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?