I don’t know of another American filmmaker who brings such joy to the act of cinematic storytelling as Quentin Tarantino. I don’t mean tackling big issues or making epic statements. I’m talking about the sheer pleasure of telling audiences a tale that takes them places they don’t expect and ways they haven’t quite experienced before. The directors who try to copy Tarantino’s quirky scripts and movie lore-loaded direction miss the point. His love of movies comes out not simply in his references to other films. It’s all in the way he digests the ideas and images and music and narrative points he’s stored during a life of viewing and reimagines them in new contexts, reworking them until they become an organic part of his movie.
“Once Upon a Time… in occupied France,” reads the opening chapter title, which is as good a cue as any to Tarantino’s intentions. Inglourious Basterds (yes, that is the correct spelling) is a mix of pulp fantasy, genre play, and narrative tropes resurrected with fresh takes and twists, all deliciously scripted into dialogue dances and verbal jousts and set against a historical backdrop informed more by the movies and Tarantino’s own “what if”? doodling than any historical record. This isn’t any World War II history you learned and Tarantino doesn’t care that he’s rewritten the end of the war as a magnificent Hollywood mission movie, a revenge fantasy not so much come to life as bigger than life.
Brad Pitt gets top billing as Aldo Raine, a Tennessee platoon leader with a drawl like molasses spiked with moonshine and a squad of Jewish American soldiers on a mission in occupied France. Their orders: “to kill Nat-sees,” in the words of the hillbilly guerrilla Raine. But the movie belongs as much to Melanie Laurent’s Shosanna Dreyfus, a French Jew who escapes the SS and creates a new identity running (what else?) a movie theater in Paris, and Christoph Waltz’s cool, cultured, deliciously devious SS officer Col. Hans Landa, aka “The Jew Hunter.” Their fates are intertwined from the opening chapter to the closing, but Tarantino isn’t so obvious as to deliver the expected poetic justice. His is most unexpected and all the more entertaining for it.
Tarantino has become a more cinematically attentive director through the years and he creates some of the most hauntingly beautiful and terrible images I’ve seen on the screen in the chaos of the climax: orange and yellow flames devouring the black-and-white image on a theater screen, the image reforming on the billowing smoke like a phantom cackling over the destruction. Mostly, though, he’s a damnably good screenwriter, a man who loves dialogue, words, and the dramatic shift of power as knowledge is exchanged in conversations that are rarely about what is being said.
While you can’t really call Tarantino an actor’s director (Pitt is a very entertaining caricature but little else, grinning his way through the film with a perpetual squint and a clenched jaw), he does offer opportunities for dynamic performances and deft byplay with his writing. The cast meets it with theatrical flourish: Diane Kruger plays German movie star and double agent Bridget von Hammersmark as an absolutely fabulous celebrity whose flamboyance is part of her cover, Laurent is hard and fierce as Shosanna, turning her fears into ferocious anger, Michael Fassbender a crisply profession British officer with grit under his old chap joviality, and Waltz won his first Academy Award for his Landa, a man of daunting confidence who leaves threats implied under rituals of manners and deference, an elaborate show of power communicated by his control of every situation.
This is a fantasy of a war movie, a dark revenge fantasy where the bad guys put on a front of cultured sophistication and good manners, the good guys commit barbaric acts, the heroes don’t always get out alive and the historical record is thrown out the window in a brazen blast so audacious and impertinent it defies all reason. Which is part of the fun. Tarantino isn’t about saving Private Ryan. He’s having too much fun concocting the ultimate war movie / caper / thriller.
This is definitely R-rated.
On Blu-ray and DVD with commentary by director Enzo G. Castellari with moderator David Gregory, a conversation with director Castellari conducted by Quentin Tarantino (who does most of the talking) and the excellent feature-length retrospective documentary “Train Kept a Rollin'” (with meaty interviews with the director and the two stars). Exclusive to the Blu-ray are the featurettes “Inglorious Reunion at the New Beverly,” featuring Castelleri, Svenson and Williamson at a special screening of the film in 2008, and video footage of “Enzo’s 70th Birthday Celebration in L.A.,” also from 2008.