Review of Inglourious Basterds

It’s hard to imagine how my expectations could have been any lower going in to Inglourious Basterds. Savaged by the critics and created by the man whose last film, Death Proof, bored me so much I resorted to fast-forwarding through entire scenes for fear of falling asleep, I only ended up seeing Basterds as I was on holiday and needed something to fill an evening with.

To my surprise, I didn’t sit for two and a half hours in the cinema wishing for sudden and painful death. In fact, I didn’t wish for any kind of death at all. I’d even go so far as to say I enjoyed the film.

The advance publicity and trailer for Basterds didn’t help my expectations, appearing to show a film all about Brad Pitt’s hillbilly Lt. Aldo Raine and his troupe of Nazi-killers; in fact they play much smaller roles, introduced near the start and then assumed thereon to have been killing Nazis for some time as a sinister background force, ghouls that haunt the German troops. Few of the Basterds are given voices at all; they are simply there as a thorn in the side of the Nazi army.

No, most of the film is actually given over to two other characters: Nazi Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), a Jew-hunter, and Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), a young Jewish woman who escaped from Landa as his troops murdered her family. It’s largely Waltz’s film; he drips charisma all over the place and is both charming and terrifying in equal measure. Laurent in turn gives Shosanna a sharp edge as the film’s indomitable femme fatale.

Facts can be so misleading

Some have complained that Basterds is boring, but I didn’t find it such. While there’s certainly less action than I expected, the majority of the film is a series of conversations that conclude with brief, punchy scenes of violence, each participant trying to outwit the other when everything is at stake.

It’s also interesting to see how Tarantino writes a period piece without being able to pad out the script with pop culture references: no Royale with Cheese and no sly references to Captain Kangeroo or blueberry pancakes. The result is dialogue that feels meaningful instead of trite and cool, although everyone in the film seems to be a film buff of some kind. It doesn’t get carried away with the notion but while it’s acceptable when so much of the film takes place in or around a cinema, a cutaway narrated by Samuel L. Jackson regarding the history of 35mm nitrate film and its flammable tendency was probably unnecessary.

Basterds descends a bit into camp and pulp farce toward the end, with Roth and another Basterd (Pfc. Ulmer, played by the excellently-named Omar Doom) mugging their way through a crowded cinema packed with Nazi officials and security and a giddy Landa giggling and exaggerating his dialogue, but fortunately this all happens during the climax so there’s not much of it. For the most part, Basterds is a welcome sign that Tarantino didn’t leave all his talent in the ’90s.

Honourable mentions go to a near-unrecognisable Mike Myers as the British General Ed Fenech and Denis Menochet as an outwitted French peasant.