Stuck in the Middle
Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds starts before the movie even begins. To explain: The Universal logo attached to the front of the film isn't the one currently used, with the camera pulling back from a crisp CG-rendered Earth as the company's three-dimensional letters come sliding around to rest between the planet and the viewer. No, it's the older one that ran through most of the 1970s and 1980s. The ostensible goal is to kind of get a leg up on creating an atmosphere for the film, a practice that's not inherently bad but has become so through Tarantino's repeated (mis-)use. His Death Proof, just to name one other, used similar tricks, and that's what this ultimately is: A trick, a gimmick, a means of perpetrating a vibe without actually having to create it via story or character or plain old filmmaking. Doing it once is cute, but doing it over and over means the device is a crutch, a symbol that as a writer and director Tarantino has not one iota of desire to progress, either visually or chronologically. He's a talented storyteller who's still capable of creating moments of wonderful suspense or drama, whether over a film as a whole or within one of the interstitial anecdotes he so clearly adores. And there wouldn't be a problem if all he wanted to do were churn out talky, hyper-violent action flicks every few years. But the seriousness with which Tarantino attends his endeavors and hopes for their respect -- his production company, A Band Apart, is a play on Godard's Bande a part, for crying out loud -- means that it's not enough to simply write him off as a graphic and mostly fun filmmaker. Not only is it a disservice to his films, but he obviously doesn't want it. And so, instead of being a vaguely intellectual and often cutesy action movie, Inglourious Basterds must be seen for what it is: The demand of a troubled auteur to be taken seriously when his movies are anything but. As such, the film increasingly squanders the goodwill it periodically builds up by dropping all pretense and reveling in its own squalid existence. It's sporadically exciting, intermittently breathtaking, and ultimately not unlike watching a syndicated rerun of a long-dead sitcom: The content is new, but the air is stale.
The film opens in Nazi-occupied France in 1941. (The narrative is split into five chapters, but they're closely related and unspool in a linear enough fashion that the structure is closer to Kill Bill than the interlocking vignettes of Pulp Fiction.) The first chapter highlights Tarantino's skill at short-form storytelling, with its brief but detailed introduction of a farmer and his daughters as they're visited by Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) of the SS, a man nicknamed "the Jew Hunter" who's come by to see if the farmer is hiding "enemies of the state." The sequence is taut and lean, driven by an intrinsically tense plot and the bravura performance of Waltz, who manages to inhabit some deadly gray area between charming and calculating. As Landa interrogates the farmer, Tarantino keeps the compositions neatly focused on the men, often letting a profiled two-shot linger uncomfortably. When it comes to creating these minor moments between characters, almost like powerful short stories, Tarantino's still got chops. But once the larger narrative begins, the film starts to wander.
Shifting to a group of American hunters, Tarantino introduces the Basterds, a squad of Jewish soldiers under the command of Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), a native of Tennessee with a scarred neck and penchant for brutally killing Nazis. He instructs his men that they'll be dropped into France and executing guerilla warfare against the Germans, adding that each of them owes Aldo a total of 100 Nazi scalps just to be in the group. The film's second chapter deals with a cursory history of the Basterds, though how they got their name and its peculiar spelling is, like the scars on Aldo's neck, left to the viewer's imagination. It's in this section that Tarantino also ups the violence from your basic wartime slaughter to deeply disturbing moments like an SS officer being clubbed to death with a Louisville Slugger or Aldo's habit of carving a swastika in the forehead of any Nazi soldier he decides to let live, so that word might spread of the Basterds and their merciless ways. It also here can't be overlooked that one of the few Basterds with a speaking role, Sgt. Donny Donowitz, is played by Eli Roth, a writer-director and friend to Tarantino. Roth, whose credits include Cabin Fever and the Hostel films as well as an unsettling faux-trailer for the fictional Thanksgiving -- and whose cinematic misogyny and basic fear of the female reproductive organ would take way too long to get into -- is not a filmmaker given to subtlety or nuance. His work is bloody for the sake of it, no matter how many flimsy critiques of American capitalism or the Bush administration are forcibly projected onto his movies. He's all about violence as an end in itself, and he's the one cast as the Basterds' vicious killer. His overacting aside, Tarantino's decision to let such a role rest on Roth's shoulders reflects the director's true desires: This film is just going to be about the body count, no matter how slick the final product or how much it clearly begs to be considered as more. Tarantino's pretty much remade Rambo III with more money.
The rest of the film scoots forward to 1944 and concerns a plot to kill ranking members of the Nazi party when they're gathered in Paris for a premiere of Joseph Goebbels' latest propaganda film, Nation's Pride, a story of a German sniper killing 300 enemy soldiers over the course of three days. (The film within a film was directed by Roth, whose lack of finesse is oddly suited to such storytelling. Even weirder is that he's Jewish, and starring in the larger film and directing the smaller one must have been uncomfortable.) The Basterds need the help of Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger), a German actress doing double duty as a British spy, to infiltrate the premiere, but the gala opening is also the focus of a plot by the theater's owner (Melanie Laurent), who has reasons of her own for hating the Nazis (besides the obvious).
As the leader of the Basterds, Pitt is a charming and vicious leader, as well as one of the only soldiers who actually gets to talk during the film. Co-star B.J. Novak is graced with the opportunity to utter a few lines toward the end; Samm Levine, if I'm not mistaken, didn't say a single word. On one hand, you have to admire Tarantino's unwillingness to pretend he wants these characters to do anything other than kill Germans; they don't speak, sweat, sleep, eat, or do anything besides stand in frame holding machine guns. On the other, it's foolishness to take him at his word that these characters are capable of happiness or sorrow or anything resembling human emotion when we never get to see it. And with no emotional anchors, how can the carnage be anything but meaningless?
The other performers are scattered along the spectrum -- Mike Myers' appearance as a British officer is so laughably bizarre that any semblance of story goes out the window -- with Laurent and Waltz the most engaging. She's frightened and hardened, a woman reaching her breaking point when it comes to tolerating Nazi rule, and Waltz is mesmerizing as the hound charged with hunting innocent civilians. He's neither the cartoonish Nazi of Indiana Jones stories nor a wrongly sympathetic figure. He's brash and cruel and pompous and above all motivated by self-preservation. Every moment he's on screen is a compelling one.
If only that could be said for the film as a whole. Tarantino almost gets into interesting territory by focusing on the nicknames and myths that precede the heroes and villains into battle, with word of mouth passing for gospel among men on the ground. Indeed, as Landa says to the farmer, "Facts can be so misleading, but rumors, true or false, can be so revealing." There are echoes here of Tarantino's other characters -- hit men, heist men, snake-wielding ninjas -- who rely as much on the threat of their presence as the deadly resolve that backs it up. But Tarantino's too busy being Tarantino to meditate on any in-universe similarities among his films or to let the subtext do the work. He's distracted by his own stylistic lack of style, throwing every old Ennio Morricone music cue he can into the film, along with a mix of typefaces and cuts that show just how much Tarantino knows but how unwilling he is to pick and choose from his growing arsenal of film tricks and tell a good story. The very title of the film is also telling: It's inspired by the 1978 Italian film The Inglorious Bastards, though the films' plots are different and there's no reason for Tarantino to use the tweaked title except to show that he's seen the older movie. It's like his increasing callousness with human life: At times he wants us to laugh or jump at an exploding head, and at others to be shocked at the brutal killing of an innocent. Worst is when these two get somehow combined, as when a major character is gunned down to a horribly overdone music cue that's more about Tarantino's desire to remanufacture the schlock of his youth than anything else. He's smarter than this, and he can't go on like he is forever. Even run-of-the-mill action movies, killing a good guy or a bad one, move the viewer toward a realistic emotional response (sorrow or relief, typically). But Tarantino aims for ironic distance. He's aging backward, more and more content to lure audiences in and then just keep repackaging stuff that was old the first time he repackaged it. To paraphrase one of the characters after an ambush, Tarantino's film is either a trap or a tragic happening. Not both.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.
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