(SPOILER GENERAL’S WARNING: I wish I had gone in knowing less, so you probaly shouldn’t read this before seeing the movie. To be safe though I’ll try to be vague.)
You always kind of know what you’re gonna get with Tarantino, and yet, you never know what you’re gonna get with Tarantino. Every movie he’s made after PULP FICTION seems to throw people for a loop at first. Why isn’t JACKIE BROWN more like PULP FICTION? Why isn’t KILL BILL more serious, like JACKIE BROWN? Why is KILL BILL VOLUME 2 all this character and shit instead of all the killing like part 1? Why does he take so long to make his movies, what an asshole. Why did he make DEATH PROOF as a quickie just-for-fun movie, what an asshole.
I don’t know what the conventional wisdom will be on this one, but the advertising is definitely gonna mislead some people. They try to act like it’s gonna be a bloody, nihilistic action movie, but the electric guitars and blood splatters are liars. It has a couple scenes of ultra-violence but even more than any Tarantino movie except maybe RESERVOIR DOGS this is a movie all about long conversations. In a way it kind of reminds me of Jim Jarmusch’s challengingly uneventful THE LIMITS OF CONTROL. It’s not as deliberately repetitive, as minimalistic or as strict about its structure, but it is mostly built out of a series of conversations that repeat the same motifs. In almost every scene there’s one party trying to hide a secret, like that they’re a double agent, that they’re not the nationality they say they are, or the location of the other troops. And the other party engages them in a long conversation, pretending to be friendly, trying to draw out information to be sure of their suspicions, or trying to convince the other party to do what they want. And usually the secret is revealed and some violence happens.
The characters are always proud to know that their reputations precede them, but they still want to listen to their own legends. I assume you’ve heard about me? Yes, of course I’ve heard about you. What have you heard about me?
Meanwhile there’s a plot in the works, a slow, almost DePalmian build toward a secret operation that if successful would mean some very satisfying Jewish revenge against their Nazi oppressors. And Tarantino has the balls or poor taste to go much further into exploitation than any other American World War II movie. So it’s a slow slog but with a nice warm bath at the end. (note to self replace analogy with good one)
I also thought a few times of Spike Lee’s MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA, which is not very similar either but it’s another case of a director with a distinct, idiosyncratic style that I’m surprised to see applied to a WWII movie all the sudden. In Tarantino’s 1941 you still get pop culture references, but instead of FRIDAY FOSTER they talk about MATA HARI, and there’s alot of G.W. Pabst references. I’m not joking. But believe it or not it’s all very organic. The assassination plot takes place at the premiere of a German propaganda film, so some of the main characters include a theater owner, some actors and Joseph Goebels (portrayed like a Hollywood studio honcho). In one scene a soldier who is also a film critic briefs Winston Churchill on German film movements.
In fact, the fake and the pretend seems to be one of the main themes of the movie. People pretending to be on the other team, pretending not to be Jewish, pretending to be different nationalities, playing a game where they pretend to be a famous person, actors playing roles, real people acting as themselves in a propaganda film which is a fake version of his true story (true within BASTERDS, but not in the real world), BASTERDS itself being a propaganda movie with a fake version of history… Pitt’s character Aldo has to pretend a few times, but he’s not very good at it. He doesn’t like it. One of his obsessions is making sure that Nazis can’t just take off their uniform and pretend not to be Nazis.
Taking place in France, with plenty of subtitled French and German dialogue, and with the historical context, BASTERDS has a bit of a European arthouse feel. But Tarantino doesn’t seem to feel at all restrained stylistically. He still recycles Ennio Morricone cues (and Lalo Schifrin and others), he has chapter titles like in KILL BILL, some goofy hand-written captions now and then, some blaxploitation freeze frame character introductions, a montage set to a David Bowie song (which made people laugh when I saw it), even a celebrity third person omniscient narrator. These seem like occasional indulgences though, not a constant barrage like NATURAL BORN KILLERS or CRANK or something, so they’re kind of charming. Usually WWII movies try to be so reverential. This movie’s pretty funny.
Tarantino misled people about the movie with all those years talking about it being “my men-on-a-mission movie.” I think it must’ve evolved as he was writing it, because it’s not anything like THE DIRTY DOZEN or the original correctly spelled INGLORIOUS BASTARDS. The Basterds aren’t even really a team of badasses. I guess Pitt is playing tough, and Eli Roth (who does surprisingly fine in his role) put on some muscle. For most of the other guys they just cast weiners. The only guy that seems genuinely tough is Hugo, played by Til Schweiger. He has a great introduction but doesn’t do much after that.
The Basterds are also only inglorious to their Nazi foes, they’re not outcasts from their own side like in those other two movies I just mentioned. Unless maybe we just didn’t get their backstory. Aldo does have a scar on his neck, maybe he was facing execution. Anyway, the Basterds are only one component of the movie, they’re on screen maybe half of the movie. There’s alot of other stuff going on.
The most memorable character and performance is definitely Christoph Waltz as the lead villain, Hans Landa. He’s a classic villain, a murderous Nazi with the job of tracking down Jews hiding in France, who fancies himself a master detective. He’s an unusual portrayal of a Nazi because he’s a goofball, a dork. You want to laugh at him but you know how dangerous he is. He plays with his victims by pretending to be friendly, but not in that usual “I’m saying friendly things but you know I’m really threatening you” kind of villainous way. He makes it so you almost believe him – maybe he really doesn’t know? And sometimes he doesn’t.
Tarantino takes full advantage of the ultimate bad guy status of Nazis. By definition Nazis are horrible people. Any other group, you’re gonna feel kind of bad seeing them beat to death with a baseball bat, maybe they don’t deserve it. Not so much with a Nazi. This Landa guy, he’s infuriating because he doesn’t seem as hateful as your usual movie Nazi. He’s almost worse because he seems like he just found something that he’s good at and sees no reason why he shouldn’t choose that as his vocation. He’s playing a game, he has no idea that he’s the bad guy. And you wish you could fucking convince him.
But still, they’re human beings, that’s the weird part. There’s another major Nazi character who, from what you see on screen, is mostly a nice guy. And when SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER THIS IS THE BIG ONE a crowd of unarmed Nazis are running in panic while being machine gunned it really messed with my emotions. My face smiled but my brain thought oh Jesus, they’re scurrying around like rats. That’s harsh.
Tarantino is both renowned and notorious for his dialogue. Sometimes maybe he goes overboard. I think there’s more going on in the conversations in DEATH PROOF than some people give it credit for, but he does get excessive there. BASTERDS I think must have his most precise use of dialogue. The conversations are the movie, they’re the characters, they’re the suspense, they’re the action (most of it). I mentioned DePalma before – think of the bucket of pig’s blood in CARRIE, the way he draws that scene out in slow motion. You know what it’s leading up to, but you have to watch it go down veeeeeeerrrry slowly, all the pieces coming together, all the people who are there, the looks on their faces, the bucket, the rope, who sees the bucket, who tries to stop the bucket, Carrie doesn’t see the bucket… the grueling wait is the beauty of it. Tarantino’s BASTERDS conversations are the same way. You know what the secret is. You know that the one side is probaly gonna figure out the secret. And you’re gonna have to sit there as they slowly pull it out in conversation, word by word. It’s a bunch of individual scenes of suspense that seem somewhat disconnected until you find yourself at the climax, all the characters are there, are the plans are in motion, and you’re wondering how this is all gonna come to a head.
A NOTE TO THE INTERNET:
I don’t want to lecture anybody, but I just want to say that I wish the internet hadn’t covered this movie the way they did. Before the movie was made the script got leaked and everybody from Ain’t It Cool, Chud etc. couldn’t restrain themselves from reading it. I didn’t read their reviews because I didn’t want to know anything. But I still couldn’t avoid the spoilers because they all had to constantly drop the names and nicknames of the characters, the name and significance of a film-within-the-film, and all that kind of shit. If there was a story about Brad Pitt they had to drop in “who plays X in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, nicknamed Y because of Q.”
Yeah, we get it, you’re on the inside, you’re in the know, you’re ahead of the curve, whooptee fuckin doo. If it was “the watchmen” and everybody read the comic already then yes, you can show off that you know who Dr. Manhattan is. But I purposely didn’t read any spoilers and still knew the names of every fuckin character. It felt like going to see THE LION KING on the first day and all the kids say “Simba!” at the first sight of a lion. Man, can’t I just see the thing and find out for myself?
And there’s a pretty unusual thing Tarantino does in the movie, I’m sure it has been spoiled by many sources but for me it was spoiled before the god damn thing was filmed by somebody writing that he wouldn’t want to give anything away, but let’s just say (then goes on to make it very clear what happens but then pretend he didn’t ruin it for you because he didn’t say it in so many words). And as much as I enjoyed the movie it would’ve been much better if I watched it not knowing where it was going.
So, thanks alot, fellas.
WRAPPING THIS SHIT UP:
In case you don’t know already, I should say that my record of enjoying Tarantino-directed movies is unblemished. I love all of them – yes, even DEATH PROOF (although I think it’s his weakest). I’m not sure if I have a favorite, but the KILL BILLs (and especially part 2) are my most rewatched and beloved movies of the 2000s so far. So if you’re one of the people who hates some of his movies you can mathematically divide my praise of this movie by the number of Tarantino movies I like that you don’t like in order to get the probably level of enjoyment you’ll get out of this. I think that’s the equation.
Walking out of the theater my instinct was that BASTERDS was great, but low on my list of Tarantino favorites, maybe just above DEATH PROOF. It hit me, but I don’t think it hit me as hard as his other ones did the first time I saw them.
My complaints are all minor. Brad Pitt is really funny in the movie and gives a good physical performance, so I’m not complaining too much, but I don’t think it’s as good as the casting Tarantino usually does. I was always very conscious of it being Brad Pitt doing a funny accent and a funny face and acting tough. Most of the great Tarantino characters are more natural than that, not as much of a broad comedy character. I think it could’ve been even better with an actual (or more naturalistic) Southern tough guy in the role.
I also don’t at all get the casting of Mike Meyers. It’s a small part and he does fine but there’s no way to not think “that’s Mike Meyers” the entire time he’s on screen. It’s not shocking or anything, just distracting, kind of confusing. What is the point? The scene would work better if it was a generic British character actor.
Also, some of this is not historically accurate in my opinion. And I believe some of the spelling in the title could have been improved if he hadn’t been rushing to get it ready in time for Cannes.
But you know, those are the things I could quibble with, the list of the things I loved would take me a while. It’s like criticizing an ice cream flavor or something. Saying it’s a lesser ice cream is not saying it’s not delicious. I just don’t like it as much as the Snoqualmie Ginger, the Ben and Jerry’s Creme Brulee or the Haagen-Dazs Caramelized Pear and Toasted Pecan. (Don’t worry, that’s an analogy and not product placement, although if you are an ice cream manufacturer willing to pay me money to mention ice cream flavors in movie reviews please drop me a line).
That’s what I was thinking as I left the theater. But then I started thinking back to the beginning of the movie, the first dramatic scene with the man trying to bravely stare down and wait out Hans Landa, and I just wanted to go right back and watch the movie again. I have a feeling I’ll end up re-watching this movie every couple years or so, and whatever my misgivings about the casting probaly won’t even occur to me anymore, and there will either be something else that bothers me or something I love that I haven’t even noticed yet. We’ll see.
I’ve already noticed that like DISTRICT 9 last week I liked the movie but then gained more respect for it as I started to write about it. Because the more I think about it the more I see going on beneath the surface. With these two movies coming out now at the end of August it looks like the summer movie season is finally kicking off. Should be a good one!
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.