In the final scene of Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino’s latest bromide of violence, high camp and revisionist history, one character looks at his bloody handiwork and giddily remarks: “I think this might be my masterpiece!”
No doubt that tongue in cheek rejoinder comes directly from Tarantino himself, who has to live up to the critical acclaim and cinematic success of his 1994 megahit, Pulp Fiction, and it’s squarely aimed at both audiences and critics. Well, Quentin, despite an opening weekend boffo box office ($65 million and counting, globally) and some great reviews (there were some mixed ones as well), Inglourious Basterds is no Pulp Fiction. It’s not even Reservoir Dogs, your 1992 directorial debut.
The premise of the film is a desirable fantasy: A small band of Jewish American soldiers, acting like a death squad, bash, dismember and slaughter their way across German-occupied France. “We are in the Nazi killin’ business, and cousin, business is a-boomin’,” gloats the pack’s leader, played with comic zeal and a brash Southern accent by Brad Pitt.
The name of Pitt’s character, Aldo Raine, is the now classic Tarantino nod, to everyman actor Aldo Ray. There are lots of other nods as well, beginning with the score, which seems lifted, in parts, from those composed by the incomparable Enrico Morricone for a long list of Spaghetti Westerns (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, A Fistful of Dollars, etc.) directed by the incomparable Sergio Leone and starring the incomparable Clint Eastwood. You get the drift.
The violence, which can be read as an homage to director Sam Fuller, is not so much gratuitous as it’s bloody and bloody shocking. On-screen scalpings take their place alongside skull stabbings and baseball bat beat-downs. It is carnage played for full brutal effect and awkward comedy. And you flinch every time. Despite the barrage of bullets and knifings, the most shocking kill is seemingly real-life strangulation. Has anyone seen the actress Diane Kruger since filming ended?
At 153 minutes, the film is too long. As always, Tarantino is trying to cram in as much as he can. The film is divided into five parts, two of which are bloated. And though all the threads eventually come together, tied into a nice, explosive bow, the film is full of holes.
Take the casting of the director/actor Eli Roth as “The Bear Jew,” Sgt. Donny Donowitz, who wields the Louisville Slugger to such devastating effect. The character is so much a caricature, even for Tarantino, that you wince at his every scene.
Now, there has been near-unanimous acclaim for Christoph Waltz, who plays the murderously sophisticated—he’s an esthete who speaks at least four languages fluently—SS officer, Col. Hans Landa. Waltz plays the part with cunning and glee, but I can’t help thinking he is straight out of 1940s central casting: the uber Hun, with an abyss for a soul. He gives credence to the saying: “Every skin teeth is not a smile.”
Another odd revisionist aspect of the film is the forging of the Jew/Negro alliance that Tarantino lets play out in the romance of movie house proprietor Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent) and her black projectionist Marcel (Jacky Ido). With this movie, Tarantino gets to both do in Hitler and set Jewish/black relations on their merry way.
Bless his heart.
Nick Charles is a regular contributor to The Root.