Since his landmark 1993 film Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino has been rightly heralded as one of the finest film directors of our time. The films he has made since, including Jackie Brown, Kill Bill, and Death Proof, have been consistently strong, but most critics agree that none of these efforts quite achieved the magic of his sophomore effort (Reservoir Dogs being Tarantino’s debut). The pre-release hype for this year’s long-anticipated Inglourious Basterds intimated that it might be his best yet. So being confirmed Tarantino fans, we were eager to check it out. Was all the praise overblown? Not at all. Amy and I agree that the film is an instant classic.
Set in German-occupied France during World War II, Inglourious Basterds depicts two (wildly fictitious) plots to assassinate Hitler and his Nazi cronies. One of these plots is executed by a ragtag vigilante team of Jewish-American soldiers. Led by Aldo “The Apache” Raine (played by Brad Pitt), the group terrorizes Nazi soldiers by scalping all of their victims and disfiguring the few survivors. The other plot is masterminded by one Shoshanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent). Shoshanna and her boyfriend run a cinema in Paris. When they learn that top Nazi officials, including the Fuhrer himself, plan to attend a premier at their theater, they concoct an assassination scheme that is as ironic as it is devastating. Eventually, these two storylines converge, and the results are spellbinding.
Figuring prominently in both storylines is Nazi Colonel Hans Landa, a.k.a. “The Jew Hunter” (played by Christoph Waltz). As the film follows him, we are equally appalled by his cool racism and charmed by his sophisticated wit. The humanizing effect of developing his character in this way has caused some controversy, but viewers are nonetheless satisfied when he meets his fate—a sure sign that Tarantino did not make the Landa character too sympathetic.
So why do we love this film so? Let us count the ways in tag-team fashion.
Amy: Let me begin by sharing a story that will hopefully shed light on my thoughts and feelings regarding Inglourious Basterds. When asked recently what I liked about the film, I was honesty puzzled by the question, first thinking “What do I like about it?” and then thinking “What do I like about it?” This is like trying to analyze what you like about ice cream, capri pants, or sex. It’s too basic to put into words, but you sure know you like it—a lot. Of course, you can analyze, break down all the component that make it great but there is still that mysterious element when taken as a whole that sets it apart and makes it special.
Jim: Tarantino’s talent for blending and reinventing genres is well-known, but he out-does himself with Inglourious Basterds. To tell a WWII story in the style of a spaghetti Western, seasoned with dashes of and comic superhero effects, is original enough, but to do so in such compelling fashion is what prevents the film from being a mere experiment. In fact, the story is so gripping and, in its own way, realistic, that one actually forgets the genre twisting devices being used. The (not very) secret of Tarantino’s success in this regard is his brilliance as a screenwriter. He tells a story as well as anyone in film today, and his dialogue is consistently rich, enthralling, and believable. Inglourious Basterds is Quentin Tarantino at his very best as a screenwriter.
Amy: Though there is a seemingly intangible magic to Inglourious Basterds, it is in fact the mundane in many ways that casts its spell. I am a big believer in the idea that it is the little choices by filmmakers that make or break a film. Details in casting, art direction and costume design all add or subtract layers in a way that either draw a viewer into the film as a participant or keep one at arm’s length all the while screaming “You are now watching a movie!” It is the authentic feel of Tarantino’s settings, casting and costuming which, for me, give him greater freedom in storytelling; the atmosphere is so plausible that the sometimes absurd events seem completely natural.
Jim: When Tarantino is at his best, he manages to incorporate humor into serious, even dark and morbid plots. Inglourious Basterds showcases his genius in this regard, featuring lots of amusing, memorable dialogue and scene premises, clever plays on language and cultural clichés, and even physical comedy. In most cases, the humor comes from the performances, especially by Pitt and Waltz, but many other subtleties and details, as noted by Amy, add to the film’s charm and comic qualities.
Amy: Of course, you can have amazing locations and clothing but without great acting it simply doesn’t work. Fortunately, Inglourious Basterds is not lacking in outstanding performances. I hesitate to even use the word “performance” because for the most part the actors were virtually flawless. Rather than having the usual struggle to suspend your disbelief, you have to struggle to remember they are only acting. I had bones to pick with Brad Pitt’s southern drawl, being from the area that his character claims to hail from, but other than that, the cast was remarkable. (I feel I am quickly running out of positive adjectives: tremendous, excellent, peachy keen?) Even casting Pitt, along with a few other well-known actors who make surprise appearances, is perhaps all part of Tarantino’s master plan. He has a habit of taking easily recognizable performers and casting them against type.
Jim: The performance by Christoph Waltz is one of the best of the decade. He manages to be both endearing and sinister, which is a difficult line to walk. Oh, and by the way, he very capably speaks four different languages in the film. And his presence in every scene is commanding. Tarantino has been quoted as saying that Waltz “gave me my movie back,” as he had essentially concluded that the part was “unplayable.” It simply demanded too much of an actor. Yet Waltz pulled it off and likely earned himself an Oscar in the process.
We’d like to conclude with some remarks about the profanity and violence in Inglourious Basterds. Understandably, some viewers are bothered more by Tarantino films than by most in regards to these matters. Part of the reason is the sheer volume of profanity in, say, Pulp Fiction, or the realism of the violence in most of his films. Inglourious Basterds doesn’t have as much profanity as many popular contemporary films, and there is little sexual content and no nudity. But there is plenty of violence, though not as much in terms of volume or realism as some other war films, such as Saving Private Ryan or To End All Wars. For those who are sensitive to this, take warning. But if your threshold of tolerance for violence is reasonably high, then prepare yourself for an aesthetic feast.