Is there another American filmmaker who takes such joy in telling stories and spinning cinematic spells as Quentin Tarantino? I don’t mean tackling big issues or making epic statements. I’m talking about the sheer pleasure of telling audiences a tale that takes them places they don’t expect and ways they haven’t quite experienced before. The directors who try to ape Tarantino’s quirky scripts and movie lore-loaded direction miss the point. His love of movies comes out not simply in his references to other films. It’s all in the way he digests the ideas and images and music and narrative points he’s stored during a life of movie going and reimagines them in new contexts, reworking them until they become an organic part of his movie.
Inglourious Basterds (yes, that is the spelling) takes its name from an Italian war caper by Enzo Castellari (itself a shameless knock-off of “The Dirty Dozen”) but the story is pure Tarantino, a mix of pulp fantasy, genre play, and narrative tropes resurrected with fresh takes and twists, all deliciously scripted into dialogue dances and verbal jousts and set against a historical informed more by the movies and Tarantino’s own “what if”? narrative doodling than any historical record. “Once Upon a Time… in occupied France,” reads the opening chapter title, which is as good a cue as any to Tarantino’s intentions. This isn’t any World War II history you learned and Tarantino doesn’t care that he’s rewritten the end of the war as a magnificent Hollywood mission movie, a revenge fantasy not so much come to life as bigger than life.
Brad Pitt gets top billing as Aldo Raine, a Tennessee platoon leader with a drawl like molasses spiked with moonshine and a squad of Jewish American soldiers on a mission in occupied France. Their orders: “to kill Nat-sees,” in the words of the hillbilly guerilla Raine. Also to scalp, scar, disfigure, and strike fear in the hearts and minds of the German army. If you’ve seen the commercials you might expect two hours of brutality (and the casting of Hostel director Eli Roth certainly primes such expectations) but this crew doesn’t even appear until the second of Tarantino’s five chapters. And for all the barbarism perpetrated by this Kosher Dozen – and there is plenty of shootings, scalpings, beatings, carved flesh and a conflagration that makes the end of “The Dirty Dozen” look like a precision strike – Tarantino has a way of letting you think you see more than he actually shows onscreen.
The movie belongs as much to Melanie Laurent’s Shosanna Dreyfus, a French Jew who escapes the SS and creates a new identity running (what else?) a movie theater in Paris, and Christoph Waltz’s cool, cultured, deliciously devious SS officer Col. Hans Landa, aka “The Jew Hunter.” Their fates are intertwined from the opening chapter to the closing, but Tarantino isn’t so obvious as to deliver the expected poetic justice. His is most unexpected and all the more entertaining for it.
Tarantino has become a more cinematically attentive director through the years. Once at his best breaking the story into one-on-one dialogue showdowns, he’s learned how to sweep up audiences in elegantly choreographed sequences of performers in complex formations, gliding cameras and dramatic musical choices. And he creates some of the most hauntingly beautiful and terrible images I’ve seen on the screen in the chaos of the climax: orange and yellow flames devouring the black-and-white image on a theater screen, the image reforming on the billowing smoke like a phantom cackling over the destruction. Cinematographer Robert Richardson gives Tarantino’s images and compositions a crispness and precision unseen in his previous films.
Mostly, though, Tarantino is a damnably good screenwriter, a man who loves dialogue, words, the action of shifting positions of power as knowledge is exchanged in conversations that are rarely about what is being said. And Tarantino has a discovery Christoph Waltz, a veteran of German TV making an international breakout here. Waltz creates a character of daunting confidence in Landa, a man who leaves threats implied under rituals of manners and deference, an elaborate show of power communicated by his control of every situation. Watching him string out his “conversation” with an intimidated French farmer in the opening scene, dangling his lures in front of the man before he makes clear his endgame, is as thrilling as any action scene. He’s a great character, the smartest and most devious guy in the room, loyal to the Reich only so far as it serves his ambitions.
While you can’t really call Tarantino an actor’s director (Pitt is a very entertaining caricature but little else, grinning his way through the film with a perpetual squint and a clenched jaw), he does offer opportunities for dynamic performances and deft byplay with his writing. The cast meets it with theatrical flourish: Diane Kruger plays German movie star and double agent Bridget von Hammersmark as an absolutely fabulous celebrity whose flamboyance is part of her cover, Laurent is hard and fierce as Shosanna, turning her fears into ferocious anger, Michael Fassbender a crisply profession British officer with grit under his old chap joviality. The tone continually shifts from chapter to chapter, even scene to scene,. Tarantino likes to inject a little dark humor in a scene where the stakes are fatal, but he also knows when to resist humor and wrench up the tension in a battle of wills.
This is a fantasy of a war movie, a dark revenge fantasy where the bad guys put on a front of cultured sophistication and good manners, the good guys commit barbaric acts, the heroes don’t always get out alive and the historical record is thrown out the window in a brazen blast so audacious and impertinent it defies all reason. Which is part of the fun. Whether or not that’s an appropriate approach to a war film has become something of a debate in the wake of the film’s showing at Cannes, but that’s another discussion. Tarantino isn’t about saving Private Ryan. He’s having too much fun concocting the ultimate war movie/caper/thriller.
Directed and written by Quentin Tarantino; featuring Brad Pitt, Melanie Laurent, Christoph Waltz, Michael Fassbender, Diane Kruger, Daniel Bruhl, Eli Roth, Til Schweiger. R for strong graphic violence, language and brief sexuality. 152 minutes. Officially opens Friday, August 21 at area theaters, which means just after Thursday midnight in select theaters.