“Nein! Nein! Nein! Nein! Nein! Nein! Nein!”
Wildly uneven, Tarantino’s latest film veers from brilliant to banal and back again. I can’t say the film is a total catastrophe, and I certainly can’t claim it as anything like a complete success.
The titular Basterds don’t appear onscreen for a good half hour, indeed the best half hour in the movie, featuring Christoph Waltz in a star-making performance as SS Col. Landa, known as The Jew Hunter. Landa arrives at a farm in Nazi-occupied France and has an extended discussion with the farmer about the local Jewish population. Landa is all good humor and sleekly sophisticated pleasantry but with a definite air of menace; for all the surface bonhomie he’s clearly not a person to underestimate. This opening section is followed by some stuff with the Basterds, led by Brad Pitt in full “Look Ma! I’m acting!” mode, and it gives Tarantino a chance to pander to his fans with some icky violence and smart-ass gabbing.
The film settles down a bit when it decides to be about Shoshanna (Melanie Laurent), the owner of a Paris movie theatre which has been chosen as the venue for the premiere of a new piece of Nazi propaganda. When it transpires that the entire Nazi hierarchy, Hitler included, is going to attend, Shoshanna hatches a plan to bring down the Third Reich. Col. Landa is involved in the proceedings, of course, as director of security for the event. Things progress from there, and it wouldn’t be fair to give away much more except to say that a large collection of films on nitrate stock plays a very important role.
Waltz’ and Laurent’s performances are far and away the highlight of the film, which lags pretty drastically when they’re not onscreen. And that’s a big problem. For a film by Tarantino, set during WWII about a series of plots to kill Hitler (British Intelligence has the idea to blow up the theatre, too, and there’s a lot of huffing and puffing and shooting and movie-referencing as they try to send an agent to contact the Basterds, and it just goes on and on and on, really, there’s just too much going on in this movie) to actually LAG is kind of remarkable.
But lag it does. And the fault is entirely Tarantino’s. BASTERDS is comparatively straightforward for a Tarantino film, lacking the chronological games of PULP FICTION and the KILL BILLs. The biggest problem with INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS is the Basterds themselves, and pretty much everything having to do with them. Brad Pitt’s latest attempt at a performance gets very old very quickly. He juts out his jaw, squints a lot, and talks with a bad Southern accent, and he’s just unwatchable. The other bastards don’t fare much better, being little more than excuses for nicknames and barely sketched out backstories: none of them comes alive as an actual human being. Only one of the Basterds, Til Schweiger as Sgt. Hugo Stiglitz, is given anything of consequence to do, and he doesn’t get to do it for long. And certainly none of them carries anything like the emotional weight of Col. Landa or Shoshanna, or even the basic wacko interest of Daryl Hannah’s memorably wacked out eye-patch-wearing assassin in the KILL BILLs.
This might be the point, I guess. If I gave a damn about more of the people in the film I might find the brutal violence unbearable. And there’s the big problem with the movie, I think. It doesn’t quite know what it wants to do. I’m reminded of the problem that finally sinks SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, the apparently unresolvable tension between wanting to make a serious film about the horrors of war and the temptation to make a Really Bitchin’ War Movie with lots of planes and bombs and stuff. But where Spielberg panders to his audience’s survivor guilt and ends by wagging a finger in our collective face (“Earn This!”), Tarantino gleefully goes for bloody broke and uses the power of cinema to destroy the Nazis (quite literally).
Tarantino’s results are ultimately as mixed as Spielberg’s. I wasn’t as appalled by the Holocaust that Tarantino unleashes on his massed Nazi victims as I was by the final act of smirking deliberate personal torture that a grinning Brad Pitt perpetrates on a single character. There’s something about that last gesture that really turned me off the movie and those associated with it for not being as appalled as I am by it.