Letterboxd Review: Inglorious Basterds (2009)

It's a rare piece of pop culture that can make the outcome of World War II uncertain and thrilling in 2009. It's a precious artifact of film that several main characters are Nazis and SS officers with the reputation of supervillains (even among their own ilk), and yet they are nuanced and compelling. And it's a one-in-a-million triumph that so many flocked to the cinema to see handsome Brad Pitt lead a group of impossibly heroic and completely fictitious Americans to save Europe, only to be confronted by unmarketable, un-heroic, and unfriendly violence. I read the film this way: there's nothing charming, clever, or particularly noble about picking up a big stick and slamming it headlong into the atrocities committed by the ultimate evil. It's not meant to be glorious, just necessary.

I should probably talk more about the film. It's a two and a half hour study in various forms of narrative tension. Each chapter, as the movie segments its interconnected stories, is a different variation on the same theme: the human reaction to intimate contact with that which disgusts you. From Colonel Landa's seemingly amicable interrogation of the farmer Lapatite, the Basterds and their prisoners, Shoshanna's lunch with Zoller, Goebbels, and the SS, and the impromptu barroom conversation between Operation Kino agents and the Nazi revelers, we see how every character--however small and inconsequential to the climax of the story--responds to the people they are forced to interact with. Even the negotiations between Landa and Pitt's Lt. Aldo Rain have a sneering disdain from both sides. When the tension of these interactions boils over into Tarantino's trademark wild, somewhat cartoonish violence, it's not the main attraction. It's merely the result.

Strangely, a movie with such palpable hate and fear and rage and disgust as a thematic backdrop still manages to indulge in Tarantino's other trademark: really snappy and funny dialogue that appropriates the absurdity of mundane conversation. Stylized though his characters always are, the screenwriting instinct to make their over-the-top diction (Pitt's cowboy-like American, Christoph Waltz's bemused detective act, and even Mike Meyers in a startlingly weird cameo as, ironically, the most British Brit who ever did anglicize) pair with a brazen, dismissive syntax is always more interesting than it is realistic.

Visually, it's a great treat to watch Tarantino play with the coloring and cinematography of a classy war picture and twist it to his own sensibilities. The spaghetti western influences and "chop suey" genre editing smack an audience across the face and jump-start the pacing of what could have easily been one long-ass movie. It's also worth noting how much fun the filmmaker must have had with the costuming, highlighting just how theatrical and clownishly absurd Nazi uniforms could look in the right context, say Hitler himself in a giant red cape and magician's white gloves while pitching a toddler's fit over ...I don't know, how Jewish those rascally American guerrilla fighters are.

Tarantino himself writes right into the final line of the film, "This might just be my masterpiece." And I think he might be right. It's a film that takes the naughty, violent fun of Pulp Fiction and merges it with the breathless, choking tension of Reservoir Dogs, while still providing the visual feast and technical mastery of Kill Bill. And it even manages to throw in some of the patented Tarantino film nerd bona fides. All in one movie. Plus, you know, you get to watch Nazis get the ever-loving shit beaten, sliced, shot, and blown out of them.

This review was originally posted at Kyle's Letterboxd page. Follow him there for movie reviews and lists as well as some sneak peeks of Cinema Autopsy, his bad movie essay book available soon.
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