As far as I’m concerned, until someone discovers a lost film by Alfred Hitchcock, the release of a new movie by Quentin Tarantino is just about the most important cinematic event there is. After years of anticipation, Inglourious Basterds finally opened on August 21, and after trying for an entire week to find someone to go with me, I finally went last Sunday with my son David and daughter-in-law Natalie.
Despite all the inevitable hype, “Basterds” did not disappoint. Tarantino receives uniformly excellent performances from his principal actors. Brad Pitt’s performance as 1st Lieutenant Aldo Raine, though one-dimensional, is both credible and enjoyable. Diane Kruger as Bridget von Hammersmark and Mélanie Laurent as Shoshanna both give performances of consummate range, depth, and emotional resonance. Finally, Christoph Waltz is outstanding as Standartenführer Hans Landa, and fully deserved the Best Actor award he received at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival.
This is not a great film, but it overflows with great moments. It features all of the elements that we have come to expect from Tarantino: a compelling story, exceptional casting and acting, two (!) Mexican standoffs, and Tarantino’s uncanny ear for dialogue. If he doesn’t receive an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay, then the Academy Awards are even more of a travesty than we thought. In short, Inglourious Basterds is gripping from beginning to end. Be sure to go to the bathroom before you sit down, because once seated, you won’t want to leave.
With so much going for it, why isn’t this a great movie? There are three reasons: First, the main protagonist, Aldo Raine, is someone we cannot, and would not want to identify with. Despite his hillbilly charm, he is essentially an amoral sadist with no discernible capacity for thought or introspection. Compare him and his campaign of terror with Fredrick Zoller, the German war hero haunted by his experiences, who cannot bear to watch the climax of the propaganda film made to honor his own exploits.
Second, unlike Tarantino’s other movies, in which the violence is always integral to the story, some of the violence in “Basterds” is there primarily for its shock value. Not all, certainly, but to the extent that it is, the movie is weaker for it.
Third, a great movie depends on a great story, and in Inglourious Basterds, the one potentially great story – that of Shoshanna’s revenge – must compete for time and attention with the tale of the Basterds, a small cadre of Jewish-American soldiers whose sole reason for being is the slaughter and terrorizing of Nazis. Hardly an auspicious premise.
These objections notwithstanding, Inglourious Basterds is a must-see for any Quentin Tarantino aficionado, and should appeal to anyone who likes action flicks, World War II movies, or Brad Pitt. If, however, you are upset by graphic scenes of violence, you should probably pass on this one.