by Sam Juliano
Sophomoric. Sadistic. Racist. Long-winded. Repugnant. Repetitive. Lacking in depth. Quentin Tarantino’s two-and-a-half hour epic about a squad of Jewish-American commandos and a French Jew out to avenge the murder of her family at the hands of the Nazis is a serious-minded treatise that gives fleeting concern to black comedy, and showcases some of the director’s most tedious passages of his career. Inglourious Basterds, which won’t have Tarantino winning any spelling bees, turns potentially furtive material into an endurance test, while simultaneously showcasing some of the most repellent imagery seen in the auteur’s canon, at least since the police officer had his ear carved off in Reservoir Dogs. With the exception of a hair-raising burning theatre climax that attempts (but fails) to bring together scattered plot elements from four previous “chapters” Tarantino opts to bypass the rich possibilities in Third Reich satire, instead focusing on scalpings, gougings, chokings and mass slaughter, which in large measure are given Kill Bill- styled operatic treatment.
The film opens on a most promising note with its strongest sequence set in a farmhouse where a mortified Frenchman is forced into admitting he has hidden a Jewish family under the floor boards. Ever the astute cinephile, Tarantino emulates the suspense-laden spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone, replete with Ennio Morricone’s music, in setting the stage for a mass-slaughter under the caption ‘Once Upon A Time’ in case any one of us forget who he’s essaying. In this one scene the dialogue, spoken in two languages is nail-biting, combining comic levity with ominous realization. The Austrian actor Christoph Waltz, who delivers the film’s best performance, carries the scene with his flawless linguistics and charismatic demeanor. The Jewish woman who escapes the carnage to flee into the countryside, later appears as the owner of a small Parisian cinema in the film’s third chapter. The theatre is used by Joseph Goebbels to premiere his most recent propaganda film. The now glamourous woman, Shosanna, is stalked by a young Nazi sharp shooter named Zoller (who is the star being featured in the Goebbels film for his killing of hundreds of Allied troops in a three-day siege) but she resists his advances and rather inevitably meets up with the Colonel (Waltz) who slaughtered her family in the farm house and who is now in charge of security. Again, predictably, the woman plots to undermine the big gala, a celebration where top-flight Nazis are due to attend.
At this point, we have already made the acquaintance of the ‘inglourious basterds,’ a band of Jewish soldiers out to torture and terrorise Germans in occupied France. The hillbilly Lt. Aldo Raine, played most engagingly, if one-note, by Brad Pitt is the leader, and in an introduction to their methods and are regaled with some repugnant scenes of scalpings and baseball bat attacks, the former accentuated by a most revolting sound design that captures every ripping cut. Tarantino makes no bones about it in his screenplay that asserts that every German was a Jew hater, and earned the most brutal retribution imaginable, yet in these scenes he strives for humor, which largely backfires. Pitt is also features in one nauseatingly repellent scene where the Lt. tortures a woman by sticking his finger into a bullet wound.
The dullest scene, unsurprisingly, is the one with British soldier and former film critic Michael Fassbender, who with an officer (Mike Myers) and Churchill (Rod Taylor) are conspiring to add further chaos to the opening night proceedings. The tense scene in the underground bar ends with a trademark Tarantino coda involving a Mexican stand-off and an all-out massacre. Of course the destruction of the theatre, where Tarantino gets to play Hitler himself, as hundreds of people are burned alive after the Fuhrer’s elation at the killing of Western soldiers documented in the film, is Tarantino in remorseless mode.
But despite the often dazzling filmmaking technique and a fair share of witty dialogue, Inglorious Basterds never quite comes together, and the individual sequences are like short films, with none necessarily having much to do with the one before or after, regardless of recurring characters. Without any cohesion, the film becomes distancing, even if the off-putting grotesqueries further eroded any emotional connection to the material. The fact that there is not a single likable character in the film pretty much sums the entire enterprise up. And that Tarantino has succeeded in making the Nazi hunters more despicable than their pray is no small achivement. This rambling train wreck of a movie of cinematic influences and stand alone set pieces never comes together and the result is a film that won’t leave any kind of a mark on revisionist history, nor on the cinematic landscape.
Rating: * * 1/2 (of 5)
Note: I saw ‘Inglourious Basterds’ on Friday afternoon at the Edgewater multiplex with Lucille, Sammy and Danny, and then a second time on Tuesday night at the Ridgefield multiplex with Dennis and the two boys again. Lucille and Dennis were on the same page with me as to its ultimate worth.