Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Inglourious Basterds (2009)

Good revenge flicks have a few rules. Number 1 is that the bad guys have to commit an atrocity so bad that it will justify all the mayhem that is to come. “Inglourious Basterds” is about Nazis, so no problem there. The hero or heroes are then empowered to engage in wholesale slaughter, but Rule Number 2 is that they only hurt or kill people who deserve it. Rule 3 is that the story must stay at least minimally plausible. I’m all for movies that engage in total flight of fancy, obvious fairy tales like “Edward Scissorhands” or “The American Astronaut.” That tone isn’t right for a revenge movie, though, because it distracts from the audience’s ability to project ourselves into the role of the hero, dispensing simple justice to people who rarely seem to get what is coming to them in the real world. That is the cathartic value of a revenge movie, and for me, “Inglourious Basterds” failed to provide that because the movie violates rules 2 and 3.

The story is of a group of American commandos, all Jewish, who volunteer to be dropped into Nazi-occupied France to carry out a war of terror against the German occupiers. Their mission, according to leader Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), is “killin’ Nazis.” It’s a great fantasy setup, really. How many people, past and present, Jewish and otherwise, would love the idea of engaging in guerrilla warfare against the Nazis? Who wouldn’t want to kill Nazis? The Basterds, as they are called, pursue their job with gusto, gaining infamy among the Germans for their brutality, which includes beating captives to death with a baseball bat and carving swastikas onto the foreheads of those they release. Then the dream assignment comes along. The entire German high command, including der Fuhrer himself, is set to attend a German propaganda film premiere in Paris. They set out to help a British secret service agent blow the place up. On top of all that, the Basterds aren’t the only ones with plans to destroy the place.

The acting is generally excellent. Melanie Laurent is particularly good as Shosanna, the only surviving member of a Jewish family slaughtered by “Jew Hunter” Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz). Landa, a chillingly astute Nazi detective, is the best character in the film, although there are occasions where he breaks into a bizarre clownishness that ill-suits the tone of the rest of his performance. Brad Pitt fits himself pretty well into Tarantino mode, although his Southern accent leaves something to be desired.

Now for those rules I mentioned. First, Rule 2, which says that the heroes must be just. If the Basterds stuck to killing and torturing hard-core Nazis, the movie would be all right. There is one scene I cannot get past, however. The Basterds have successfully ambushed a small German patrol, and they are interrogating three prisoners, trying to find out about the location of another patrol. When the German sergeant rightfully refuses to betray his fellows, he is threatened cruelly, and then beaten to death with a baseball bat. This is a Tarantino movie, so of course the entire scene is especially graphic. Now if this were Adolph Hitler being bludgeoned, or even a concentration camp guard, I’d be okay with it. These are just low-level, regular German army grunts, though, and it is disturbing, to say the least, to watch our protagonists torture and kill them. Perhaps Tarantino was actually trying to make a point about the nature of war and violence, but in any event, this scene ruins the movie as a revenge flick.

Lest you think I am simply squeamish, I would like to compare the baseball bat murder to the Marsalis Wallace rape scene in “Pulp Fiction.” That scene probably wouldn’t be considered quite as shockingly graphic today, but when the movie came out, the scene had people walking out of theaters. The deal was, though, the movie had earned the right to show us that. The entire buildup of Butch’s story line made it inevitable that he would grab that sword and go back to help Wallace, despite the fact that they were trying to kill each other in the previous scene. If that meant that we had to see a glimpse of homosexual rape, it fit the story, and in the end, justice was done and the right people were killed. Nothing in “Inglourious Basterds” justifies the baseball bat scene. We all know that the Germans committed atrocities, but these particular Germans are just soldiers as far as we can tell. If the Basterds killed Germans in battle, then fine. If they had to kill those prisoners, then they could have given them a quick, clean death. Their cruel tactics in that scene are unfitting in what is otherwise a cathartic revenge fantasy.

That brings us to how the film breaks Rule 3, the one about being at least somewhat plausible. “Inglourious Basterds” is way too much of a fantasy. I had heard that it was a “re-imagining” of WWII, but I never guessed just how re-imagined it is. Even so, I wouldn’t have minded the big-concept style if Tarantino had bothered to make the plot even remotely plausible, but this is the ’70’s porno version of a revenge movie. (The doorbell rings, and it's a couple of Nazis having an argument about who is better at killing Jews. They want you to judge, and by the way, would you mind holding their baseball bat for them?) Tarantino has always been a master of respecting plot details and dialogue, but in “Basterds” he treats these things as minor signposts on the road to “killin’ Nazis.”

Some have suggested that the film is Tarantino's parody of other movies, that this is his version of a western or a Charles Bronson flick. Maybe that is his intention. "Kill Bill" was his version of a kung-fu movie, and "Grindhouse" was his parody of, well, grindhouse movies. I guess I just don't like this mission Tarantino is on. I liked it better when he was making good movies rather than making fun of bad ones.

I am a bit puzzled at the awards-season attention “Inglourious Basterds” is receiving. The movie is very well-acted, and it’s worth seeing just for the performances by Diane Kruger (as a German movie star turned Allied spy), Melanie Laurent, and especially Christoph Waltz. This is a movie with great acting, but a flawed script and, frankly, uninspired direction. I suppose you could try to credit the film as an over-the-top comedy, but the movie invests too much and requires too much investment from the audience to get off that lightly. I have been a big fan of some of Quentin Tarantino’s work, but I was disappointed by “Inglourious Basterds,” and I like it less the more I think about it.

2 stars out of 5.

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