My friend Jim Rodman said this of Inglorious Basterds, “After seeing so many Tarantino movies that were a nine or a ten, it’s kind of strange to see one that’s an eight.” I don’t rank my movies numerically, but I certainly understand this sentiment. Inglorious Basterds seems massively unfinished, over-edited and convoluted even at a screenplay level. Its marketing is misleading and its climax is visceral yet hollow. In spite of these things, this is a Quentin Tarantino movie for God’s sakes. It still has great dialogue, unbelievable cinematography and impeccable casting. The only problem is that QT’s trademark tropes are as necessary as they are impractical at this point. It seems that throughout Inglorious Basterds Tarantino is stretching to say he can do more than the trademark pulp and violence for which he’s known. The opening scenes are shot like a beautiful late sixties war picture down to the brilliant framing and camera movement. The slow extrapolation of details and increasingly menacing dialogue give the scenes a Hitchcock-like sense of calculated tension.
Later there are scenes in a theater lobby that look like the set was constructed for a high school production of Pygmalion. In fact a majority of the indoor and city scenes in Basterds look cheap and staged, more of an allusion to Grindhouse than classic war cinema. Especially because of this film’s trademark gory massacre of a conclusion and its cerebrally cathartic yet misleading selling point – that American Jews are going to slaughter Nazis by the barrelful while making their way to Hitler – the film shares more in common with Kill Bill, Vol. 1 in premise than any of Tarantino’s other movies. Yet Basterds contains the plodding longwinded pace of Tarantino’s bank robbery opus Reservoir Dogs right down to the painfully long dialog-based scenes about actions that could have easily been filmed. Pair this with Tarantino’s schizophrenic inability to keep his protagonists separate yet relevant to one another and you have what should for all intents and purposes be a stinker.
But Tarantino can’t make a stinker. He’s just too good. Even his ham-handed and clumsy efforts are made mystical by his awesome natural talent. In spite of the confusing narrative jumps, and awkward storytelling decisions the movie is a lot of fun. The performances are incredibly solid and the characters are all vaguely interesting, although I will complain that unlike most Tarantino films where vivid quotable personalities reign supreme, none of the characters in Basterds are onscreen long enough to be considered even remotely classic. Even the Bear Jew (Eli Roth’s monstrous Basterd known for smashing Nazi skulls with a bat) is only around long enough to earn his name and say a few quips in the second half. When we see the Basterds onscreen there appear to be about fifteen of them, but we barely meet four. For a movie called Inglorious Basterds there sure weren’t many Inglorious Basterds in it.
That’s not to say that the other plotline – the one that starts the movie, about a Nazi raid on a family that smuggled themselves under their neighbors’ floorboards – is disinteresting in any way. The problem with it is that like the majority of Basterds, this plotline doesn’t go anywhere. At about thirty minutes into the movie it seems fairly clear what’s supposed to happen according to conventional storytelling. The Basterds want to kill as many Nazis as possible and the little girl who survived the Nazi raid on her family is going to help them. Instead of fulfilling this simple request while providing trademark blood and gore along the way, Basterds jumps around to arbitrary scenes of Mike Myers as a British Captain, a meandering and ultimately meaningless card game scene, and the introduction of another third act female protagonist whose inclusion neither heightens the plot or validates itself, especially when the Jewish theater owner Shosanna (Melanie Laurent) fails to meet with or interact with any of the Basterds during the movie.
I was really hoping for a stellar central performance to rollick Basterds or at least for more of the Basterds themselves to be likable and interesting. In the same way that Kill Bill, Vol. 1 was an unstoppable amalgamation of pulp tropes into a thoroughly enjoyable masterpiece, Basterds is more like a Quentin Tarantino mix-tape that you can listen to in the car when you don’t have time to turn on Bravo and see them playing Pulp Fiction for the eighty-seventh time (even so, I’d sit down and watch it). If you want a hit of QT without slogging through the seventies, you can watch Inglorious Basterds and see the same exact tone play across World War II. Hey, aren’t those different decades with incredibly different feels? Yeah, they are. Whoops.
I’m not one to criticize Tarantino for taking risky storytelling decisions, but just because something is ballsy doesn’t mean it’s good. And that’s the case with a majority of Basterds. Sure, it gets by on the charm of its actors and dialog, but ultimately what does it mean? Why did Tarantino decide to tell the story of Jewish Americans slaughtering Germans during World War II? With all of his little nods to the differences in language and culture throughout this movie, you’d think that he’d come to a bigger conclusion about the war, Jewish-German politics, or frankly anything. Having read the script before seeing this movie, I knew that it would be slightly disjointed and I was initially okay with that, assuming that like most Tarantino movies the ride itself would be too enjoyable to ignore. Basterds paces its ride in a weird way, and aside from a few dozen odd laughs, I was never sure if I should take it seriously or not.
I can’t say I disliked Inglorious Basterds. I’m just disappointed with it. After years of hype and planning, Tarantino stood to deliver something different than he’d ever given to the public before, and in a way he succeeded. Unlike his more polished fair, and even the equally sluggish sequel to Kill Bill, Basterds is an unfinished and deeply flawed work that fails to equal the heights of its predecessors, while subtly suggesting that Tarantino is capable of more than we’d ever imagined cinematographically. The new tricks that he’s trying (when he actually decides to try them) usually result in beautiful and captivating filmmaking decisions. Unfortunately so much of Inglorious Basterds looks like old hat that the entire second half of the movie looks worse than the warehouse in Reservoir Dogs. In spite of all of this the movie is surprisingly fun. The dialogue is well written and generally better than any you’ll hear this year. This is why it’s hard to hate Tarantino. Even when he disappoints, he wows.