As we make our way into the preseason of Oscar-film-contention madness, we find a truly remarkable gem and possibly an early front-runner for the coveted Best Picture award in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. Whether Tarantino takes home the coveted eight and a half pound man next spring will remain to be seen, but what is clearly evident after moments into the film is that this is an entirely new, more sophisticated, grown-up (if you will) version of his signature cinematic style that has further solidified his indelible mark in celluloid history.
Inglourious Basterds is a soon-to-be classic war film that mystifies audiences with brilliant acting, writing, social commentary, and a rendering of history and war as only Tarantino himself could deliver. The film, set during the German occupation of France prior to the D-Day liberation offensive, immediately captures audiences with an immersing, atmospheric exposition that is spellbinding, exciting, and utterly enjoyable to watch. Gone is the kitsch appeal and slick, self-aware, impossibly-hip dialogue that Tarantino has trademarked with films like Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and the Kill Bill movies. In fact, besides the opening title card that denotes the first “chapter” of the film, and his signature tromploi camera angles, one would hardly know he or she was watching one of his films.
Enter the villain–or more realistically the unexpected antihero of all antiheroes–S.S. Col. Hans Landa played brilliantly, enigmatically, and acutely by scene-stealing Austrian actor, Christoph Waltz (to say that his performance is inspired and divine is the grossest understatement of the year). Wasting no time at all, Tarantino thrusts the viewer into 1940’s, occupied France and masterfully introduces the two characters whose very different, albeit intertwining lives compel and unite the film’s distinctive and varied storylines (in true Tarantino tradition). Then, just as the viewer is comfortably locked into watching only a slightly-less reverent rendering of World War II Nazi imposition than say Schindler’s List or films of its ilk, Tarantino fires the first of many curveballs that sets his film apart from classic war film renderings.
A weathered and scarred Brad Pitt arrives on the scene with his miscreant band of spaghetti-western style vigilantes, the Basterds, who recall and pay homage to: the Steve McQueen (The Great Escape) and Lee Marvin (the Dirty Dozen) action/war films that set the bar for war-grunt banter and badass, almost super-human heroics in films of the genre; Shakespearean foils who offer comedic relief in bouts of absurd tragedy; and the classical, Greek choragus, who, with insights of wisdom, narration, or commentary would propel the story line. Throw in a few Tarantino stylistic non sequiturs, a couple of voiceover cameos from Tarantino regulars, Harvey Keitel and Samuel L. Jackson, a little (by his standards) gun play, and the viewer is instantly, yet seamlessly, transported into a new, but familiar kind of film. From the Basterds’ arrival onscreen, it is evident that while this film pulls from the pages of history, all bets are off; and the predictability factor is left to rot back in the first chapter, along with the reverence once given to the subject matter.
Banking on his own renown as a writer, director, and notoriously-eclectic pioneer of almost-indie filmmaking, Tarantino then skillfully weaves a new web in wartime film epics, subtly reminding the viewer that war makes every person it touches an inglourious basterd. He dutifully does so while delivering action, intrigue, and clever, sophisticated dialogue (in several languages) and characters. With no clear distinction between saints and sinners; friends and foes; heroes and villains, he discreetly poses questions of morality, loyalty, and retribution–all too familiar themes from Tarantino, but this time rendered more subliminally and more sublimely than ever before.
This film, with its international cast and multilingual script, is the voice of the current generation and its lackadaisically scathing view of war; an homage to the films and history that spoke to, admonished, or compelled/inspired generations before it; and an homage to the art of film itself, which has been, since its incarnation (and will continue to be) the social conscience of the inglourious basterds who make films…and of those who watch them.
Cut and Reel says: REEL