by Roxane Ramos
Never one to back away from a fight, Quentin Tarantino takes on an epic one in his latest venture, Inglourious Basterds, vanquishing the Third Reich and rewriting a prominent chapter in 20th-century history along the way. His movie re-imagines the trajectory, though not the ultimate outcome of the Second World War (the Axis still loses), using his trademark tropes of oddball manifestos, mesmerizing banter and flamboyant violence at turns barbaric and comic. Not since Mel Brooks mounted the Nazi musical “Springtime for Hitler” in The Producers (1968) have we seen such a giddy, raucous romp through World War II.
In typical genre-mashing style, Tarantino opens his war movie with plaintive strains of tumbleweed music, leaving no doubt of where we are existentially—codes of honor, black hat/white hat, cowboy justice. Geographically, the scene is Occupied France, starting in 1941, and the dueling parties—black hat and white hat respectively—are the sinisterly cheerful, rumor-sniffing SS Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) and the take-no-shit, take-no-prisoners US Army Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt). A Tennessee native with unexplained rope burns around his neck, Raine leads a team of Jewish-American soldiers, those inimitable “Basterds,” in a quest for Nazi scalps.
Each of the two men loves, indeed revels in, his work and the collision course between them is accelerated by an entertaining roll-call of Tarantino creations—a chatty Nazi war hero, both bolstered and sickened by his achievements; an unflappable British undercover agent, always combining a stiff upper lip with a stiff drink; a strong, silent soldier who annihilates Nazis with brute force and a baseball bat; and a glamorous German movie star-cum-British spy. But the catalyst for the action comes in the form of the seemingly unassuming, steel-willed Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent). Cinema proprietor, femme fatale (evidence of yet another genre) and sole survivor of her family, Shosanna is a woman on a mission: to kill the Nazi high command and thereby avenge her family and end the war. A Nazi film premiere provides the perfect opportunity, inevitably attracting the attention of the “Basterds” who hatch an eve-of-destruction plan of their own.
Like all Tarantino pictures, this one is filled with Jeopardy-worthy trivia—nitrate film burns three times faster than paper, Goebbels was the Nazi David O. Selznick—and peppered with unusual props, sometimes meaningful, sometimes just fun (a calabash pipe, a recurring glass of milk). It’s all the spillage of Tarantino’s overstuffed mind, as obsessed with a good (even if improbable) story as with esoteric or banal minutiae. (Royale with cheese, anyone?) This is why his movies are such a great ride, crammed with elaborate set pieces and unexpected, yet satisfying, plot twists.
Oscar will surely recognize Tarantino’s writing efforts, if not his directorial skill, and buzz has surrounded Austrian TV actor Waltz in his breakout role as Landa, deservedly so. But I’d like to take a moment to appreciate Brad Pitt, the Clark Gable of our era. Like Gable, his acting talents are overshadowed by his movie-star looks, sardonic smile and mega-celebrity life. But he’s turned out to have a real knack for comedy and, sometime while we were busy swooning, he’s built a reputation for indelible comic portrayals, starting with his rooster-strutting charm in Thelma & Louise, through the impassioned gibberish of Snatch, to, in more manic form, aerobically-fuelled ADD in Burn After Reading. Here, he adds to that growing resume with a quirky performance of drawl-infused nonchalance and deadly conviction. It’s time to give the man his props and let him be Cary Grant for a change.
Inglourious Basterds has received some heat for playing fast and loose with facts—the movie is “unconcerned with moral dimensions,” “trivial,” “appallingly insensitive.” Perhaps these reviewers missed or were less than charmed with the spirit of the enterprise. But Tarantino’s not making documentary nor is he interested in moralistic drama. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say, he is interested in classic battles between good and evil, a movie mainstay, but he regards his role as that of ringmaster or impresario of the proceedings, letting us decide what to make of the action. In the end, history (incidentally, also a dispassionate onlooker) gave the Allied Forces victory as the culminating moment; Inglourious Basterds offers a different kind of catharsis, though in fantasy form—sweet revenge.