When Quentin Tarantino first announced that he would cast, film, edit and premiere Inglourious Basterds within a window of less than 10 months, the announcement left many who’d yet to read the script curious as to whether he could realistically succeed. After all, this was Tarantino’s self-described homage to The Dirty Dozen, a character-heavy man-on-a-mission script that would most certainly contain the kind of large-scale action set pieces that require months to film. It would, one supposed, be heavy on European intrigue, meticulously plotted and narratively involved. Featuring a bad-ass group of Nazi-killin’ soldiers, we assumed that casting would be a substantial hurdle of A-list names and that the Basterds’ interaction would be a pivotal part of the film. There was nothing about the endeavor that didn’t appear entirely time-consuming…
…Except that, in the end, there are no large-scale battle scenes, no A-list talent (save for Brad Pitt), no complicated plotting or intricate structure… The Basterds’ don’t appear for the majority of the screen time and there are a shockingly small amount of scenes in the film for being two and a half hours long… Apparently, Tarantino knew that the way to make a movie in eight months was simply this: not to make a movie at all.
Inglourious Basterds is less a single experience than it is four brief plays and a short film. It is, by far, Tarantino’s more theatrical work since Reservoir Dogs, the dialogue-heavy, single-setting opus that first painted the writer/director as the mid-Miramax posterchild for the ’70s-inspired crime drama. Like Kill Bill before it, the film is divided into five “chapters,” each more of a scene than a sequence, in which characters engage in lengthy, too-casual conversations as a precursor to some sudden bit of ultra-violent punctuation. Each chapter runs about 20 to 30 minutes in length, usually set within a single room, and highlights a specific set of characters – the “Jew Hunter” Col. Landa in the first chapter, Lt. Aldo Raine and the Basterds in the second, a Jewish survivor and her would-be German suitor in the third and a handful of British-German spies in the fourth. The fifth chapter weaves the stories together in a climax that is certainly the most structured and “cinematic” portion of the film.
It serves one best to quickly dispel the notion of “Inglourious Basterds” as those green-suited men we’ve spied in the trailer traipsing through Europe bashing in Nazi skulls with a blood-stained baseball bat. The “Basterds,” in as much as the movie defines them, are more than that. They are the Nazis themselves; they are the surviving Jews who plan revenge; they are the British operatives and the German double-agent. They are those who are somehow complicit, the ones with the red-tinted hands, regardless of loyalty or motive.
The story itself is relatively simple. Col. Landa, tasked by the Nazis with tracking down all the remaining Jews in France, guns down the family of a young Jewish girl named Soshanna. The girl escapes the melee and some years later becomes the proprietor of a Parisian cinema in which the German high command plan to hold a gala film premiere. Meanwhile, a special U.S. military unit known as the Basterds is sent to Europe to spread fear amongst the Nazis. They’re ordered to meet up with a British operative with a contact inside the German military ranks in an effort to infiltrate the premiere and blow up the theater. All this as Soshanna herself, unrecognized by the Nazis who’ve commandeered her theater, seeing her opportunity for revenge, plans to destory the building as well.
Make no mistake, each particular section of the film is filled with first-rate performances and the kind of dialogue-as-suspense that Tarantino fans have come to appreciate. The problem, however, is that there’s simply too much of it. We’re essentially offered long, sprawling conversations leading up to 30-second bursts of action, which is all well and good, except where 10 minutes would have been sufficient. When, in the midst of a tense scene between German soldiers and undercover British agents, the characters stop for five minutes to play a drinking game, one begins to question the necessity for particular beats, most especially when the outcome seems inevitable. This, combined with the film’s rather segmented structure, can often mean that audiences won’t see their favorite characters for lengthy periods of time. Consequently, for a filmmaker known for sprawling character pieces chock-a-block with interconnecting plot-lines, Basterds offers some of Tarantino’s flattest, most two-dimensional characters to date. Whether this is the result of simply getting to know them in singular, meandering sections — rather than a fully-woven narrative — or that they are, in fact, rather shallowly drawn is entirely dependent on the viewer.
On the other hand, it offers some of his best and most dynamic, as well. Christoph Waltz as Col. Landa stands amongst the best of Tarantino’s baddies – brutal, charming, snake-like and cowardly. Waltz’s effortlessly disarming performance is perhaps the best portrayal of a Nazi since Raph Fiennes in Schindler’s List, fully-fleshed and endlessly engaging. A few moments toward the end of the film reveal Landa to be more than simply the villainous Nazi we might otherwise have expected. Lt. Aldo Raine, however, is a stranger case, indeed. Initially a rather one-dimensional role, Brad Pitt’s simultaneously terrifying and hilarious performance offers layers to a character that might easily have sloughed across the page and died of excessive personality.
At the end of the day, Basterds is a series of strongly made, if expertly (over)written, pieces that never really come together into one coherent whole. The fifth chapter is incredibly well executed, but at that point, it’s too-little-too-late, and Tarantino’s personal penchant for cinema seems to inspire a narrative that is, to some degree, far from the Dirty Dozen homage that fans might have expected or desired. Even that familiar pop-culture cool is missing from his largely sub-titled exchanges by virtue of the film’s period setting, but Tarantino nevertheless fills his film with historically hip references to Leni Riefenstahl or UFA, the leading film studio in Germany throughout WWII. And while one can certainly respect and appreciate what Tarantino’s accomplished here, one also wonders if maybe the more straightforward approach might not have yielded a better overall film.