All right, so I’m a bit late to the party on this one, but I wanted to toss in my two-bits anyway.
Quentin Tarantino’s films have always been about their dialogue. They are not action-heavy – Kill Bill is the aberration here. When he is at his best, as in Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino’s dialogue and active camera work together to generate suspense and give the impression of a plot surging forward even when nothing much is actually happening on the screen. At his worst, as in Death Proof, the film descends into turgid, self-indulgent wankery and the we are painfully aware of the man behind the curtain.
So it is that I walked out of Inglourious Basterds feeling extremely frustrated, and even a little bit angry. My anger was caused not directly by the fact that the film is a mess (which it is), but because Tarantino is a sufficiently talented filmmaker that the flick can’t be summarily dismissed and laughed at (as it is now possible, and even necessary, to do with anything M. Night Shyamalan goes near these days). What is good in the film is very good, but these moments of brilliance serve only to make us feel even more painfully what a failure the project is in so many other ways.
Let’s start with the title, which, a couple of deliberate misspellings aside, is lifted from Enzo Castellari’s film, previously reviewed on this site. Setting aside the fact that there is absolutely no connection between the two films’ plots (other than a vague Dirty Dozen-ish vibe), one nevertheless has to wonder why Tarantino would imply a connection between a film that barely takes a breather between its action scenes and his own, which contains about 35 seconds of action in its two-and-a-half-hour running time.
But why don’t we give Tarantino the benefit of the doubt for a moment. Let’s go with my initial premise, that his films are all about the dialogue, in much the same way that, as Maitland McDonagh has pointed out, Dario Argento’s films are about the excess of style, with the narrative serving the ends of that particular form of cinematic exploration. Granting this, then dialogue takes the place of action in Inglorious Basterds, and the film becomes a battle of words. That can work. And indeed, the opening scene where Nazi Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) plays a verbal game of cat and mouse, is grueling in its suspense and cruelty. All well and good, but then Tarantino feels the need to revisit this type of scene four more times. The suspense is gone, and three of those scenes are saved by Waltz’s astonishingly charismatic performance. But we miss him in the other instance, which is a tavern scene that is interminable and serves such a tiny plot function that it becomes one of the worst examples of the aforementioned self-indulgence.
So what about the characterization, which is another Tarantino specialty? Some of the characters are compelling, most notably Landa (but our Nazi villain is so much smarter and funnier than everyone else that we wind up rooting for him, and is that really a good thing?) and Shoshanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), the Jewish cinema owner whose revenge plot against the Nazis is not only the most interesting and riveting of the plot threads, it also renders everything Brad Pitt and company get up to completely redundant. More on this in a moment. But as for Pitt and his basterds, they have so little screen time that we feel very little connection to them, and Pitt’s Aldo Raine comes across as such a brutal (not to mention not terribly bright) thug that one feels that but for an accident of birth, there is nothing to suggest he couldn’t just as easily have been one of Landa’s less-gifted underlings.
As for Shoshanna’s story, good though it is (cut all the other plot lines out of the film, and you’d have a tight little thriller), it is shot through with ridiculous moments (David Bowie’s song from Cat People on the soundtrack??!!). Then there’s the climax, which, without venturing into spoiler territory, combines the visually spectacular (and I might even say sublime) with the monumentally stupid (one moment, involving bombs, serves only to underline how pointless the other storylines are).
Finally, then, I’m left with this niggling suspicion. As much as Tarantino deeply loves the movies, and pays tributes to all sorts of genres, there are some exploitation genres that he is simply incapable of doing, perhaps because he self-love overwhelms all other romances and gets in the way of delivering the very things that made him fall for those other films in the first place.
Clearly speaking for his creator, Aldo Raine ends the film by boasting that he has made his masterpiece. Hardly.