Now available on DVD, Quentin Tarantino’s latest movie, “Inglourious Basterds” [sic] takes the usual liberties with reality and realism that fans of “Pulp Fiction” and “Kill Bill” have come to expect. This time around, the iconoclastic writer/director rewrites history, specifically the conduct and conclusion of World War II. The film demonstrates again its creator’s fascination with movies: a movie theater is central to the action, and the characters and plot are full of cinematic allusions, which film buffs will have fun tracking. Ultimately, film itself—the actual, physical celluloid—becomes a murderous instrument of revenge.
The only real marquee name in the cast is Brad Pitt, and he’s great fun to watch here. But if the film has a “star,” it has to be Christoph Waltz as the SS officer dubbed “Jew Hunter,” Col. Hans Landa. Given the task of finding the French Jews who have eluded capture, he boasts that he can “think like a Jew,” by imitating the rats to whom the Nazis constantly compared them.
Early on, he lets one young woman, Shoshonna (Melanie Laurent) escape, giving the audience some idea of his character’s complexity. Landa can be charming and ruthless at the same time. He is clever, urbane, multilingual, and thoroughly deceptive. His counterpart, one Lt. Aldo Raine (Pitt), is a Tennessee soldier who seems badly overmatched, though equally lethal. Known to the enemy as “Apache Aldo,’ Raine is a Nazi hunter. He demands that each of the eight Jewish soldiers (i.e., the title characters) in his squad (think “Dirty Dozen” here) bring him at least one hundred Nazi scalps. He lets some of his captives go to strike fear into enemy hearts, though he marks the survivors indelibly by carving a swastika into their foreheads.
A somewhat Byzantine plot, divided into four “chapters” with slightly whimsical titles, brings the two antagonists together for a surprising conclusion, though one that has been richly telegraphed beforehand. Along the way, Tarantino’s characteristic strengths and weaknesses appear. Moments of very dark humor abound, as does violence and profanity. Tarantino’s estimation of humans’ goodness is not high, though he esteems bravery and persistence. His editing is self-indulgent, making the film play too long at about two and one-half hours and illustrating that the writer, director, and film editor should not be the same person. One game of “Who Am I?” comically counterpoints Landa’s fanatic attempts to unearth Jews, but the scene goes way past making the point, eventually devolving into, of course, bloodshed.
Pitt is quite winning here, though in the few scenes he shares with Waltz he is overpowered. I also enjoyed Laurent as Shoshonna, an intrepid woman who forms her own Resistance movement. The rest of the supporting cast is OK, though one character, a British film critic parachuted in behind German lines, is a bit too far-fetched, much as I’d like to believe in him. Another of the Basterds claims that the closest they ever get to going to the movies is watching one of his fellows beat Nazis to death with a baseball bat. (And, yes, we do get to watch that.)
In short, Tarantino fans will find much to relish here, but casual movie fans may be scared off: his work is decidedly not aimed at the broadest possible audience. It’s a true “R” film, be advised: kids have no business watching it. Not your basic holiday movie.