MANOHLA DARGIS. THE NEW YORK TIMES
From the moment the charming, smiling, laughing Nazi in “Inglourious Basterds,” Quentin Tarantino’s latest cinematic happening, sweeps onto the screen, he owns this film even more than its maker. Played by a little-known Austrian actor, Christoph Waltz, Col. Hans Landa is a vision of big-screen National Socialist villainy, from the smart cut of his SS coat to the soft gleam of his leather boots. There might be a fearsome skull (the death’s head, or totenkopf) grinning on his cap, but Colonel Landa has us at hallo.
“Inglourious Basterds,” first shown at the Cannes Film Festival in May, is Mr. Tarantino’s sixth feature. (The bifurcated “Kill Bill” is really one film.) In many respects it looks and, as important, sounds like a typical Tarantino production with its showboating performances, encyclopedic movie references and streams of self-conscious dialogue. The whistling on the soundtrack comes straight from the Sergio Leone catalog via the composer Ennio Morricone, and the American avenger, Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), is a nod to the Hollywood actor Aldo Ray, a sandpaper-voiced 1950s Everyman who often seemed most at ease wearing Army fatigues, as he does in Anthony Mann’s 1957 masterpiece “Men in War.” (Mr. Ray’s widow, Johanna Ray, served as one of the casting directors for “Inglourious Basterds.”)
Raine leads a pack of Jewish avengers, the inglourious basterds of the misspelled title, who occupy one part of the sprawling narrative and whose numbers include a bat-wielding American nicknamed the Bear Jew (the director Eli Roth, dreadful). Also elbowing for attention is a young French Jew, Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), who’s running a cinema in Paris under a pseudonym, and a German Army hero, Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), who dangerously woos her, unaware of her true identity. There’s the British film critic turned spy, Lt. Archie Hicox (a very good Michael Fassbender), and the German movie star turned spy, Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger). Mostly, though, there is Landa, whose unctuous charm, beautifully modulated by Mr. Waltz, gives this unwieldy, dragging movie a much-needed periodic jolt.
Mr. Tarantino likes to take his sweet time — he can be a master of the slow windup — but rarely has one of his movies felt as interminable as this one and its 2 hours 32 minutes. The film is divided into five chapters organized around specific bits of business and conversations that increasingly converge. The second introduces the basterds while the third brings Shosanna together with her German suitor, who introduces her to Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth). Landa swans in, and a ludicrous plot to kill Hitler is unveiled. The fourth chapter throws in an unrecognizable Rod Taylor as Winston Churchill, a barely recognizable Mike Myers as a British commander and a risible fiction: a suave film critic (Mr. Fassbender).
As usual Mr. Tarantino gives you a lot to chew on, though there’s plenty to gag on as well. Much depends on whether you can just groove on his framing and staging, his swooping crane shots, postmodern flourishes (Samuel L. Jackson in voice-over explaining the combustibility of nitrate prints) and gorgeously saturated colors, one velvety red in particular. The film’s opening sequence, much of which takes place inside the restricted confines of a farmhouse room, is a marvel of choreographed camera movement and tightly coordinated performances. When the scene moves inside the farmhouse, you admire how neatly the German soldiers outside are positioned within one of the windows, a shot that recalls the framing of an image in Monte Hellman’s 1971 cult classic, “Two-Lane Blacktop.”
This sequence crystallizes much of what is pleasurable about “Inglourious Basterds” even as it underscores the film’s pronounced failings. Set against a sweeping stretch of green French countryside in 1941, it opens with a dairy farmer, Perrier LaPadite (Denis Menochet), chopping wood. As his ax looms ominously in the foreground of the shot, he readies himself for some unwelcome German visitors. Colonel Landa, nicknamed the Jew Hunter, has come looking for hidden prey, a task for which he is, as he explains in a long verbal jag, eminently suitable. Because Germans are like hawks, Landa explains, most cannot think like Jews, who are more like rats — a characterization that, of course, was a privileged metaphor and ideological instrument in the Nazi’s campaign against European Jewry.
The invocation of Jews as rats is ghastly — both times I’ve seen the movie I could almost hear the audience holding its collective breath — but Landa keeps smiling and talking and charming, and Mr. Waltz’s performance is so very good, so persuasive, seductive and, crucially, so distracting that you can readily move past the moment if you choose. Mr. Tarantino makes it easy to do just that by capping this exegesis with an abrupt sight gag: after asking the farmer if he can smoke, Landa pulls out a pipe so comically large it immediately undercuts his threat, transforming him from a ferocious Jew hunter into a silly man whose flamboyant pipe suggests he suffers from some masculinity issues.
The joke fades quickly, as they do in this film, because Landa has already guessed there are Jews hiding where you might expect to find rats, under the floorboards. Mr. Tarantino reveals them in their hiding place, the camera slipping through the floor to show the terrified family members prostrate, their hands over their mouths and eyes wide in fear. It’s a shocking moment partly because this image resonates with horror, but it’s also shocking because it comes cushioned with laughs. Yet the shock dissipates because the Jews are irrelevant here. What matters is how he builds the tension with unnerving quiet and a camera that circles Landa and the farmer like an ever-tightening rope. What matters, to Mr. Tarantino, is the filmmaking.
But too often in “Inglourious Basterds” the filmmaking falls short. Mr. Tarantino is a great writer and director of individual scenes, though he can have trouble putting those together, a difficulty that has sometimes been obscured by the clever temporal kinks in his earlier work. He has also turned into a bad editor of his own material (his nominal editor, as usual, is Sally Menke) and seems unwilling or incapable of telling his A material from his B. The conversations in “Inglourious Basterds” are often repetitive and overlong and they rarely sing, in part because the period setting doesn’t allow him to raid his vast pop-cultural storehouse. A joke about Wiener schnitzel just doesn’t pop like the burger riff in “Pulp Fiction.”
The film’s most egregious failure — its giddy, at times gleeful embrace and narrative elevation of the seductive Nazi villain — can largely be explained as a problem of form. Landa simply has no equal in the film, no counterpart who can match him in verbal dexterity and charisma, who can be the Jules Winnfield and Mia Wallace to his Vincent Vega as Mr. Jackson and Uma Thurman are to John Travolta in “Pulp Fiction.” Leading with his chin, Mr. Pitt gets off some funny lines, particularly when he’s pulling his Southern-flavored vowels out like chewed gum, but the character is too broadly drawn to carry weight. The same holds true of Ms. Laurent, a pretty face who all but slides off the screen.
This isn’t to say that the film’s representation of National Socialism, its repellent invocation of the Holocaust crematoriums in the final blowout and calculated use of the Jews-as-rat metaphor are not vulgar in the extreme. Mr. Tarantino likes to push hard against accepted norms, as his chortling exploitation of spectacular violence and insistent use of a noxious epithet for blacks has shown in the past. But complaining about tastelessness in a Quentin Tarantino movie is about as pointless as carping about its hyperbolic violence: these are as much a constituent part of his work as the reams of dialogue. This is, after all, a man who has an Oscar for a movie with a monologue about a watch stashed in a rectum.
Cartoon Nazis are not new to the movies, and neither are fascinating fascists, as evidenced by Ralph Fiennes’s Oscar-nominated turn in “Schindler’s List.” Unlike those in “Schindler’s List,” Mr. Tarantino’s Nazis exist in an insistently fictional cinematic space where heroes and villains converge amid a welter of movie allusions. He’s not making a documentary or trying to be Steven Spielberg: Mr. Tarantino is really only serious about his own films, not history. In that sense “Inglourious Basterds,” which takes its title if not its misspellings from an Italian flick in “The Dirty Dozen” vein, is simply another testament to his movie love. The problem is that by making the star attraction of his latest film a most delightful Nazi, one whose smooth talk is as lovingly presented as his murderous violence, Mr. Tarantino has polluted that love.
“Inglourious Basterds” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). The basterds like to scalp their Nazi victims, and Mr. Tarantino likes showing their knife work in graphic detail.
Opens on Friday nationwide.
Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino; director of photography, Robert Richardson; edited by Sally Menke; production designer, David Wasco; produced by Lawrence Bender; released by the Weinstein Company and Universal Pictures. In English, French, German and Italian. Running time: 2 hours 32 minutes.
WITH: Brad Pitt (Lt. Aldo Raine), Christoph Waltz (Col. Hans Landa), Eli Roth (Sgt. Donny Donowitz), Michael Fassbender (Lt. Archie Hicox), Diane Kruger (Bridget von Hammersmark), Daniel Brühl (Fredrick Zoller), Mélanie Laurent (Shosanna Dreyfus), Denis Menochet (Perrier LaPadite), Sylvester Groth (Joseph Goebbels), Mike Myers (Gen. Ed Fenech) and Rod Taylor (Winston Churchill).
KENNETH TURAN. LOS ANGELES TIMES
Here are a few of my not-favorite things: scalps graphically removed, throats savagely slashed, heads brutally beaten by baseball bats, necks forcibly strangled, fingers sadistically twisted in open wounds. The ideal person to be reviewing Quentin Tarantino's violent World War II fantasia, "Inglourious Basterds," I am not, but as the Basterds knew all too well, sometimes a man has to do what a man has to do. ¶ Not that there aren't elements to savor in "Basterds" or, for that matter, in Tarantino's public persona. He has a huge enthusiasm for movies of all kinds -- who else is going to champion the Roy Rogers films of William Witney -- and, judging by his public appearances, access to endless live-wire energy. But at this point in his career, frankly, it feels like his personality is stronger than his films. ¶ For one of the curious things about "Basterds," the above list of violent acts notwithstanding, is that it is simultaneously bloody and bloodless. Clocking in at 2 hours and 32 minutes, it is unforgivably leisurely, almost glacial, a film that loses its way in the thickets of alternative history and manages to be violent without the start-to-finish energy that violence on screen usually guarantees.
That lack of vigor almost seems to be what the writer-director is after. For one thing, though this film was inspired by a 1978 "Dirty Dozen" knockoff that was more conventional both in the spelling of its title and its story, "Basterds" splits the narrative focus into three.
The plot alternates among a group of bloodthirsty Jewish American GIs under the command of Lt. Aldo "The Apache" Raine (Brad Pitt), a fugitive Jewish woman named Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent) who owns a movie theater in Paris and a German SS officer, Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), who specializes in ferreting out Jews. (The Jewish element may sound strong, but it's just a plot construct: The characters might as well be renegade Benedictine monks for all the difference it makes).
As if this split weren't enough, "Basterds" breaks itself up yet again, this time into a series of chapters, more or less self-contained set pieces, that play less like elements of a coherent whole than like a series of linked short films. Some of these set pieces have their virtues, but more than a few of them go on too long and, by emphasizing the film's episodic nature, hamper its ability to hold together as a feature.
Also getting in the way is Tarantino's inevitable self-indulgence, his willingess to please himself by choosing movie moments over genuine emotion, making a point of having Frenchwoman Shosanna, for instance, say, "We respect directors in our country." As it goes on and on, "Inglorious Basterds" feels increasingly like the kind of hollow, fanboyish cinema that is all the rage these days.
To be fair to "Inglourious Basterds," it starts out more promising than it ends. Opening "Once upon a time . . . in Nazi-occupied France," it immediately introduces us to its most polished, most successful character, Landa, beautifully played by German-born Waltz, who took the best actor award at Cannes for this performance.
So sophisticated that the plot demands he speak four languages fluently (Tarantino said he almost gave up on the film when he despaired of finding an actor with this linguistic ability), the colonel is a classic movie Nazi, oozing odious evil in German, French, English and Italian, and graphically showing us why he came by his nickname, the Jew Hunter.
Having just as much fun is Pitt, who seems more relaxed and comfortable in these comic character parts than in conventional leading man roles. His Aldo the Apache, a direct descendent of mountain man Jim Bridger, with an accent to match, does not mince words when he gives his squad of eight their behind-the-German-lines marching orders. The Nazis, he says, need to be "dee-stroyed." And the man himself personally requires 100 Nazi scalps from each of his men.
Not having any fun at all, as might be expected, is on-the-run Shosanna. Yes, her theater in Paris gets to show terrific films like the German mountain epic "The White Hell of Pitz Palu" and French director Henri-Georges Clouzot's corrosive "Le Corbeau." But her life is in constant danger, and, to make things worse, Frederick Zoller ("Good Bye Lenin's" Daniel Brühl), a cheerfully obnoxious German war hero, won't stop pestering her.
The chapters of "Inglourious Basterds" at first focus on these plot strands one by one, but by the time they all come together in a finale that rewrites history with a particularly Tarantino flourish, it is hard to care what happens to anyone in them.
Despite nods to notions like Jewish revenge and the power of cinema, the director has paid so much attention to the film's peripherals he has neglected to provide a center worth embracing. You can raise B pictures to A picture status, as Tarantino has made a career out of doing, but giving them A picture value is not so easily done.
ANTHONY QUINN. THE INDEPENDENT
Quentin Tarantino returns to public notice with a Second World War movie, though be warned, it bears about as much relation to historical realism as did To Be or Not To Be or Where Eagles Dare, both of which it passingly recalls. Inglourious Basterds is more like a fantasia of a war movie, a gleefully unstable compound of violence and comedy and talk, backed up with quotations from all the movies Tarantino used to watch when he might have been having a life instead. It serves as an enjoyable reminder of why we sat up and noticed him in the first place.
Its magpie approach highlights what a deeply eccentric artist Tarantino continues to be. No modern film-maker has paid such an obsessive tribute to genre while subverting it at the same time. Ever since he burst on the scene with Reservoir Dogs, a heist movie that dispensed with the heist, QT has gone his own sweet way about remodelling old forms in new guises. So it is with his latest, which takes a delight in wrong- footing expectations from the first scene. It is a long and surprisingly tense set-piece between a French farmer and a Nazi colonel, Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), who suspects him of hiding a Jewish family. Their talk, which slips between English and French, is a superb exercise in charm-as-intimidation, with the Nazi – nicknamed, ominously, "The Jew Hunter" – toying with his prey like a cat with a mouse. The slow build-up of threat, and the focus upon apparently innocent details, are of a standard to rank alongside Alfred Hitchcock: look out for the glass of milk and its sinister reappearance in a later scene.
If the accomplishment of this first scene were upheld throughout then we might have a masterpiece on our hands. Alas, it is uneven as well as unpredictable. For one thing, the bad guy turns out to be so much more interesting than the good guys, a squad of Jewish-American soldiers whose reputation as murderous "basterds" allegedly strikes fear into the Nazis.
The squad leader, Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), has instructed his men to deliver 100 Nazi scalps a piece, and the summary retribution they mete out to the enemy is scarcely less brutal than Colonel Landa's modus operandi. Pitt, sticking out his jaw, has fun with this Tennessee toughnut, but all the time he's on screen you keep thinking how much better a job the Austrian actor Christoph Waltz does as his opposite number. The Cannes jury thought so, too, and gave Waltz the best actor award. Yet Tarantino does not even have the two of them meet until the very end; instead he introduces several other major characters, including a Jewish fugitive (Mélanie Laurent) hiding out as a Parisian cinema owner. She is being courted by a German war hero (Daniel Brühl), who himself is a protégé of Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister. Adolf Hitler himself also makes an appearance, though more in the manner of a Mel Brooks film than a rival to Bruno Ganz.
And if that sounds freaky, how about the scene in which a British officer, Hicox, is briefed on an undercover mission. Nothing wrong with Michael Fassbender's clipped George Sanders impersonation as Hicox, but you may do a double-take on spotting Winston Churchill in the corner of the room and a general, plummily played by Mike Myers. This in turn sets up the film's other thrilling set-piece, a meeting in a Parisian cellar bar between Hicox, a film-star double agent (Diane Kruger) and a Gestapo major (August Diehl). Once again, the dialogue is taut with implication, its prowling menace oddly inflected by the game of names-on-the-forehead the company play at the table. Hicox's gestural mistake that gives him away to the Nazi may remind you of Gordon Jackson's fatal error at the bus stop in The Great Escape, but even if it doesn't there are plenty more nods and winks to spot: this is a virtual echo chamber of movie references, from the films of Leni Riefenstahl and G W Pabst to the musical borrowings from Ennio Morricone and David Bowie's "Cat People". Its maverick, guys-together spirit also brings to mind war movies of the Sixties and Seventies like The Dirty Dozen, The Big Red One and Sam Peckinpah's Cross of Iron.
Indeed, so pervasive is the film influence that Tarantino sets the whole denouement in a fancy Art Deco cinema, where a propaganda war movie is being screened for the Reich elite. The flagrant rewriting of history amounts to an admission that Tarantino prefers to tell stories that derive from cinema rather than life. It would be a bit late to complain about this – it has been a hallmark of his career – but I think it does preclude him from the high plains of film-making greatness. There is much to enjoy in Inglourious Basterds, from the performances of Christoph Waltz and Michael Fassbender to the wonderful confidence of those long talky scenes. Even with its propensity for quoting other films it is full of original touches and quirks.
What it lacks is the texture of felt life; to put it another way, you don't believe a word of it. To fans of "pure" cinema this might not matter, because the film creates a world unto itself; it is about technique and spatial understanding, not realism. (The same defence used to be deployed by fans of Brian De Palma). But lacking that human dimension, the QT effect will always come up short. He's a great film encyclopaedist, which is somewhat different from a great film-maker.
ROGER EBERT. CHICAGO SUN-TIMES
Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” is a big, bold, audacious war movie that will annoy some, startle others and demonstrate once again that he’s the real thing, a director of quixotic delights. For starters (and at this late stage after the premiere in May at Cannes, I don’t believe I’m spoiling anything), he provides World War II with a much-needed alternative ending. For once the basterds get what’s coming to them.
From the title, ripped off from a 1978 B-movie, to the Western sound of the Ennio Morricone opening music to the key location, a movie theater, the film embeds Tarantino’s love of the movies. The deep, rich colors of 35mm film provide tactile pleasure. A character at the beginning and end, not seen in between, brings the story full circle. The “basterds” themselves, savage fighters dropped behind Nazi lines, are an unmistakable nod to the Dirty Dozen.
And above all, there are three iconic characters, drawn broadly and with love: the Hero, the Nazi and the Girl. These three, played by Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz and Melanie Laurent, are seen with that Tarantino knack of taking a character and making it a Character, definitive, larger than life, approaching satire in its intensity but not — quite — going that far. Let’s say they feel bigger than most of the people we meet in movies.
The story begins in Nazi-occupied France, early in the war, when the cruel, droll Nazi Col. Hans Landa (Waltz) arrives at an isolated dairy farm where he believes the farmer (Denis Menochet) is hiding Jews. He’s right, and a young woman named Shosanna (Melanie Laurent) flees into the woods. It is for this scene, and his performance throughout the movie, that Christoph Waltz deserves an Oscar nomination to go with his best actor award from Cannes. He creates a character unlike any Nazi — indeed, anyone at all — I’ve seen in a movie: evil, sardonic, ironic, mannered, absurd.
The Hero is Brad Pitt, as Lt. Aldo Raine, leader of the Basterds. Tarantino probably wants us to hear “Aldo Ray,” star of countless war films and B pictures. Raine is played by Pitt as a broad caricature of a hard-talking Southern boy who wants each of his men to bring him 100 Nazi scalps. For years, his band improbably survives in France and massacres Nazis, and can turn out in formal eveningwear at a moment’s notice. Pitt’s version of Italian is worthy of a Marx brother.
The Girl is Shosanna, played by Laurent as a curvy siren with red lipstick and, at the film’s end, a slinky red dress. Tarantino photographs her with the absorption of a fetishist, with closeups of shoes, lips, a facial veil and details of body and dress. You can’t tell me he hasn’t seen the work of the Scottish artist Jack Vettriano, and his noir paintings of the cigarette-smoking ladies in red.
Shosanna calculatingly flirts with Frederick Zoller (Daniel Bruhl), a Nazi war hero and now movie star; he persuades Joseph Goebbels to hold the premiere of his new war film in her theater. This sets up a plot that includes Tarantino breaking several rules in order to provide documentary footage about how flammable nitrate film prints are.
A Tarantino film resists categorization. “Inglourious Basterds” is no more about war than “Pulp Fiction” is about — what the hell is it about? Of course nothing in the movie is possible, except that it’s so bloody entertaining. His actors don’t chew the scenery, but they lick it. He’s a master at bringing performances as far as they can go toward iconographic exaggeration.
After I saw “Inglourious Basterds” at Cannes, although I was writing a daily blog, I resisted giving an immediate opinion about it. I knew Tarantino had made a considerable film, but I wanted it to settle, and to see it again. I’m glad I did. Like a lot of real movies, you relish it more the next time. Immediately after “Pulp Fiction” played at Cannes, QT asked me what I thought. “It’s either the best film of the year or the worst film,” I said. I hardly knew what the hell had happened to me. The answer was: the best film. Tarantino films have a way of growing on you. It’s not enough to see them once.
Cast & Credits
Lt. Aldo Raine Brad Pitt
Shosanna Melanie Laurent
Col. Hans Landa Christoph Waltz
Sgt. Donny Donowitz Eli Roth
Lt. Archie Hicox Michael Fassbender
Bridget von Hammersmark Diane Kruger
Fredrick Zoller Daniel Bruhl
Sgt. Hugo Stiglitz Til Schweiger
Cpl. Wilhelm Wicki Gedeon Burkhard
Marcel Jacky Ido
Pfc. Smithson Utivich B.J. Novak
Pfc. Omar Ulmer Omar Doom
Major Hellstrom August Diehl
Perrier Lapadite Denis Menochet
Joseph Goebbels Sylvester Groth
Hitler Martin Wuttke
General Ed Fenech Mike Myers
Francesca Mondino Julie Dreyfus
Sgt. Rachtman Richard Samuel
Master Sgt. Wilhelm/Pola Negri Alexander Fehling
Winston Churchill Rod Taylor
The Weinstein Company presents a film written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. Running time: 152 minutes. MPAA rating: R for strong graphic violence, language and brief sexuality.
DENNIS LIM. SLATE
Quentin Tarantino concludes his seventh feature, the Nazi-bludgeoning fantasy Inglourious Basterds, with a grisly flourish and a self-satisfied review. Having performed one of his signature mutilations, a character peers down at his handiwork and into the camera and declares: "This might just be my masterpiece." This is typical Tarantino bluster, in keeping with the image of the bratty wunderkind that he worked hard to cultivate and that, even at 46, he refuses to outgrow. But as the rare filmmaker who's also an avid reader of film reviews, he also surely knows that it's been a while since the critical establishment thought of him as a maker of masterpieces.
Since it premiered at Cannes in May, Basterds has met with some wildly conflicting reactions (some of them—no surprise given its breezily outrageous approach to a loaded subject—highly negative and morally accusatory). Tarantino's career since Pulp Fiction continues to seem like one long backlash. Could it be that one of the most overrated directors of the '90s has become one of the most underrated of the aughts?
Tarantino's filmography is split in two by the six-year gap that separated Jackie Brown (1997) and Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003), during which, among other things, he worked on the notoriously unwieldy Basterds screenplay (which was at one point supposed to be a miniseries). The received wisdom has it that he never quite made a comeback. But the criticisms most frequently leveled against him these days—he's a rip-off artist, he makes movies that relate only to other movies, he knows nothing of real life, he could use some sensitivity training—apply equally, if not more so, to the earlier films. (Reservoir Dogs lifted many of its tricks directly from the Hong Kong film City on Fire; Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown are the Tarantino movies with the most flamboyant use of racist language.) Reviewers and audiences may have wearied of the blowhard auteur, but there's an argument to be made that Tarantino, far from a burnout case, is just hitting his stride, and that his movies, in recent years, have only grown freer and more radical.
Taken as a yin-yang whole, Kill Bill Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 constitute a globe-spanning feat of genre scholarship, blithely connecting the dots from Chinese kung fu to Japanese swordplay, from blaxploitation to manga to spaghetti Western. Tarantino's reference-happy method is often dismissed as know-it-all geekery or stunted nostalgia, the video-store dreams of an eternal fanboy. But there is something strikingly of the moment and perhaps even utopian about Kill Bill's obsessive pastiche, which at once celebrates and demonstrates the possibilities of the voracious, hyperlinked 21st-century media gestalt: the idea that whole histories and entire worlds of pop culture are up for grabs, waiting to be revived, reclaimed, remixed.
First released as part of Grindhouse, 2007's double-header exercise in retro sleaze, Death Proof confirmed that Tarantino has no interest, or maybe is incapable of, straightforward homage, even when that's the nominal assignment. While partner in crime Robert Rodriguez tossed off a scattershot bit of zombie schlock for his contribution (Planet Terror), Tarantino borrowed a few motifs from sorority slashers and car-chase zone-outs and fashioned a curious formal experiment that would have given a '70s exploitation producer fits. Death Proof (on DVD in an unrated, extended version) is split down the middle into mirror-image halves. In each segment, the same scenario unfolds (with very different outcomes): a group of young women has a scary run-in with Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell), a killer in a muscle car, and the exhilarating final burst of action is preceded by a provocatively long bout of directionless yapping.
Like their creator, Tarantino's characters never shut up and are plainly enthralled by the sound of their own voices. More than the spasms of violence, the lifeblood of his movies is their ornate dialogue, which tends to unfurl at great, meandering length. (Tarantino was sly enough to call attention to this hallmark early on: In Reservoir Dogs, when Tim Roth's character, an undercover cop, is handed the scripted anecdote that he will have to perform to pass as Mr. Orange, he balks at the sheer level of detail: "I've got to memorize all this? There's over four fucking pages of shit here.") Tarantino movies are known for two kinds of verbal expulsions: the stem-winding monologue (Samuel L. Jackson's Old Testament shtick in Pulp Fiction) and the micro-observational tangent (Steve Buscemi's anti-tipping tirade in Reservoir Dogs). In Death Proof, which revels in a buzzed, leisurely camaraderie, he quietly masters a third kind: the language of downtime and hanging out, not exactly naturalistic (his most subdued chatter retains a heightened quality) but less baroque and truer to the rhythms of actual human interaction. Modest as it seems, Death Proof is in fact a clear-cut demonstration of Tarantino's gifts. By so pointedly breaking the film into long, alternating sections—talk, action, talk, action—he distends the normal rhythm of his movies, weighing aural against visual spectacle and pushing each to its limit.
But it's in Inglourious Basterds that the relationship between language and action becomes truly charged. Though the violence (much of it perpetrated by Jews against Nazis, with baseball bats and bowie knives) is graphic and memorable, the film consists largely of one-on-one verbal showdowns. As in Death Proof, but with greater purpose, Tarantino gives the conversations room to soar and stall and double back on themselves (especially in two agonizingly tense and protracted scenes, in a farmhouse and a basement tavern). Language is the chief weapon of the insinuating villain, brilliantly played by Christoph Waltz, a Nazi colonel fluent in German, English, French, and Italian. Power resides in the persuasiveness of speech; the success of undercover missions hinges on the ability to master accents; and as characters strive to maintain false pretenses, words are a means of forestalling death.
Inglourious Basterds addresses head-on many of the standard anti-Tarantino criticisms. You say he makes movies that are just about movies? You think they present violence without a context? Luring the elite of the Third Reich to an Art Deco cinematheque in Nazi-occupied Paris, Basterds gleefully uses film history to turn the tables on world history; its context is nothing less than the worst atrocity of the 20th century. This only seems to have further infuriated Tarantino's detractors, some of whom are appalled that this terminal adolescent would dare to indulge his notorious penchant for vengeful wish fulfillment on such sensitive and sacrosanct material.
Needless to say, Tarantino's movie shares little common ground with—and, indeed, is probably a direct response to—your typical Holocaust drama. It has no interest in somber commemoration, and it refuses to deny the very real satisfactions of revenge. Like all of Tarantino's films, Inglourious Basterds is about its maker's crazy faith in movies, in their ability to create a parallel universe. His films have always implicitly insisted that movies are an alternative to real life, and with Inglourious Basterds, for the first time, he has done something at once preposterous and poignant: He takes that maxim at face value and creates his own counterfactual history. It may not be his masterpiece, but for sheer chutzpah, it will be hard to top.Dennis Lim is editorial director at the Museum of the Moving Image and a regular contributor to the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.