Sunday, August 23, 2009

Quentin Tarantino is a 'Basterd'

This weekend Quentin Tarantino released his long awaited film Inglourious Basterds, starring Brad Pitt, Diane Kruger, and Christoph Waltz. Tarantino has been working on this film, in one form or another, for a decade. The script has gone through multiple incarnations, at one point so long it could have been filmed as a trilogy. Tarantino admittedly struggled with finding a way to end the story, set in Nazi occupied France during World War II, but he kept working on the script between doing other projects and vowed to one day release what he hoped would be his epic masterpiece.
The final product, after all the anticipation, certainly is epic, clocking in at 149 minutes, but whether or not it's a masterpiece isn't quite as certain. The film is about a group of Jewish-American soldiers who are dropped into occupied France in order to wreak havoc behind enemy lines before the rest of the Allied military makes its main assualt inland. Tarantino is a difficult director to evaluate objectively. His films are uniquely his own, despite the fact that he borrows so much from his various inspirations. This is the contradiction that is Quentin Tarantino. He is a well known lover of "genre cinema" which is a way of saying that he has spent a lot of time watching B-movies designed purposely to fit within the conventions of a specific genre, and these films directly influence his work. Some would say he outright steals from them.

However, there really isn't anyone out there quite like him, which says a lot in an industry that often stifles creativity and individuality. Tarantino writes and directs his own material and his films are just popular enough to get his budgets approved (Basterds cost $70 million), so he's in the rare position to do literally whatever he wants. And he does, even if that means purposely misspelling both words in the title.

Inglourious Basterds is vintage Tarantino, most distinctively showcased through his habit of utilizing split narratives, chapters, and extended sequences of dialogue that slowly build tension, punctuated by quick bursts of action. From the very beginning, he has formatted his films as if they were novels, presenting something familiar from an unfamiliar angle, and he sticks firmly to that here. Back in 1992 he broke onto the scene with Reservoir Dogs, a heist film that never shows the heist, and now Tarantino has directed a War film without the war. The first time the audience meets "the basterds" in action they have already killed an entire squad of Nazi soldiers and are now trying to get information from one of the three left alive.

But Tarantino's narrative sensibilities are as much a curse as they are a blessing. While it's refreshing to see material from an atypical point of view, sometimes the film gets bogged down in upholding some of his cheesier conventions. Things like putting text on screen to introduce characters and quick flashbacks to give background information, often in a humorous context, might be crowd pleasers, but they keep the film from becoming truly great because it takes credibility away from the otherwise serious nature of the story. Tarantino has created a film that perfectly highlights his personal contradiction. Is it serious or is it a joke?

Inglourious Basterds has some truly brilliant moments. The opening sequence at the dairy farm and the rendezvous at the tavern are two of the best scenes in any film so far this year, and the acting is excellent all around, especially from Christoph Waltz as "The Jew Hunter," the personification of Nazi evil. Brad Pitt also turned in a performance that is sure to become iconic over time and Diane Kruger has proven herself to be more than just a pretty face. French actress Melanie Laurent also turned in a strong performance holding together the emotional center of the film.
In the end, the audience has to make a simple choice. You can be continually disappointed that Tarantino will probably never make an entirely serious film without incorporating some element of parody or homage to genre cinema, or you can choose to accept him for who he is and appreciate his rare skill as a writer and his ability to show us a side of storytelling otherwise unavailable in the mainstream. It's up to you.

Inglourious Basterds (2009) 9/10


  1. Well, we have similar feelings, but you liked it a bit better than I did. I just found his "look at me" tendency to put the text on the screen and things like that to be of Tony Scott level hackitude. It's still great because of so many things, especially the two sequences you mentioned (my favorites in the movie too), but I'm totally with you that it's Tarantino that makes it so great, but also keeps it from greatness.

  2. Good review. It seems we largely saw the same things but disagreed as to their quality. Tarantino clearly had the ambition of making a war movie in the style of Pulp Fiction, but IMO he just made a mess where the component parts have little or no relation to each other.