Quentin Tarantino makes movies about movies. The last words spoken in his latest film, Inglourious Basterds, are “I think this might just be my masterpiece,” and if we measure the film’s quality by the degree to which it conveys the director’s love of cinema, it is unquestionably a masterpiece. Here is a war movie where the most powerful weapon on display is film, where movies are used as literal incendiary devices, and where guerrilla filmmaking is a crucial part of guerrilla warfare.
Of the film’s many plots, one called Operation: Kino emerges as the most important. It involves a plan by Allied forces to destroy all of the Nazi high command in a single night by bombing a German movie premiere attended by most of the Third Reich’s heaviest hitters. The film, called Nation’s Pride, is a propaganda piece about a real war hero (real, at least, in the world of the film, which often has less correlation to ours than you’d expect). The entire sequence at this premiere, attended by movie stars both old (German silent star Emil Jannings mingles with the characters) and new (Brad Pitt saunters around in a specially designed Armani tux) is a suspenseful, hilarious, moving, shocking, unsettling sequence.
There are references in this sequence – just as there are in most sequences in the movie – to all sorts of other movies. But one wonders where Tarantino, the great student of movie history, found his inspiration for the rambling, indulgent dialogue and needless digressions that hold sway over most of Basterds‘ runtime? Basterds looks a little like one of those movies where a “special team” is assembled for a particularly dangerous mission. Like the famous Dirty Dozen of the film of the same name, the Inglourious Basterds are a group of sadistic Americans assembled for a suicide raid on a Nazi compound. But Basterds is The Dirty Dozen if The Dozen played second fiddle in their own movie to the Nazis. Pitt, as head Basterd Lt. Aldo Raine, is top billed but there are at least two other characters who have more lines and screentime than he does. The film has five chapters, and it could almost be five movies: The Basterds, Shoshanah (Melaine Laurent) who runs the cinema hosting the Nazi premiere, Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), the “Jew Hunter” Nazi who murdered the rest of Shoshanah’s family four years earlier, Frederick Zoller (Daniel Bruhl), the sniper subject of Nation’s Pride who also plays himself in the movie version of his life, and the intriguing but far too briefly glimpsed Lt. Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender), the film critic turned British officer who plays a key role in Operation Kino could all anchor their own movies.
Granted, Tarantino has always gone for talky dialogue, but in Basterds he achieves new levels of verbosity. The film opens with a lengthy but brilliant sequence in which a Nazi patiently and politely uncovers a Jewish family hiding inside a French farmhouse. That scene works beautifully, but then there’s the equally lengthy portion where the same Nazi speaks with a young woman in a restaurant, and another where a Nazi plays a guessing game with several of the Basterds while they’re disguised as SS officers. The dramatic fundamentals are all in place – in each instance, conversations are dominated by deception, and someone is always hiding something about their true identities or intentions – but Tarantino takes so long to get to his point, we’ve tuned out by the time he makes it.
It’s possible that these conversations are no longer than most of the ones in Jackie Brown or Death Proof or any of his other movies. But they feel longer, and for a while I wasn’t sure why. Eventually I concluded that Basterds’ heavy subtitling (much of it is spoken in French and German) played a role. In a typical Tarantino movie, lengthy dialogue exchanges become places to watch actors at play, to luxuriate in inflection, seduction, and humor. In Basterds, at least for me on first viewing, I was so busy reading the dialogue I wasn’t able to savor it.
The one performance truly worth savoring is Brad Pitt’s, and based on his exuberantly charismatic turn, it’s pretty clear Pitt was enjoying his time with the character too. But Tarantino’s multitude of plots take time away from him and the rest of the Basterds, many of whom come and go from the film without getting the chance to make an impression. If you’re a Freaks and Geeks fan, don’t expect to see Samm Levine much, or hear him at all; despite the staggering amount of dialogue in the screenplay, he doesn’t have a single line. Waltz, insinuating, politely diabolical in at least four different languages, steals many of his scenes; Laurent, constantly scheming, seems to lack the charisma to fully pull off her character’s quiet smolder. Fassbender, visually and verbally unrecognizable from his performance in Hunger, receives a great introduction in a briefing led by Mike Myers and attended by Rod Taylor’s Winston Churchill, but like so many other characters in this movie, he’s a set-up without a payoff.
The movie left me both exhilarated and frustrated. Not quite a masterpiece, it might qualify as a “messterpiece,” an unwieldy, unfocused film with unforgettable moments that nearly get lost in a sea of excess. There’s a great movie (maybe even a classic one) here buried beneath the fat. Its morally troubling, visually exhuberant final chapter contains moments that you’ll think about for days: I keep returning to the ingenious sequence that juxtaposes Zoller onscreen in Nation’s Pride with Zoller in the theater’s projection booth, in a life-and-death confrontation. Tarantino’s overwhelming belief in the power of film in these moments, though murky, is amongst the most provocative statements he’s ever made in any of his films. But even there, Tarantino cuts away from the excitement to film another lengthy conversation. You can see Tarantino, the great filmmaker going back and forth with Tarantino, the guy who likes to hear himself talk. Too often in this film, the latter wins out. The basterd.