that?"

The answer, of course, is someone who believes that myth can trump history, who says no Fuhrer can survive the onslaught of a world exploitation cinema auteur.

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