Inglourious Basterds, set primarily in 1944 France, is certainly the best Quentin Tarantino film since 1994′s Pulp Fiction and easily one of the best films of 2009. Tarantino is quite the showman and, more than anything else, Basterds is an epic entertainment, a voluptuously conceived and executed WWII movie brimming with suspense and humor and outrageous characters. Yes, it’s violent, but I never had to avert my eyes (as I did at The Wrestler or Pan’s Labyrinth), and it’s so much more than its violent content. Tarantino has the confidence to build scenes leisurely but always assuredly, such as the great opening sequence of the Nazi colonel (Christoph Waltz) interrogating a French farmer about the Jews he is suspected of hiding.
The film has real juice, made with the kind of energy I associate with the WWII films Hollywood churned out during the war itself, films that were high in intrigue and adventure and determinedly short on serious analysis of what was actually going on in the war. Brad Pitt is a hoot as Aldo Raine (Tarantino’s nod to actor Aldo Ray), the leader of the titular group, his own band of American Jewish soldiers on a mission to terrorize the Nazis, a variation of a dirty dozen. Pitt’s broad comic turn perfectly captures Tarantino’s spirit, and the actor is a joy to watch throughout, even though the film is stolen by Waltz’s Nazi. There have been suave and dazzling villains throughout film history, like all those Nazis Conrad Veidt played during the war, but Waltz seizes his role with such actorly relish that he becomes the film’s overnight sensation. He has a laughing scene in a theatre lobby, at the film’s climax, that is absolutely brilliant, preceding a sequence in which he reminds us of the colonel’s harrowing capacity for sub-human behavior.
Tarantino offers set pieces of a kind we associate with the Golden Age, combining the pictorial grandeur of David Lean, the color sense of Vincente Minnelli, some Hitchcockian tensions, and the generous excesses of C.B. De Mille. Tarantino designs sequences to knock you out, some of which, like the finale, keep finding ways to top themselves. One such scene is remarkably quiet, up to a point. It is a barroom game played between a suspicious Nazi and some Allied spies, and it’s mesmerizingly fun to watch, incrementally moving toward its unavoidable outburst of violence.
A subplot about a secretly Jewish young woman (Melanie Laurent) running a Paris movie theatre (while plotting some exquisite revenge on those who killed her family) gains considerable emotional power as the film proceeds. It is a lovely touch to use a movie theatre and film itself as agents for good-guy forces, an extravagantly romanticized notion of art defeating evil. Laurent’s relationship with the Nazi soldier-hero (turned movie star, like a German Audie Murphy) is a fascinating almost-romance that peaks in an unforgettable showdown of conflicting emotions and inevitable disaster. The way Tarantino makes all his plot threads converge is impressive, as is that slam-bang finale, as beautiful and haunting as it is combustible.
Basterds is scary and funny and vibrantly alive. Its emotional undercurrents prevent it from ever being dismissible as a show-offy spectacle. Michael Fassbender, too briefly seen, adds gravity and wit to the proceedings, cast as a British spy and film critic (who specializes in German cinema). And Diane Kruger is glamorous and sly as a German movie star working for the Allies, giving the film a dash of Dietrich.
It may not be a great film, but it has spectacular moments and sequences, distinctive humor, even poetry. Not to celebrate its achievements is to cut yourself off from the visceral pleasures of the movies. There isn’t enough good work out there for us to ignore such a special motion picture.