Quentin Tarantino directs Christoph Waltz, Mélanie Laurent and Brad Pitt in this WWII set mission movie where a Nazi colonel with a talent for detecting deception finds himself caught in a web of intrigue between a bushwacking Special Service Forces unit, a beautiful Jewish cinema owner and some of Germany’s biggest movie stars.
Basterds ends with the line “I think this might just be my masterpiece”. Brad Pitt has just carved a swastika into a Nazi scalp. So that after the war the Nazi cannot pretend he wasn’t who he was. And that’s what the film is about – people pretending to be what they aren’t. Jewish runaways are hiding in plain sight in Paris. Glamorous German film stars are double agents. Monotone milk farmers are hiding families in their cellar with poker faced calmness. Enlisted British film critics are hiding their plummy accent behind perfect Deutsch (even if the accent is a little funny). Decorated war heroes use charm and attentiveness to mask their cruel sexual appetites. And an American war killer, without two words of foreign to rub together, pretends to be an Italian stuntman at a cosmopolitan movie premiere. “GOR-LARRR-MIII!” Basterds is about being caught out not being who you are in a series of drawn out, loose yet tense interactions. QT achieves that goal. But it ain’t a masterpiece. Certainly not his.
What was sold to us as Tarantino and Brad Pitt do the Dirty Dozen has minimal war action. Like Reservoir Dogs was a heist film without the heist this is the war film without the war. And while I respect Dogs and appreciate its fine (game-changing) writing, it isn’t a favourite of mine… neither is this. This is a half dozen little Reservoir Dogs, in that each chapter resolves around one character figuring out who ‘the rat’ is amongst them? Kill Bill-style grand introductions, making every character an icon… followed by an elongated verbal spar where small talk, threat and misdirection is used to sift out the truth from unbalanced, trapped liars. Times five.
Most obvious of these is the La Louisiane Tavern sequence where bit players actually play that game of “Who Am I?”, only for key players to play the game for reals within the pouring of another round of drinks. Michael Fassbender is superb in this sequence as a man suavely losing his stronghold. It is considered a modern classic but I do wish Tarantino found an elegant way to parachute Christoph Waltz’ Nazi conniver Hans Landa into the mix. Instead we get essentially a different actor playing a similar character playing the same role. The smartest Nazi in the room, a man who convinces you that you have no chance against him and can idle in small talk until you submit the truth to him. The man with a permanent upper hand and cruel wit. To have two Swastika clad antagonists with the same traits knocking about the plot robs the film slightly… and betrays its ragged freewheeling nature.
All Tarantino films are indulgent. Scenes that hang out, shoot the breeze… that flow into each other with novelistic motion rather than a strict cinematic formula. Often this means we can explore a genre with an expansive, character rich fluidity. But with Basterds it just feels a little too…unconnected. A series of fantastic intro sequences but with no idea how to then get directly to its apocalyptic Hitler killing blow-out firesale. The middle hour has characters relay “the plan” to us at length four times with minor variations or revelations. You have the feeling once Quentin has all the pieces in play he doesn’t know what to do with them except shuffle them around the board randomly. He doesn’t want to get to his explosive gambit quite so soon. The Mike Myers & Churchill scene or the veterinary table scene hardly have the same unique, memorable quality as that opening passive aggressive interrogation on the diary farm or Shosanna’s war paint prep to David Bowie (a visual highlight for the talky director). They feel very much like wasteful filler.
Inglorious Basterd repeats itself, gets stuck in a rut… doesn’t deliver near enough Brad Pitt machine gunning the hun. That’s not to say it isn’t rich in character beats. Landa is a tremendous creation… when he arrives in a scene you smell danger for all else involved. Waltz skips gleefully through Tarantino’s writing like a child playing a winning round of hopscotch. A star is born. In a less showy role, Laurent impresses… she’s simmering with anger and revenge yet also proves good at comedy. Her expressive face doing that rarest of rare things, making a quieter creation standout in Quentin’s verbose world. And Brad Pitt, while wasted for much of running time, dazzles as Aldo Raine when given the spotlight. Part John Wayne, part Warren Oates… he’s such a broad, masculine, winning figure that you genuinely feel wobbled when suddenly the tables are turned on him in the final furlong. Inglorious Basterds is a great film, but for a filmmaker of QT’s lofty status to refer to it as his masterpiece just doesn’t past muster.