DIR/WRI: Quentin Tarantino • PRO Lawrence Bender, Christoph Fisser, Henning Molfenter, Charlie Woebcken • DOP: Robert Richardson • ED: Sally Menke • DES: David Wasco • CAST: Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz, Michael Fassbender, Eli Roth, Mélanie Laurent
In many ways, Inglourious Basterds is a movie defined not by what it is but rather by what it’s not. For instance, it’s an action movie without much action; it’s a war movie without any battles; it’s a Brad Pitt vehicle with surprisingly few scenes with Brad Pitt; and it’s an American movie predominantly in French and German. What we’re left with is a tri-lingual WWII thriller set behind enemy lines in occupied France, where the real action takes place during verbal jousts between undercover agents and enemy officers rather than in furious gun battles. After the flabby and bloated Kill Bill and the failed Grindhouse experiment, Tarantino finally delivers on the form he showed in the 1990s. This is easily his most assured and confident film since Jackie Brown, even if he does stray into his now familiar indulgent style once in a while.
Tarantino has always borrowed liberally from the movies he grew up watching, and here his love of Italian cinema shines through with references to everything from spaghetti Westerns to Cinema Paradiso. Ennio Morricone music is lifted wholesale from other movies and parachuted in, and great tracts of the movie are in French and German. In fact, aside from a few superficial touches, such as the chapter headings, on-screen graphics and incongruous music, it’s easy to forget that you’re watching a Tarantino movie. That is, until the brief but brutal scenes of violence remind you that it couldn’t possibly be the work of anyone else.
More than any other of his films, the director takes a back seat from visual and verbal flourishes and pushes his cast centre stage. The performances are uniformly excellent, in what is largely an ensemble piece, stolen entirely by Christoph Waltz’s Hans Landa. Waltz grips the screen every time he appears, delivering Tarantino’s sparkling dialogue with real relish, be it in English, German, or French. He’s the star turn amongst a cast that doesn’t put a foot wrong; Pitt chews through his Kentucky accent with a knowing smirk, Michael Fassbender shows real star quality as a British officer, and Mélenie Laurent provides just the right mix of vulnerability and steely determination as a Jewish cinema owner. Tarantino’s trademark dialogue is pared down so every word seems to have purpose, be it to illicit a response from an enemy suspect or hide someone’s identity.
Overall, Inglourious Basterds is a fantasy revenge movie of sorts, with a Jewish battalion meting out their own form of justice to Nazi troops. Hitler is a pantomime villain, nothing more. And this is where the audience will be split – some will go along with Tarantino’s scant regard for recent history, others will find it tactless at best, offensive at worst. Tarantino treats WWII as nothing more than a setting, and disposes of reality for his own ends. In spite, or perhaps because of this, he crafts a gripping thriller a hundred times more exciting than any of this summer’s event movies, but this won’t be to all tastes.
(See biog here)