“Inglourious Basterds” a complex, gloriously twisted epic

A devil of a dealmaster: Christoph Waltz is a villain for the ages in "Inglourious Basterds."

A devil of a dealmaster: Christoph Waltz is a villain for the ages in "Inglourious Basterds."

Enthusiastic but not too bright, Sgt. Donny “The Bear Jew” Donowitz (Eli Roth) has a simple plan for killing the gaggle of Nazi glitterati gathered in a Parisian movie theater to see the latest propaganda film: “We punch those goons out, take their machine guns, and burst in there blasting!” My, how I do love a director who goes to the trouble to bury his movie-making philosophy in one line of dialogue. That Tarantino, always thinking three steps ahead, waiting to see who gets the joke, then kicking us in the teeth for thinking he’d make a movie that simple.

Yes, do not mistake ”Inglourious Basterds” for a bloody, unflinchingly tense, grandiose World War II shoot-’em-up even though that’s exactly what it is. (Attempting to keep track of the bodies could induce seizures.) But Tarantino’s tendency to hide things — on-purpose mistakes, inside jokes, trademarks, cameos cleverly hidden in makeup (is that Austin Powers?) or through voiceover narration – means things are not what they seem.  There are other elements at play that make “Inglourious Basterds” a big, complicated, layered, overblown and tremendously satisfying affair, including the crackin’-funny dialogue (re: “Say ‘auf Widersehen’ to your Nazi balls!”), the sight gags (note the pipe-measuring contest in the movie’s opening) and one hell of a viciously delightful villain in the form of Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz, who snatches every scene).

Come to think of it, even the plot isn’t simple. It doubles, sometimes triples back on itself, and it’s got corrosive irony and “would you look at that?” coincidences practically dripping from every frame. Best to start with the overarching story, which involves the Basterds, a ragtag group of Nazi killers led by Lt. Aldo Raine (a scenery-munching Brad Pitt), a Tennessee good ole’ boy with a thick scar banding his throat and a fondness for Nazi scalps. Lots and lots of Nazi scalps. He and the Basterds — including Donowitz, Pfc. Smithson “Little Man” Utivich (B.J. Novak) and Sgt. Hugo Stiglitz (a mute, menacing Til Schweiger), a German who turned on his fellow Nazi soldiers – are in the business of killing Hitler’s henchmen in Nazi-occupied France. There’s another, more emotionally powerful story involving Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), a Jew hell-bent on avenging the death of her family. A German marksman’s (Daniel Brühl) boyish crush on her leads to an unexpected opportunity when Shosanna’s theater becomes the locale for the premiere of Joseph Goebbel’s (Sylvester Groth) newest propaganda film. To say this leads to a “the plot thickens” moment would be the understatement of the century. Plots don’t get much denser.

Now let’s hush this talk of storylines – It would take hours to unravel all of those. Time to spill some ink on how all those elements meld. In true Tarantino fashion, not all of them do. For example, the music, timed perfectly for poetic death scenes and burn-it-down destruction, is spot-on. But except for Roth, Pitt, Novak and Schweiger (damn, I love that guy), the Basterds are largely anonymous. We know nothing about them, get no clues as to why they joined up in this murderous tomfoolery, and so their story feels disappointingly undeveloped. The same goes for Shoshanna — no development there. Laurent’s a French actress of formidable talent who gives Shosanna a lot of simmering rage, but the character’s still a total mystery to us. It’s as if her story is simply collateral damage, a regrettable casualty to be expected in a movie like “Inglourious Basterds” where Tarantino tries to accomplish so much.

But the characters we do get to know? What impressions they make. We get the likes of Donowitz, a wild-eyed totally unhinged oaf with “Anne Frank” carved into his Louisville slugger, and Pitt, who has a ball going whole-ham as Aldo Raine, a mountain boy redneck whose white-trash accent belies his cunning and wit. (He whips out quips like ”We got a German here who wants to die for his country! Oblige him.” without breaking a sweat.) The real prize here, though, is the Vienna-born Christoph Waltz, who runs away with the entire blasted movie. Tarantino may have gone and created one of cinema’s greatest villains in Col. Hans Landa, a smooth talker with an uncanny ability to read people, discover their weaknesses, exploit them and have a hearty chuckle in the process. He mocks, he sneers, he jokes, he lays traps and delights in watching the dumb (everyone’s dumber than he is) fall in them – there’s a bit of a showman in him.

Is it me, or does that sound a whole lot like some mad-genius director I know? And maybe his newest movie, too?
 
Grade: A-

23 Responses

  1. Saw this a couple weeks ago and I’m still talking about it. What a freakin’ great movie and it’s great to see Tarantino writing like he used to. And Christoph Waltz is the man. Great review.

    • When Tarantino’s hot, man, he’s hot. “Inglourious Basterds” may not be perfect, but it’s a hell of a fun, loud, bloody, crazy experience. He’s back!

      I could have written my entire review about Christoph Waltz, but I stopped myself. Where has this actor been all my life? If this doesn’t make him a name in America, nothing can.

  2. Great review, very insightful…
    I like the depth of reviews I’m seeing on your site, I look forward to reading more.

  3. I loved this movie. I usually don’t run out and see Tarantino movies but I new my Silent Gen father would dig this movie and I had a hunch that I would too. I was so right. I loved the way Tarantino, a Gen X’er himself, took it upon himself to rewrite WWII. I only wish his version of the story was the true one.

    I also thought that Christoph Waltz was brilliant and Brad Pitt was not far behind. I especially loved the scene where Lt. Aldo Raine was trying to speak Italian. Bone J-Orrr-no! LMAO.

    I knew you would be all over reviewing this one. Thanks!

    • I’m glad directors are finally getting hip to the fact that Brad Pitt is funny as hell. He was great in “Burn After Reading,” but he outdoes himself here. Loved the crack about the problem with fighting in a basement — very “Fight Club”-esque.

  4. looks like we mostly agree on this one…you just wrote it all more eloquently than I could.

  5. You echoed most of my thoughts. It’s the kind of film that has some flaws, but I don’t care about any of them because I had too much darn fun (seen it twice). I mean, why spend 20 minutes in the bar with Fassbender and Schweiger if it only leads to Raine having to change his plan at the last minute? 20 minutes for that?! But you know what? That 20 minute bar scene is freaking cool, so I don’t care.

    • Agreed Edgar. That was so tense it was almost unbearable. Like Marshall said, you keep waiting for a huge fight and it never comes. But when it does … Peter Paul and Mary is it sweet!

  6. I really enjoyed reading some stuff from your blog. I was going back through some of my old comments and saw that you didn’t include a direct link to your blog so I searched you myself. Now you are on my links…hope you get some good traffic!

    Marshall

    • Thanks for the linkage, Marshall … I’ll try to send some your way as well. Also, the bar scene was genius. I was holding my breath the entire time. Crazy good stuff.

  7. @ Edgarchaput,

    That scene bothered me too, but I think it was Tarantino being really ironic. The scene slowly builds for 20 minutes, and you expect the whole time for it to burst out into a long gunfight. But in reality, it takes forever and the fight is only an instant.

  8. I’m so brilliantly enthused you liked this one, but I knew you would! Some of the best work by Tarantino ever. Amazing!

  9. Christoph Waltz stole this movie! I loved every minute he was on screen and even if the rest of the movie had been complete crap, which it wasn’t, I would have loved it just because of his performance.

    And that pipe scene at the beginning was hilarious!

    • Thank you! The pipe gag might be the funniest part of the film aside from Brad Pitt’s horrid Eye-talian pronunciation. That’s classic Tarantino — take a scene that is skin-crawlingly tense and break it up with a gag. Marvelous.

  10. Well i was looking for the same thing and got it here.The things are very much relevant to what i am searching.I am saying this because I have come across a new site for movies related stuff and that site is moviesjudge.com

  11. I don’t know If I said it already but …This blog rocks! I gotta say, that I read a lot of blogs on a daily basis and for the most part, people lack substance but, I just wanted to make a quick comment to say I’m glad I found your blog. Thanks, :)

    A definite great read..Tony Brown

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  16. [...] respect, one story thread in Quentin Tarantino’s wildly revisionist/gloriously twisted WWII epic “Inglourious Basterds” – the story of bent-on-vengeance Jewish orphan Shoshanna (Mélanie Laurent) – isn’t [...]

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