Tarantino’s latest film, Inglourious Basterds, begins promisingly, with a skilfully directed scene introducing the character of Col. Hans Landa, played by Austrian-born actor Christoph Waltz, as he leads an S.S. patrol to the house of a French farmer who is suspected of harbouring Jews in order to interrogate him. The tension in the scene is well handled and the climax, while suitably terrifying, is tastefully restrained, a potential indicator that perhaps the director, well known for his pop-culture influenced pulp style, has created an atmospheric and mature piece of cinema that will bear some resonance. What follows, unfortunately, is two-and-a-half hours of vulgarity, glorified violence and derivative cliché.
The film’s segmented narrative, split into five chapters, meanders with overlong scenes exasperated by trite dialogue; Tarantino’s smug philosophizing is embarrassingly hollow, and there is an inane amount of movie-reference fodder littered throughout the script. A scene involving a game of trivia between a German soldier and a group of undercover Allies is contrived in order that Tarantino may highlight, though for whose benefit exactly remains unclear, the colonization metaphor implicit in King Kong for the purpose of a tasteless and uncomfortable joke. The film is callously racist, indiscriminately so, stemming from the caricatured and underdeveloped characterization and Tarantino’s blatant ignorance and disregard. Even the Inglourious Basterds of the title, a group of Jewish-American Nazi-killing soldiers lead by Brad Pitt’s Aldo The Apache, are barely explored.
That Tarantino fails, or deliberately chooses not to, add dimension to his characters in a film that runs 153 minutes long and consists mostly of dialogue, until the final act, is frustrating and makes it difficult to invest in their thin stories. He does manage to elicit some sympathy for his woman scorned, Shoshanna Dreyfus, played by Mélanie Laurent, but any potential moments of emotional drama are undermined with boorish attempts at humour. Tarantino’s facile utilization of pastiche has reached such an extent that it becomes mere cliché in nearly every instance. The only subversion of expectation comes with the fantastical re-writing of WWII history, which again serves no purpose other than to satisfy the revenge plot. Tarantino’s fetishistic glorification of violence has reached an apex of juvenility and arbitrariness.
The film fails as disposable entertainment simply because it is not particularly entertaining; there are brief moments of tension, excitement and genuine humour but they are too few and far-between to justify the film’s length. There are also hints of farce, but without any intellectual satire the historical context becomes the butt of crass and juvenile jokes. The acting is mostly good nonetheless; Waltz is terrific as Landa, Laurent does well with what she is given and Pitt is as goofy and likeable as he was in Burn After Reading. Most of the film’s problems lie with the script and direction, and therefore the criticisms are levelled primarily at Tarantino. Inglourious Basterds may have been conceived as an homage to exploitation cinema but with its distinct lack of originality or flair, not to mention fun, it is difficult to recommend to anyone. After carving a swastika into the scalp of a Nazi in order that he remain conspicuous even without his uniform, Aldo proclaims “I think this could be my masterpiece,” and one can imagine Tarantino grinning as the credits roll. Think again.