Fans of Quentin Tarantino say Inglourious Basterds is his best film since Pulp Fiction and the most creative World War II movie ever. But other critics are disappointed that (like many Tarantino films) it's just a pointless, bloody revenge fantasy.
The director has been working on Inglourious Basterds — which opens today — for over a decade and critics say that, in all that time, he didn't come up with any meaningful message. The flick has all the trademarks of a Tarantino film: Witty dialogue; copious film references; strong female leads and extreme violence (though not as much as you'd expect). But then there's the outrageously revisionist plot for a World War II movie — it completely disregards history.
It's obvious from the trailer that Tarantino has taken some liberties in inventing the Basterds, a Jewish-American group of soldiers who scalp Nazis, but the film also requires viewers to ignore that they actually know how and where Hitler died, and it wasn't in a movie theater in Paris. The film takes place during the first year that the Nazis occupied France, and follows Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), who flees to Paris and becomes the owner of the aforementioned movie theater after watching the Nazis kill her family. Meanwhile, lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) leads the group of Jewish-American soldiers to perform bloody executions of any Nazi they come across. Later, the Basterds join a German actress (Diane Kruger) who is actually an undercover agent, and try to kill the top leaders of the Third Reich in Shosanna's theater.
Though Tarantino took a huge risk by turning Jewish-Americans into brutal butchers, critics say the film never takes any responsibility for toying with one of the most horrific events in human history. The Holocaust is actually never referenced, since that would snap viewers out of the weird imaginary world where the only message is "it's fun to watch Nazis die." (The film's misspelled title is a reference to the mediocre 1978 Italian film Inglorious Bastards, which was a remake of The Dirty Dozen, but it has nothing to do with either movie.) Basterds references spaghetti westerns and the soundtrack is equally anachronistic, with David Bowie's "Cat People" playing during a climactic scene. Viewers who come to the theater expecting Tarantino to have some respect for a war in which 50 million people lost their lives will be disappointed. But if you're willing to suspend your sensitivity and knowledge of history and enjoy Tarantino's fantasy of getting back at a cartoonish version of the Nazis, critics say Basterds will be one of your favorite films of the year.
Below, we take a look at what the critics are saying:
Christoph Waltz deserves an Oscar nomination to go with his best actor award from Cannes. He creates a character unlike any Nazi - indeed, anyone at all - I've seen in a movie: evil, sardonic, ironic, mannered, absurd... Shosanna, played by Laurent as a curvy siren with red lipstick and, at the film's end, a slinky red dress. Tarantino photographs her with the absorption of a fetishist, with closeups of shoes, lips, a facial veil and details of body and dress. You can't tell me he hasn't seen the work of the Scottish artist Jack Vettriano, and his noir paintings of the cigarette-smoking ladies in red.
After I saw Inglourious Basterds at Cannes, although I was writing a daily blog, I resisted giving an immediate opinion about it. I knew Tarantino had made a considerable film, but I wanted it to settle, and to see it again. I'm glad I did. Like a lot of real movies, you relish it more the next time. Immediately after Pulp Fiction played at Cannes, QT asked me what I thought. "It's either the best film of the year or the worst film," I said. I hardly knew what the hell had happened to me. The answer was: the best film. Tarantino films have a way of growing on you. It's not enough to see them once.
Basterds isn't so revolutionary or so finely crafted as Pulp Fictionwas, but it crackles with the same energy and imagination and chutzpah — with the sheer, humongous pleasure of a great filmmaker firing on all cylinders, including a few new ones you didn't even know he had... A complaint often leveled at Tarantino is that his movies are about nothing more than other movies, and this one is no exception: From the spaghetti-western undertones of the opening scene set in the French countryside and the self-conscious voiceover narration by Samuel L. Jackson to the apocalyptic (and, I should note, outrageous) finale inside a movie theater, Inglourious Basterds is suffused with Tarantino's combustible love of cinema. But unlike, say, Kill Bill, in which there was little going on other than the referencing of other films, Inglourious Basterds stands as an expertly crafted and gorgeously shot (by Robert Richardson) piece of moviemaking in which plot and character are at the foreground.
Pitt plays Raine as broadly as he played the gym instructor in Burn After Reading, and the comic performance initially seems to clash with the seriousness of the rest of the movie, until you develop a feel for the volatile mix of laughs and horror Tarantino is after. Part of the beauty of Inglourious Basterds is the speed and suddenness with which Tarantino can shift gears, as he does in a long, suspenseful sequence inside a tavern in which a rowdy drinking game turns serious — and then gets worse — when a German major makes a surprise entrance.
The scalping is appropriately detailed, and several guns are pointed at the tender areas of adversaries. But this is a 2 1/2-hour war movie without a single scene on the front lines. No long tracking shots of soldiers in foxholes or marching across an open field with a chorus of rifle fire. Fans of the operatic violence in Pulp Fiction and the Kill Billmovies eager for a thick new slab of steak Tarantino will be disappointed. ... Most of the film, though, reminds you that Tarantino may be a world-class director but what he really wants to do is write. Here the most explosive confrontations are verbal - long dialogues, often admirably tense and usually in French or German. (It's basically a foreign-language film.) The chats take the form of interrogations. A German officer probes; a Resistance fighter evades.
Given its subject and the director's track record, Inglourious Basterdshas less mayhem than one might expect. There's nothing comparable here-either as choreographed violence or virtuoso filmmaking-to the D-Day landing that opens Saving Private Ryan. (But neither is there anything as false, sanctimonious, and emotionally manipulative as the rest of Spielberg's movie.) Inglourious Basterds is essentially conceptual and, as with any Western, all about determining the nature of permissible aggression. Operating like a cross between the Dirty Dozen and a Nazi death squad, the Basterds take no prisoners-designated "survivors" are shipped back to Germany, swastikas carved in their foreheads to spook the brass.
With Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino has made his best movie sincePulp Fiction. He has also made what could arguably be considered the most audacious World War II movie of all-time. If you think there are rules for this sort of motion picture, guess again. And it's not just that Tarantino is using the spaghetti western as his template; it's that the sheer unpredictability of where all this is going makes it compelling from beginning to end. Even the film's occasional artistic flourishes (such as chapter titles and out-of-period music pieces) work within the context of what Tarantino is trying to accomplish. This is clearly an attempt by the director to expand his range and step outside of the comfort zone in which he has worked for the majority of his career.
Inglourious Basterds is a violent fairy tale, an increasingly entertaining fantasia in which the history of World War II is wildly reimagined so that the cinema can play the decisive role in destroying the Third Reich. Quentin Tarantino's long-gestating war saga invests a long-simmering revenge plot with reworkings of innumerable genre conventions, but only fully finds its tonal footing about halfway through, after which it's off to the races. By turns surprising, nutty, windy, audacious and a bit caught up in its own cleverness, the picture is a completely distinctive piece of American pop art with a strong Euro flavor that's new for the director.
Yet you come away amused and unmoved, and that wasn't the case with, say, Kill Bill, where by the end Uma Thurman had assumed an exhausted, hard-won majesty. For the first time in a Tarantino movie, the women's roles feel underwritten, and most of the men don't get enough screen time.
It's obviously too much to expect a clever kid - which at 46, Tarantino still is - to grapple with history in any meaningful sense. For all that, the movie's pop-art shallowness feels forced. Inglourious Basterds is an entertainment but an uneasy one; it represents 153 minutes of bravura stalling, after which its creator loses interest and walks away. Tarantino may be the most talented filmmaker in America who prides himself on having absolutely nothing to say.
The film is by no means terrible — its two hours and 32 minutes running time races by — but those things we think of as being Tarantino-esque, the long stretches of wickedly funny dialogue, the humor in the violence and outsized characters strutting across the screen, are largely missing... The film lacks not only tension but those juicy sequences where actors deliver lines loaded with subtext and characters drip menace with icy wit. Tarantino never finds a way to introduce his vivid sense of pulp fiction within the context of a war movie. He is not kidding B movies as he was with Grindhouse nor riffing on cinema as with Pulp Fiction and the Kill Bill films. Tarantino has been quoted as saying of Inglourious Basterds, "This ain't your daddy's World War II movie." In fact, it pretty much is. His scalp-hunters are any Dirty Dozen on a mission, the bread and butter of war movies. The major difference is that some fine European actors simply aren't given enough to do.... in your daddy's war movies, men and women often did undergo interesting transformations. So perhaps Tarantino is right.
Inglourious Basterds is a film years in the making and hours in the watching, but it seems designed to inspire mere minutes of reflection. Quentin Tarantino's long-discussed World War II movie-it's been in the works in one form or another since Jackie Brown-features some thrilling action sequences, in which Tarantino's gift for dialogue gets honed to a razor-dangerous edge, and some seamlessly integrated reflections on cinema's role in shaping and reflecting history. But its moments of greatness-and there are more than a couple-feel weirdly disconnected, stuck in a movie that doesn't know how to put them together, or find a good way to move from one to the next.
From the admittedly breathtaking opening sequence, which in its meticulous staging, pacing and acting pays loving homage to the work of Sergio Leone, to the Grand Guignol of a climax set in a Paris cinema, Inglourious Basterds isn't about history or war, or people and their problems, or anything of substance or meaning. It's a movie about other movies. For all its visual bravura and occasional bursts of antic inspiration, it feels trivial, the work of a kid who can't stop grabbing his favorite shiny plaything. To the degree that viewers share Tarantino's obsessions — with cinema, music and bloody, ritualized violence — they will enjoy Inglourious Basterds, which undoubtedly possesses its share of grace notes.
Whether the Basterds are Tarantino's ideal of an all-American killing team or his parody of one is hard to know. Very little in Basterds is meant to be taken straight, but the movie isn't quite farce, either. It's lodged in an uneasy nowheresville between counterfactual pop wish fulfillment and trashy exploitation, between exuberant nonsense and cinema scholasticism.
Inglourious Basterds is not boring, but it's ridiculous and appallingly insensitive-a Louisville Slugger applied to the head of anyone who has ever taken the Nazis, the war, or the Resistance seriously. Not that Tarantino intends any malice toward such earnest people. The Nazis, for him, are merely available movie tropes-articulate monsters with a talent for sadism. By making the Americans cruel, too, he escapes the customary division of good and evil along national lines, but he escapes any sense of moral accountability as well.
Also getting in the way is Tarantino's inevitable self-indulgence, his willingess to please himself by choosing movie moments over genuine emotion, making a point of having Frenchwoman Shosanna, for instance, say, "We respect directors in our country." As it goes on and on, Inglourious Basterds feels increasingly like the kind of hollow, fanboyish cinema that is all the rage these days... Despite nods to notions like Jewish revenge and the power of cinema, the director has paid so much attention to the film's peripherals he has neglected to provide a center worth embracing. You can raise B pictures to A picture status, as Tarantino has made a career out of doing, but giving them A picture value is not so easily done.
There's been a lot of buzz – some of it coming from people who have actually seen the movie, and some coming from the always-more-vocal ones who haven't – about Tarantino's hyper-fictionalization of World War II conflict. Some have asserted that he's trivializing the seriousness of the Holocaust. It bears mentioning that even though Inglourious Basterds addresses "the hunting of Jews" by Nazis, its subject is most certainly notthe death camps or the mechanized slaughter of Jews. (And in a tense, beautifully sustained opening scene, Tarantino acknowledges – briefly but succinctly – the horror of the fate of the Jews under the Third Reich.) Even beyond that, though, in some minds the idea of Jews banding together aggressively to kick Nazi ass is itself offensive. By now almost everyone has forgotten, with good reason, last year's dreary Defiance, which is based on a true and inherently compelling story about real-life Jewish brothers who brutally fought the Nazis. But I see Tarantino's movie more as a manifestation of the kind of crude moral justice that fiction – if not fact – can allow us. To me, the aggressively fictional "Jews vs. Nazis" conflict in Inglourious Basterds is analogous to "Santa Claus vs. the Martians," an easily readable bit of cartoon shorthand for good vs. evil. Come on – you know whose side you'd be on.
Too often in Inglourious Basterds the filmmaking falls short. Mr. Tarantino is a great writer and director of individual scenes, though he can have trouble putting those together, a difficulty that has sometimes been obscured by the clever temporal kinks in his earlier work. He has also turned into a bad editor of his own material (his nominal editor, as usual, is Sally Menke) and seems unwilling or incapable of telling his A material from his B. The conversations in Inglourious Basterds are often repetitive and overlong and they rarely sing, in part because the period setting doesn't allow him to raid his vast pop-cultural storehouse. A joke about Wiener schnitzel just doesn't pop like the burger riff in Pulp Fiction
If Inglourious Basterds is offensive-and in spots, it's wildly so-it's not because Tarantino tries to bring Hitler and comedy together. That's been done before-by Charlie Chaplin, Ernst Lubitsch, and others-back when the wound of the war was much fresher. The queasiness comes in when the movie unproblematically offers up sadistic voyeurism as a satisfying form of payback. As he's trying to extract information from a German soldier, Brad Pitt's character speaks a line that could function as the movie's motto: "Watching Germans get beat to death is as close as we get to going to the movies." Tarantino's radical rewriting of the war's ending is audacious and perversely enthralling. But if Inglourious Basterds were about something more than the cinematic thrill of watching Nazis suffer, it could have been a revelation.