The last words of “Inglourious Basterds”, the new film from director Quentin Tarantino, are “I think this just might be my masterpiece.” The words aren’t spoken by Tarantino (I’m not going to give away anything and tell you who says them), but they did flow from his pen and it isn’t hard to imagine him claiming them as a comment on his own work. After all he did spend more than a decade working on the script, so long, in fact that “The Irish Times” wrote that the film “has been predicted more often than the second coming of the Lord.” It’s meant to be the director’s magnum opus; a sprawling film that has been gestating inside him for years. I’d like to be able to report that it is his masterpiece, but it’s not, that’s the impossible to better “Pulp Fiction”, but it is as combustible a movie as will be released this year.
Borrowing the title from a little seen 1978 Enzo Castellari film, (the second word is spelled differently, inserting an “e” where the “a” usually sits), Tarantino has created a violent WWII fantasy that rewrites history.
The Basterds are a group of Jewish-American Allied soldiers led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt). Think of them as the Dirty Half Dozen. Their mission is to hunt down, kill and scalp at least one hundred Nazis. The rare Nazi who escapes a nasty death at their hands—left alive to tell others of the Basterd’s ruthless tactics—is marked for life by a swastika carved deep into his forehead. Running parallel is a story thread about movie theatre proprietor Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), a young Jewish woman, aching for revenge against SS colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) A.K.A. the Jew Hunter. In Tarantino’s bloodthirsty world it’s inevitable that Raine’s band of brothers, Shosanna and Col. Landa will cross paths.
The films of Quentin Tarantino deeply polarize people. For every person who quivers at the thought of a new film from the “Reservoir Dogs” director there is another who thinks his movies are too long, too self indulgent and too derivative. Despite those criticisms, fair or not, there is almost no argument that of all the brand name directors working today, Tarantino is the most audacious. His films are a singular vision and “Inglorious Basterds” is no exception.
It opens with an almost unbelievably tense scene, spanning the first twenty five minutes of the movie. It is a tour de force of razor’s edge filmmaking, sadistic and twisted, all without a drop of blood or a raised voice on display. It’s pure cinema, and as a set piece is the best filmmaking I’ve seen this year.
The opening sets a high standard and Tarantino does his best to live up to it, taking his time unfurling the story in chapter form. Unlike bombastic directors like Michael Bay, Tarantino understands the ebb and flow of the storyline. His movies don’t clobber you over the head with every frame, instead he calibrates the story to include deliberately paced scenes which create a sense of anticipation for the next crescendo of violence or plot.
The movie is, as I said, deliberately paced, but never feels slow. Tarantino weaves together the disparate storylines, and styles—everything from spaghetti westerns to 70’s exploitation and über violence—into one seamless package.
The bow on top of the package has to be the performance of the Austrian-born Christoph Waltz. As SS colonel Hans Landa he is pure evil; a slimy villain for the ages.
“Inglourious Basterds” won’t be for everyone, it’s too extreme for casual viewers, but the film lover in me is tickled that the heroine is a cinema owner who literally uses film to bring down the Third Reich. Love him or not, you can never accuse Tarantino of being boring.