E: It’s been said before, but the S.S. uniform does most of the work for Christoph Waltz’s Colonel Hans Landa. The so-called Jew Hunter saunters into a small stone house, where a dairy farmer is thought to be harboring his Jewish neighbors. He’s affable, charming. He’s open and pleasant, jovial even. He waxes discursive about the metaphorical relationship between Jews and rats, and the unthinking reactions of Nazis to both. The scene spins on and on, and the tension is unbearable. Your skin crawls. It takes forever.
And that’s Inglourious Basterds. There are sharp bursts of action and odd blips of humor, interspersed between years of drawn out, stomach-churning anxiety. The five chapter narrative structure is nothing like what you think it will be, though the action in many ways is completely predictable. Quentin Tarantino’s latest fantasia – a rewritten history of WW2 nominally about an elite American unit of Jewish Nazi assassins, out to scalp at least a hundred Germans each.
I always think I’m going to like Tarantino more than I do. I get the appeal of his stylized action. He’s clearly very gifted. But oh, the use to which he puts his gift! Sure the opening sequence was impressive, but for the amount of time it took to get through, did it serve the plot? The movie weighs heavily towards the anticipation, the dread of combat, and very little to the combat itself or even the planning of it. It frustrated me enormously that there’s actually very little Robin Hood/guerilla style campaigning against the Nazis. I guess I was expecting the film to be more, I don’t know, Ocean’s Eleven. Instead, there’s not even all that much about the Basterds. Sure, we hear people (like Hitler) talk about them, and we see that they have nicknames, and sometimes we briefly get to see why. It’s all very colorful. But the only thing we really get to see them do is torture folks. We never get to see them plan an operation or carry one out. The little we do see suggests that they’re willing to do whatever it takes – and also, we get some really conflicting information about whether or not they’re morons. And they’re not very good at protecting their friends.
A lot of people get uselessly killed – interesting characters who, in my opinion, could have injected a lot more into the plot alive. We literally spend ten minutes introducing a character only to have him die in a stand off and never get to actually do anything. Not that you feel particularly sorry when most of them die, because you don’t. And the Nazis, surprisingly enough, aren’t demonized as you’d expect them to be. The entire first chapter really goes towards understanding Landa’s style (I’m hesitant to say character, because I’m not sure how consistently I think he’s drawn). And what does it say that a Nazi gets the most character development and screen time in a Nazi-killing movie? The Jew Hunter seems to keep his promises, such as they are. He randomly spares someone for no apparent reason (though he does kill an appealing character with his bare hands) and he genuinely cares about his subordinates. We also see a brave, honorable German officer, and a sweet young father. Of course we get some nasty caricatures, but since those people don’t do much of anything, there isn’t the polarity we’re used to seeing in World War 2 films. That’s generally a good thing, but I really thought the movie would be about some nice butt-kicking, and I need to dislike my villains more for that. It’s not like I was going to enjoy the scalping anyway, but at least I could justify it if the film weren’t consistently portraying the Germans as regular lovely people. If you’re going to demonize the heroes, you ought to at least demonize the villains as well! Even Landa isn’t scary because he’s particularly evil – he’s scary because he’s observant and good at his job.
I was also expecting a heist component to the plot (planning the big show piece, the chance at taking out the German high command at a film premier), and there wasn’t one at all. The film spends far more time playing parlor games (literally) and having stand off before people can actually talk about anything. There were fascinating characters, but I kept wishing the movie spent its time on them, or on the larger plot, or anything other than the tension filled nonsense talk it was doing, genuinely creepy as all that was.
The movie, as you probably know, is a shoo-in for a Best Picture slot, and recently won SAG’s Best Ensemble award. The acting generally is quite fine. Christoph Waltz gets all the press, but I was equally (if not more) impressed with Melanie Laurent as the fiercely controlled Shosanna and Daniel Bruhl as the mercurial, layered Private Frederick Zoller. Bruhl’s work has been consistently overlooked, but Diane Kruger snagged a SAG nod for supporting actress, and Laurent has been lauded by critics, so either of them might sneak into the race officially belonging to Mo’Nique. Waltz, of course, is a lock for a nomination, and the frontrunner for the win. (I have yet to see most of his competitors, so I can’t say whether that would be justified, but I didn’t see anything to compare to Mo’Nique’s astounding power in Precious.) Tarantino will likely garner nominations for directing and for original screenplay; he’s unlikely to win the former, but has a very strong shot at the later. The fantastic period look could be rewarded by a costume nomination, although I’m not a sure a movie so dominated by uniforms should be the recipient of an award for creativity, and can’t be counted out when it comes to cinematography and Art Direction. It’s possible that Inglourious Basterds could sneak into an Avatar/Hurt Locker split and take the big prize, but I certainly hope not. I’m no fan of this one.