I saw Quentin Tarantino’s new film, Inglourious Basterds with the Thursday midnight crowd. And as Hans had previously observed, the midnight crowds are a far more eclectic group than they used to be. So, in other words, it wasn’t just the rabid Tarantino fans that showed up for this one, but the Brad Pitt fans and war movie fans, the Thursday night insomniacs, as well as anyone looking for a bit of the old ultraviolence, which if you’re familiar with Tarantino’s films (and who isn’t?) then you can certainly expect to see here.
And they ate it up—to a quite audible satisfaction, I might add. From the trailer-alluded baseball bat head-smashing to the all-barrels-blazing grand finale, the audience I sat among slurped it all up with an insatiable thirst.
Now, had this been Kill Bill, such behavior would have been far more understandable. The Kill Bill movies are pure exercises in style and the violence is far more in the vein of cartoon than of outright savagery. I remember back in 2003, when Kill Bill, Vol. 1 hit theaters, many were remarking about how extremely violent the film was, elevating it almost to the point of controversy.
And it’s a funny thing, because I remember back in May of this year, when Inglourious Basterds premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, many were remarking about how extremely violent is wasn’t. And it’s true that the amount of violence in Tarantino’s revisionist WWII opus pales in comparison to a film like, say, Kill Bill or Reservoir Dogs. But it’s far more startling, distressing, and downright chilling. In this article, I’m going to try and be as spoiler-free as possible, but if you haven’t seen it yet and want to go in completely clean, you may want to come back later.
I feel like many in my audience went into the film in a Kill Bill state of mind, with predetermined reactions to the violence. Not to mention that fact that the influence of being in that group of friends who are all going into the movie with that same desire to see some Nazis getting offed can certainly play a large part in just how one will be viewing the onscreen festivities. And especially in a group of exaggerated testosterone levels, no one wants to be the guy who stops and says “Hey… This isn’t fun.”
Don’t get me wrong, though. I’m not coming down on Tarantino at all. I loved Inglourious Basterds. I think it’s one of the best and most original films of the year, and I’ll even be so bold as to say that it’s Tarantino’s best film—even better than Pulp Fiction. It may not be as revolutionary as his 1994 massive breakout film, but in its overall construction, it’s his most mature, intelligent, and exciting film to date.
The movie opens with an outstanding and quite long dialogue scene between the villain, Col. Hans Landa, (Cannes Best Actor winner Christoph Waltz) and a French farmer (Denis Menochet). It is here that Tarantino, so obviously a lover of the most vital aspects of film, exhibits some terrifically old-school suspense tactics that instantly reminded me of the best work of Alfred Hitchcock (fun fact: Tarantino uses a clip of a scene from Hitchcock’s Sabotage during the movie’s explanation of the flammability of 35mm film). I’ll be damned if it’s not the best scene from any one of his movies and the maturity it shows in him as a filmmaker sets a tone for the rest of the film that is as cinematically sure-footed as anything I’ve seen at the movies in quite a while.
And it’s this tone which serves the violence in the film. As much as I’ve heard that this film “isn’t your grandfather’s war movie,” it’s also not your own damn Pulp Fiction, either. Sure, it’s no secret that Tarantino has always had a distinct fascination with seventies-era violent exploitation flicks, but it’s not that Kill Bill-brand adrenaline rush of external blood-flow that he brings to this film.
Yes, the film contains a prolonged and brutally graphic clubbing-in of a Nazi’s head by one Mr. Eli Roth, but the way that Tarantino has shot the scene is anything but exploitative. He pulls back on the scene, watching his characters watching the violence and getting that blood-pumping thrill that we, ourselves, might have gotten had the shot not forced us to stare into a mirror of our own complacent savagery. Like I said, though—and contrary the observation that I just made just now—the audience I was with cheered with the same savage delight at this scene. But I have doubts as to the true validity of their elation. I invite each and every one of them to watch the film again, by themselves preferably, and see how they feel.
It’s the same with the film’s shocking grand finale. Now, this is most certainly a thunderous stand-up-and-cheer kind of moment (if you’ve seen the movie, then you know what I’m talking about), but as it progresses, its triumphant veil begins to pull back. What I recall most about this scene—what’s most vividly burned in my head—isn’t the violence and the vitriol and the visceral va-va-voom of victorious vengeance (how’s that for alliteration??), but instead the look of pure derangement in Eli Roth’s eyes as they shake back and forth to the rattling quake of his machine gun.
I thought that this scene was terrific, rousing, and thoroughly chilling, and it gave me goosebumps. When it cut to the next scene, the audience erupted in applause. I felt conflicted. There’s an applause-worthy event in the scene that’s without a doubt the crowning jewel of the film’s overall sentiment, but it explodes with a disturbingly vicious fury that is unlike anything Tarantino has given us before and speaks to his newfound maturity as a filmmaker.
Not that the film exists specifically to make grand weighty statements about movie violence, but you can’t watch the film and deny that its brutality strikes notes of a more knowingly grim and haunting nature than anything else he’s yet made. But, he hasn’t exactly made something along the lines of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, either. Rather, Inglourious Basterds contains what is perhaps an even more interesting (and less wrathful) deliberation on screen violence than Haneke’s film(s) because Quentin Tarantino knows that he is just as guilty of having the same insatiable interest in the ugly art of sadism that many of his biggest fans have.
I said that I thought Inglourious Basterds to be Quentin Tarantino’s best film and I stand by that statement. Tarantino has exercised his sense of style to the nth degree and now he’s unleashed a project that seems to be putting it to use. It’s a bittersweet love letter to all things movies–a huge, haunting, rousing, devastating, funny, and challenging work–far more so than any of his other films. Maybe it’s not for everyone, and I’m sure I’ll hear a lot of people telling me it’s not as good as Pulp Fiction, but I beg to differ. So rarely can I say this, but here it is: Inglourious Basterds was everything I was hoping it would be.
On a final note, I read something several months ago that Stephen King wrote for Entertainment Weekly when he was recounting his top ten films of last year:
“I’m not trustworthy when it comes to movies. I’m two-minded about them. Take this year’s Saw film. I sat there in my favorite seat — third row middle, so the screen towers above me — and my forebrain was thinking, Oh, man, this is the year’s biggest pile of cinematic dog vomit. But the rest of my brain is thinking, I’m at the mooooovies! IS THIS GREAT OR WHAT?”
Ever since I read that I think about it a lot, and, as a rabid lover of the cinematic experience, I completely identify with it. I feel like Quentin Tarantino would, too. He’s not judgmental of his audience, but rather fascinated by them—and by himself, too, I’d imagine since he’s probably an even grander lover of the cinematic medium than all of them put together. And that’s what makes him the real deal—a born filmmaker.
I feel there’s so much more I could and would like to say about this movie, but perhaps that’s best saved for another time. I’ve already meandered far from my initial focus, anyway. Ultimately, though, Inglourious Basterds is a film all about that magnetic wonder of the cinema—what it does and what it’s capable of doing. With this movie, Quentin Tarantino uses film (figuratively and literally) to completely rewrite common-knowledge history. It has all the stylistic flourishes, very funny dialogue, exceptional performances, and wonderful music that we’ve come to expect from the man, but this time it has a conscience and a soul unlike anything that came before it. It is at once a film of both magnificent vintage spectacle and talky contemplation. It exercised my love of the movies while challenging it at the same time. If homage and deconstruction are Tarantino’s “shtick,” then he hasn’t perfected it until just now. Inglourious Basterds is a great movie and I can’t wait to see it again.