Review: Inglourious Basterds (2009)

Why should one feel nervous recommending a movie about Nazis getting payback for the injustice they so cruelly dished out? Perhaps because like torturing suspected terrorists, the result does not leave you feeling like you’ve extracted retribution, but makes you feel your kind is also fundamentally flawed. Such a premise does give a director known for his love of cinematic gore plenty of reason to practice his craft. As both the writer and director of Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino gets to have it his way, and the result is lots of inhumanity toward people in general (but mostly Nazis and one unfortunate Jewish family), macabre humor, wisecracking soldiers, and the chance to see a fantasy about the fall of the Third Reich with some pretty good acting.

The Basterds are an Allied commando unit dropped behind enemy lines in France, led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) and a dozen or so ruthless Jewish soldiers out not just to kill Nazis but when possible torture them first. The Basterds crave a reputation for ruthlessness so the Nazis will feel afraid, and they quickly establish their reputation. Like a cat playing with a mouse before killing it, the Basterds like to torture then kill their opponents, principally through scalping them like Injuns, a horrifying practice rendered many times live on the screen by Tarantino’s makeup artists. I know in my case that imagination alone would have sufficed but what’s the point in paying ten bucks for a Tarantino movie if you don’t get your violence quota?

Lt. Raine comes from the backwoods of Tennessee where he must have practiced torture on small animals and fellow hillbillies, because he has a knack for being cruel yet humorous at the same time. His set of Jewish basterds is a grim, swarthy and dark-faced lot. Their reputation quickly precedes them and even gets the attention of the Fuhrer himself (played by Martin Wuttke), who naturally wants them captured, tortured and killed.

I hate to say that a movie with such premises has redeeming qualities, but it does have a cast of quirky characters and its otherwise interesting directing that makes the story reasonably engaging and semi-plausible. These include Mélanie Laurent as Shosanna, who at the start of the movie we see escaping from a farmhouse where a sympathetic French family is sheltering her Jewish family. Colonel Hans Landa of the SS (Christoph Waltz) caused the rest of her family to die a grisly death and shows up many years later in Paris where Shosanna now runs a movie theater. Shosanna is being pursued against her will by Sgt. Donny Donowitz (Eli Roth), a Nazi soldier who while in a guard tower somehow singlehandedly gunned down hundreds of Allied soldiers over a three-day battle. His story gets made into a movie starring him. Shosanna becomes the unwilling host of its premier in Paris, which gets attended by all the top leaders of the Third Reich. Both Shosanna and the Inglourious Basterds see this as an opportunity to bring the Second World War to a quick end. In a classic Tarantino ending we get to live through this alternate version of reality. Rest assured the director will leave lots of room for people dying in slow motion.

Tarantino may be a grisly director, but he is a good one. Brad Pitt gets to stretch as an actor, even if his character is one-dimensional. Some of the characters grate, some feel more like stereotypes than characters, but most are compelling. These include not only Laurent as Shosanna, but also Diane Kruger as Bridget von Hammersmark and Julie Dreyfus as Joseph Goebbel’s translator Francesca Mondino. Many parts of the climactic scene strain credibility but do make for a more satisfying ending.

So despite its grisly scenes, the two and a half hours will pass quickly and you are likely to feel entertained by a well directed and well realized World War Two fairy tale. Some parts are humorous, such as Lt. Raine pretending to be Italian. That alone would have roused the suspicion of any Nazi that something was up. There are many plot points like this you had best ignore in your quest for seeing some measure of justice inflicted on the leaders of a cruel empire. Tarantino’s camera has an eye for the unusual, such as its focus on a cream filled tart in a Parisian café, that add spice to a kind of strange war movie.

Ignore the many large plot holes and surrender to this grisly tale, if you have the stomach for it. For a World War Two fantasy, it is good fantasy. Your queasy stomach might want a refund, but the part of your brain that appreciates a well-executed movie will find many things to admire about the movie.

3.3 on my four-point scale.

[xrr rating=3.3/4]

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