There is little more powerful than the frenzied anticipation of a fangirl, and that of yours truly over Quentin Tarantino’s bloody, imaginative new genre-blending romp, Inglourious Basterds, had reached fever pitch at the time of my (admittedly late) viewing. I brought in a notebook and pencil in lieu of popcorn, in order to make a bid to review the piece for the Hewitt Times; the fact that the first page of my notes consisted of nothing but the name Eli Roth written several times and cluttered with hearts is proof of two things: 1) I am lacking in the note-taking department, and 2) Quentin Tarantino’s new offering did not disappoint.
The film, set in WWII Nazi-occupied France, follows the Nazi-assassination plots of a motley crew of Jewish-American guerrilla soldiers and a French cinema proprietress. Their respective schemes, fueled by vengeful fury, eventually meet in a finale that can only be described as explosive.
The film opens in the pastoral French countryside. After a few bucolic exposition shots of lush hills and dozy cows, the calm is shattered by the ominous spaghetti-western soundtrack twang that could only mean one thing: the arrival of a Very Bad Man. SS Officer Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), flanked by Nazis, is the Very Bad Man in question, who smarms his way onto a dairy farm in pursuit of Jewish refugees. One would think a man dubbed ‘The Jew Hunter’ would be imposing, to say the least, but Landa instead begins as affable and polite, complimenting the farmer’s daughters over une verre du lait and making small talk before launching straight into chilly villainy of Lecterian proportions. The resulting standoff, superbly acted and terrifyingly taut, starts the film with a punch to the gut.
We then meet the titular heroes in all their gritty glory: The Basterds, a troop of Jewish-American soldiers assembled to combat the Nazis lead by Brad Pitt’s Lieutenant Aldo Raine, the character’s name an intentional nod to the 70s B-movie staple Aldo Ray. (Tarantino peppers this movie with sly, winking homages, such as one line in which Pitt comments on a dislike of fighting in basements – a direct reference to Pitt’s role as Tyler Durden in the film adaptation of Fight Club.) Aldo the Apache is charismatic in his bluntness and viscerally motivational in his rallying of the Basterds against the “Nah-tzees”. (His heavy Tennessee twang is played for laughs throughout the film, most notably in a scene where he is required to speak Italian undercover at a propaganda premiere.)
The Basterds are a charming lot, from BJ Novak’s Smithson “Little Man” Utivich (all Mark Ryden-esque wide eyes and twitchy intensity) to the axe-crazy Hugo Stiglitz (played with steely-eyed gusto by Til Schweiger, who we meet in a Samuel L. Jackson-narrated montage in which he dispatches Nazis in increasingly creative manners). One such Basterd, Sgt. Donny “The Bear Jew” Donowitz, is played with broad gusto by Eli Roth, director of such works as Hostel and Grindhouse’s memorably cringeworthy faux-trailer Thanksgiving. Donowitz, a scenery chewer par excellence whose weapon of choice is a scarred-up, blood-browned Louisville Slugger, is a pointed juxtaposition of two quintessentially American creations: baseball and torture-porn cinema. (Though Roth has publicly stated his dislike of this media buzzword, which developed in response to operatically gory works like 2008’s remake of Funny Games and the Saw franchise, one cannot help but note the way his Louisville Slugger lingeringly near-strokes a Nazi officer’s head, shot lovingly by Tarantino, before he winds up and gleefully bludgeons him to death.)
The film also follows Shoshanna Dreyfuss (Melanie Laurent), a French-Jewish escapee of the Nazis, who runs a charming art-deco Parisian cinema. The taciturn Shoshanna is pursued by the smitten Frederick Zoller, a Wehrmacht war hero. She meets his earnest advances with caustic brusqueness, understandably – but then he proposes that Nation’s Pride, a propaganda film based on and starring himself, be premiered at her theatre. She then formulates a gruesomely thrilling plan – to lock the Nazis attending the premiere inside of the theatre before torching the place to the ground. Laurent’s Shoshanna is sharp as a tack and gloweringly resolute, exacting her revenge with calculated perfection.
Aiding the Basterds in their kamikaze mission to blow up the same theatre that Shoshanna plots to burn down is the actress Bridget Von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger), a double agent for the Allies, played with equal parts lilting coyness and tough-as-nails ferocity. She is joined by the British Lt. Archie Hicox, who maintains the proverbial stiff upper lip to the very last, exceptionally demonstrated during a high-stakes altercation at a bar.
As an ensemble, the cast feels natural, and, while some toe the line of hyper-exaggerated caricature, no performance can be considered less than solid. Christoph Waltz’ Landa is a standout – his pendulous swings from sinisterly insinuating to downright dorkily precious (“That’s a bingo!” he exclaims giddily at one point, enough to elicit an ‘aww!’, before returning to monstrous form), and his performance merits a Best Supporting Actor nomination at the very least. Inglourious Basterds is a downright pretty movie, too: its cinematography is smoky and saturated and gorgeous, riddled with punchy reds amidst the noir-y gloom, its art direction deliciously stylized. The costume design slayed me, as well – my soft spot for fakey movie gore is rivaled only by my weakness for uniforms and suspenders and all manner of military accoutrements, and Shoshanna’s red dress in the penultimate scene promises to join Atonement’s green gown as one of this decade’s most iconic pieces.
Inglorious Basterds is a well-written, sharp, genre-savvy piece – a movie-lovers’ movie. Each chapter heightens the stakes, with words proving just as lethal as weaponry, until the horrifically exhilarating climax in which Tarantino orchestrates a truly awe-striking orgy of gore and pyrotechnics. This movie is a knockout, plain and simple.