This was another incredibly pleasant (if that’s the right word) surprise. I wouldn’t say I’ve exactly gone off Quentin Tarantino as a director but my initial approach to his films has become increasingly apprehensive since Kill Bill. I thought Kill Bill was perfect in every way, but when the Grindhouse thing came along I thought at first, no that’s taking the Kill Bill “thing” too far … though, of course, Death Proof grew on me with subsequent viewings (at the very least, sitting next to Planet Terror as it does, it appears to be some kind of masterpiece …).
Inglourious Basterds seemed like it was going to have even more problems for me as a viewer. The first being – though of course Tarantino has been planning this movie for over a decade – we’ve had two of these Nazi revenge stories very recently in the form of Defiance and Valkyrie so by now the “genre” almost seems old hat. The difference with Tarantino’s version, however, is the highly fictionalised way his story of WWII turns out. That in itself, however, while others whose reviews I read seemed to revel in the delight of seeing that part of history end the way we may all wish it did, really didn’t interest me so much. Call it the first surprise, then, how “into it” I found myself as the explosive finale goes down.
Second was a similar problem to that I expected to have with Valkyrie – and I loved Valkyrie, so I should’ve have been so concerned. It’s really some of the casting that worried me here – seeing actors like Tom Cruise in Valkyrie or Brad Pitt and worse, Eli Roth, here in period costume, especially in this stylised, fictionalised version of the time, really didn’t look to me like it would work even a fraction as well as it ultimately does. There’s an almost cheeky moment in the very first scene (or “Chapter”) of Inglourious Basterds that seemed to me like a reference or jab at the way Bryan Singer segued into having all his “Germans” speak English for 95% of Valkyrie. Here, a character literally just says to another character that his knowledge of the language they are speaking (French) has been exhausted, does he mind if he switches to English? It’s a clever moment, but it’s ultimately surprising just how much of this movie’s dialogue still needs subtitles, with all dialogue being spoken in the language that makes sense for the scene, and that to me is a Good Thing. Anyway, not for one moment did I have the issues with Pitt and Roth that I expected. For Roth in particular it may in fact be his best-cast role yet. I still don’t like to see him on the screen, I’d much prefer him get behind the camera again … but for this particular character, that works. The Basterds themselves, in fact, don’t occupy as much screentime as you might expect, with as much time given over to Mélanie Laurent and Jacky Ido’s story or the brilliantly wicked Christoph Waltz as the movie’s principal villain. So even if you still find Roth and co. unpalatable, there’s plenty more in the ensemble to get excited about.
Then there’s the soundtrack. Though I’ve never had a problem with Tarantino’s use of music, it’s again an aspect of his work that I’ve worried about more with everything since Kill Bill, where it seemed to me he had pushed it as far as it would go. There was the comment he made about this movie in particular that struck me as particularly arrogant, when asked about his use of archive music, that he didn’t want another artist making a mark on his work. (“I just don’t like the idea of giving that much power to anybody on one of my movies,” LA Times) All of that said, it is hard to think about these things when the movie is in front of you and the likes of Ennio Morricone are serenading your ears. There’s little to say but that what music he uses works … even the Bowie. The only moments where I questioned the soundtrack, in fact, were two short snippets of tunes he had previously used, in Kill Bill, but they’re really too brief to mention.
This is, simply, a terrifically made movie that works almost flawlessly, and I think you’ll find that hard to deny even if you disagree with the idea of it. There are those who still think of Tarantino as some kind of manchild who makes fanboyish movies that serve no purpose than to fulfil geeky fantasies and there’s plenty in all of his recent work including this that matches that description. But there’s too much here – more than ever before in his work – that shows a real artist’s hand. It’s too technically proficient and assured to be dismissed as the B-movie wish-fulfilment it might first appear to be. To be perfectly honest, I’m almost inclined to agree with Brad Pitt’s last line which I’m sure is pretty much Tarantino speaking for himself, and he should be so proud: “This might just be my masterpiece.” On a first viewing I find it hard to disagree, for it truly blew me away.