Brandon's Word: Inglourious Basterds is a Masterpiece
by Brandon Lee Tenney
August 21, 2009
More often than not, Quentin Tarantino is like a very able boxer who throws the same punch time after time. After the first, second, and third haymaker -- one can predict what the fourth and fifth and sixth will be. As an opponent of Tarantino's, I thought I had him and his latest film, the WWII-set Inglourious Basterds, pegged as just that -- another wild haymaker. But just another haymaker it is not. Inglourious Basterds is, instead, a precise jab to the nose, a swift uppercut to the chin, and a brain-rattling hook to the jaw. It's Quentin Tarantino's knockout punch. And it lands hard. Read on for Brandon's review!
Before I continue, however, let me put what is to be a very positive review into some context. I've seen all of Tarantino's directorial work. I admire Reservoir Dogs and adore Pulp Fiction. I respect Jackie Brown, understand Kill Bill, and am actually quite fond of Death Proof. But for all of his talent, fanatical film knowledge, and eagerness to distill his ideas on to celluloid (both creative and about the art of filmmaking itself and how it can be used to tell stories), he has never wholly succeeded. Tarantino's post-modern cinematic pastiche has always felt more masturbatory than revelatory, his ostentatious and bombastic style too oppressive, and his direction too chaotic. His films usually succeed in overwhelming me with potential and concept rather than actually succeeding in bringing those concepts to fruition. Needless to say, I was wary upon entering the theater to watch two and a half hours of what (based on what had been sold to me) looked to be more of the same.
As the credits rolled, however, the taste of feathers and feet was distinct on my tongue. I loved it. And I loved it not because it was unlike Quentin Tarantino, but instead because it was everything that I knew Quentin Tarantino was capable of. I loved it because it was so purely him. Basterds is ostentatious and explosive, but not oppressive, it's pastiche and homage without overshadowing the stories and characters on the screen, it's thoughtful, mature, and masterfully crafted. It's both a thesis on the deft use of tension and subtext and a visceral wish-fulfillment thrill. Tarantino's penchant for long, dialog-heavy scenes remains, but their growth from one-dimensional, tensionless concepts in his earlier work into some of the most tension-filled, heart-pounding face-offs I've ever seen on screen is really something to behold. Tarantino's ability to balance and sublimate Inglourious Basterd's potential with its result is astonishing. The film's control (not restraint, for I'm quite sure Tarantino doesn't know the meaning of the word) is nothing short of miraculous. And it's all a welcome sign of Tarantino's growth as a filmmaker and storyteller.
Inglourious Basterds, however, is being sold to all of you rather poorly. The Weinstein Company is marketing this as an action film. An action film this is not. Yes, there is action -- all of it visceral with Luger shots sounding more like canon fire and unflinching, graphic scenes of violence that will either make you cringe or morbidly grin (or both) -- but for much of the two and a half hours you'll be listening to some of the best characters Tarantino has ever conceived (and some of the best characters history has conceived as written by Tarantino) talk. But I've never felt more tense. The opening scene alone is a doctoral class in character creation, subtext, and suspense. Tarantino's idolization of Sergio Leone is strikingly evident in those first twenty minutes, a duel of words instead of bullets and a climax that could wrench the heart from a statue. Later in the film, Tarantino even manages to retain his fetishized portrayal of the female foot -- but does so with purpose and vital stakes. And to keep on the subject of Tarantino-isms, the use of music in Inglourious Basterds is unsurpassed. Instead of scoring the film with original music, Tarantino uses pieces of film scores from the likes of 70's era spaghetti westerns to 60's war films to 70's blacksploitation to 80's horror. Again, it's Tarantino's trademark cinematic pastiche, but used to perfect avail.
And I'd be remiss if I didn't discuss the characters found amongst and intertwined within all this filmmaking maturity. Brad Pitt, who I found to be silly and over-the-top in the trailer, turns out an excellent performance as Lt. Aldo "the Apache" Raine. His no-nonsense, hillbilly swagger and ruthless operation stands as a personification of Tarantino's outlaw anti-hero. The rest of The Basterds are ably performed and just plain fun to watch. Eli Roth's portrayal of the annoyingly-Bostonized, Louisville Slugger-swinging Staff Sergeant Donny "The Bear Jew" Donowitz is an absolute pleasure to watch. The depictions of Adolf Hitler and Winston Churchill aren't empty caricatures (well, maybe Churchill, who's only shown for about five minutes, but is involved in one of the more humorous scenes in the movie), but personifications of emotion. And, as has always been a Tarantino staple, the female characters -- especially Mélanie Laurent as Shosanna Dreyfus -- are strong, complicated players who steal every scene they're in. That is, when they're not in a scene with Christoph Waltz. His performance as "The Jew Hunter" Standartenführer Hans Landa is a tour de force. Hans Landa will be known right alongside Darth Vader, Hannibal Lecter, and Norman Bates as one of the greatest movie villains of all time. And I'm calling it now, Christoph Waltz's magnificent performance will earn him this year's Best Supporting Actor Academy Award. It's that good.
I could go on and describe just how awesome it is to see Nazis brutalized and defiled for two and a half hours, but, really, that's just a mere fraction of what makes this film Tarantino's best yet. Sure, as a Jew, I may be bias -- 'cause there's nothing I love more than watching Nazis die horrible deaths -- but to see Tarantino flourish as himself, to distill his chaotic energy and completely succeed with every line, every shot, on every level he attempted to is nothing short of miraculous. Inglourious Basterds is the film Quentin Tarantino was born to make -- and perhaps since he's been working on it for so long, the ideas gestating inside of him in so many different forms, the film is better for it. Because of it. Regardless, it's finally here. It's a stunning success. An international, wish-fulfillment, revenge-movie-about-movies orgasm.
And as only Tarantino can, with unmatched audacity, the film's last line is as loaded with self-referential meta-commentary as a line can be -- and I must admit, it's right. Inglourious Basterds is Quentin Tarantino's masterpiece.