My Review of Inglourious Basterds

I have been a huge Quentin Tarantino fan ever since seeing Reservoir Dogs in college. I have loved all of his movies, with Jackie Brown being the only item in the corpus that gets a rating below brilliant. So you can imagine my excitement over the premiere of Inglourious Basterds. I almost never go to movies on Friday or Saturday nights since I hate crowds, but for this I made an exception.

There are only the most minor of spoilers below the fold. Really, the movie advertisements give away more than I am about to.

Short review: Tarantino is a genius. If he doesn’t win Best Everything at the Oscars next year it will be a travesty.

I was once accused by the wife of a friend of holding neo-conservative political views. The basis for the accusation was my defense of Harry Potter’s use of the Cruciatus Curse in the final volume in the series. Clearly this indicated that I was a supporter of torturing people, and was therefore a neo-con.

I was rather taken aback by this. First, because I am most definitely not a neo-con, and find the idea that I am rather insulting. But second because I had thought that your average adult understood that sometimes behavior that is acceptable, even admirable, in a work of fiction may not be acceptable in real life. Real life, you see, is a place of moral ambiguity and gray area, and a place where we understand the importance of extending due process even to the most vile and loathsome people. It is one of the great virtues of fiction that we can, at least briefly, ignore those messy realities and instead just take pleasure in the sight of a thoroughly rotten person getting what is coming to him. What do you suppose it is we are escaping when we speak of escapist fiction?

The main story line in Inglourious Basterds involves Brad Pitt leading a team of Jewish mercenaries in Nazi-occupied France. Their mission is to kill as many Nazis as possible, and this they do in frequently gruesome and sadistic fashion. I loved every minute of it, as did just about everyone else among the very large crowd joining me in watching the film. In certain places the laughter was so loud that I will surely have to see the film again to pick up the little bits I missed during the ruckus. Let me suggest that if the sight of a group of brassed off Jews putting the hurt on some Nazi scum doesn’t cause you to crack a smile, then you are the one with the problem.

As you might have guessed, I have no patience for the sort of pretentious twittery exemplified by Daniel Mendelsohn in his Newsweek review (Warning: There are spoilers in the review). Mendelsohn writes:

Tarantino, the master of the obsessively paced revenge flick, invites his audiences to applaud this odd inversion–to take, as his films often invite them to take, a deep, emotional satisfaction in turning the tables on the bad guys. (“The Germans will be sickened by us,” Raine tells his corps of Jewish savages early on.) But these bad guys were real, this history was real, and the feelings we have about them and what they did are real and have real-world consequences and implications. Do you really want audiences cheering for a revenge that turns Jews into carboncopies of Nazis, that makes Jews into “sickening” perpetrators? I’m not so sure. An alternative, and morally superior, form of “revenge” for Jews would be to do precisely what Jews have been doing since World War II ended: that is, to preserve and perpetuate the memory of the destruction that was visited upon them, precisely in order to help prevent the recurrence of such mass horrors in the future. Never again, the refrain goes. The emotions that Tarantino’s new film evokes are precisely what lurk beneath the possibility that “again” will happen.

Pure crap, and it is downright obscene to suggest that Tarantino has turned Jews in to carbon copies of the Nazis. Doing violence to them that wronged you is a far cry from trying to exterminate a race of people. Revenge fantasies may be ignoble (emphasis on “may”) but they are a deeply human reaction, and it is satisfying to fulfill them in fiction precisely because we know we can not fulfill them in real life.

(Which is not to say that I object to complex, morally nuanced cinema. It’s just that different sorts of movies can be enjoyable in different ways and for different reasons.)

You may as well object to an Agatha Christie novel on the grounds that murder is a terrible thing, and it plays into unseemly emotions in the human psyche to trivialize it by turning it into an intellectual puzzle.

Anyway, back to the film. I have generally been a fan of Brad Pitt for two reasons. One is that I think he is a genuinely talented actor, and not just another A list pretty boy. The other is that he has consistently been willing to do offbeat roles that do not always present him in the best light. Think of Seven, Fight Club and Burn After Reading (not to mention Thelma and Louise, though that one was so early in his career that he was not yet in a position to be choosy about his material.) I think he is terrific here, as is the entire supporting cast.

In addition to the typically excellent and engaging Tarantino dialogue, the direction strikes me as quite accomplished. The scenes are framed and shot beautifully. I was reminded a bit of the Coen Brothers in that regard. And let me add what a pleasure it is to see a film in which there are long scenes in which the characters actually talk to one another, instead of the unpleasantly frenetic pace of so many modern movies.

I do have a few criticisms. One of Tarantino’s favorite devices is to have a long patch of seemingly aimless dialogue that nonetheless has a gradually building air of menace around it. The opening scene of the film, set on a small dairy farm in the French countryside, is a near perfect rendering of this device. Alas, Tarantino returns to that well later in the film in a far less successful and seemingly endless scene set in the basement of a tavern. It was the only scene in the film that missed its mark, though it still had some memorable moments nonetheless.

The story hangs together pretty well, but near the end there are a couple of serious implausibilities that mar things somewhat.

Also lacking was the usually excellent Tarantino music. There is little music in the film, and some of it is even recycled from past films. I own the soundtracks to Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill, but I don’t think I will be buying this one.

But these are minor quibbles with a fabulous movie. The funny scenes were funny, the dramatic scenes were dramatic. Highly recommended.

Let me close with with one more reference that occurred to me during the film. There was a forgettable, even laughable, episode of the original Star Trek series called “The Savage Curtain,” which did manage to have one powerful line right near the end. In the episode, some powerful aliens develop an interest in the subject of good and evil. Thy bring to their planet four representatives of evil, and four representatives of good, Captian Kirk and Mr. Spock among them. The two sides fight, and eventually the forces of good are victorious. Somewhat confused, the alien says to Kirk that he does not understand the difference between good and evil, since in the end the forces of good used many of the same tactics as the forces of evil. Kirk asks the alien what he offered the evil folks to make them participate in the fight. The alien says something like, “What they wanted most. Power, fame, riches.” Kirk replies, “You offered me the lives of my crew, and the safety of my ship. There’s your difference.”

Can’t imagine what made me think of that.

Comments

  1. #1 Robert Castillo
    August 23, 2009

    I felt pretty much the same way about the movie. I even agree with the bit about the long scene in the German basement, even if it did lead to several good lines from Brad Pitt about the difficulties of fighting in a basement. And his explanation of the meaning of a “Mexican Standoff” to the German Sergeant. And the way the Stiglitz kept looking at that German officer. OK, I take it back, I loved that scene too.

  2. #2 nails
    August 23, 2009

    I bet the reviewer was thinking about ‘the reader’ while watching this movie, seeing that context strongly determines the role of most people in society and that the ones at the top are way more at fault than the foot soldiers.

  3. #3 Bayesian Bouffant, FCD
    August 23, 2009

    a team of Jewish mercenaries

    Mercenaries? My understanding was that they were all Jewish U.S. soldiers who had volunteered for this special assignment. I don’t see how that equates to mercenaries.

    Real life, you see, is a place of moral ambiguity and gray area

    I maintain that the finest works of fiction also contain moral ambiguity. For example, compare Clint’s Eastwood’s good vs. evil films (choose any of a large number) to his 1993 directorial effort A Perfect World. It was rife with moral ambiguity, and it was a near-perfect film. I maintain that if the final scene had not dragged for 15 minutes, spoiling the preceding content, both Eastwood as director and Kevin Costner as star would have walked away with Oscars. Rent it yourself and see what I mean.

  4. #4 jt512
    August 23, 2009

    I, for one, was grateful for the long scene in the tavern. It gave me the chance to go to the bathroom.

  5. #5 Dan J
    August 24, 2009

    Okay, I might have to make a rare exception and see this one in a theater (which I rarely do any more). Rob Zombie’s Halloween 2 is on my agenda next week, though.

    I like your Star Trek reference. Which should get the greater emphasis: how the fighting is done, or what we’re fighting for? Tough line to tread.

  6. #6 FastLane
    August 24, 2009

    Which is not to say that I object to complex, morally nuanced cinema. It’s just that different sorts of movies can be enjoyable in different ways and for different reasons.

    For that, I highly recommend District 9, if you haven’t seen it yet.

  7. #7 doug l
    August 24, 2009

    Tasty review. I’m already a fan so I will be sure to catch it, but with heightened sense of anticipation.
    And thanks and/or merci for Baysian Bouffant on that Eastwood movie. I will put that on the list. I took a look over at IMDB and impressed with the level of criicism there; unabashed adulation.
    Oh and as for the Oscars being a travesy; don’t worry, it will be, no matter who wins, or at least that’s how the media will present it. Not much point to even watching if it’s not going to be at least a travesy and maybe even a sham and fraud and a fraud and sham and a fraud, to quote Fielding Mellish.

  8. #8 Evan
    August 24, 2009

    Come on! David Bowie was in the sound track. That makes it an automatic A+(by the David Bowie and/or Queen by laws).

    I really liked that we got to have Tarantino dialog in 4 different languages. And the theater I saw it at was serving Nazi Scal(lo)ps.

  9. #9 Bayesian Bouffant, FCD
    August 24, 2009

    doug: And thanks and/or merci for Baysian Bouffant on that Eastwood movie.

    That one last scene, that drags on way too long – you’ll know it when you see it.

  10. #10 Bayesian Bouffant, FCD
    August 24, 2009

    I just consulted a German colleague of mine. He says the bit about which three fingers to use is BS.

    Who wants an orange whip? Orange whip? Orange whip? Three orange whips!

  11. #11 Jason Rosenhouse
    August 24, 2009

    FastLane –

    District 9 is on my list of things to see, but I haven’t gotten around to it yet.

    Bayesian Bouffant –

    I suspected that bit with the fingers was made up. I wonder where Tarantino got that from. It’s very awkward to try to hold up just your thumb, index finger and middle finger.

  12. #13 Leni
    August 24, 2009

    It sounds really good. I was a little skeptical, but I think I’ll definitely see it. After District 9, of course.

    I have a problem watching any kind of realistic violence, though. The Kill Bills are ok because the gore is so over the top it’s hilarious. (That fight scene between Daryl Hannah and Uma Thurman is downright awesome- makes me laugh no matter how many times I see it.) But if it’s anything like the Micheal Madsen/cop torture scene in Reservoir Dogs I will probably end up missing a lot of the movie.

  13. #14 Doc Bill
    August 24, 2009

    Kill Bill 2 is my favorite film of all time because of the dialog.

    It is so tight. Not a word to spare. It’s easy to memorize all of it after only a few or 20 viewings.

    Not much gore in KB2. All psyche.

    “Bitch, you ain’t got a future.”

    Who can argue against that?

  14. #15 MetaEd
    August 25, 2009

    When children are taught to count with their fingers, some cultures teach them to start with their index finger, others with their thumb. I believe it was my sister who lived as an exchange student for one year in north Germany who first told me they do the latter. So, strange as this may seem to someone who is used to counting from his index finger, the bit was probably not made up. I doubt it is at all awkward for someone who learned from a small child to count that way.

  15. #16 JJ Anderson
    August 25, 2009

    If you insist on creating a fantasy WWII world, Tarantino did as good a job with it as anyone, but the movie was still a depressing experience, but in a valuable way. Since we have bravery and death happening in Afghanistan and Iraq right now, it’s important to be reminded that wonderful people die in resistance movements and in battle.

    I don’t care how Brad Pitt’s roving band might treat captured SS officers, but I thought most ordinary German soldiers were not members of the SS, so the treatment of unarmed German soldiers in the first half of the film was disturbing. (I’m not talking about the scene in the basement, which was tense for everyone involved!)

  16. #17 Rick Dakan
    August 25, 2009

    Italians count to three in the way shown in this movie. After living in Rome for a while, I came back counting that way too, because every time I raised two fingers and no thumb people thought I meant three, not two. I spent last fall in Berlin and noticed some people doing it there, and really to this day I find myself counting thumb first, then index, then middle finger.

    Overall, I loved the movie. A lot. I even loved the basement scene.

  17. #18 Tyler DiPietro
    August 25, 2009

    In terms of fantasy WWII, I prefer the various iterations of the Wolfenstein franchise (the FPS from Id Soft, not the earlier ones of the Apple II). Half the reason why the game was so popular in the first place was because you got to mercilessly kill Nazis. It’s all fantasy.

    I’ve wanted to see IB ever since I started seeing trailers for it on TV. I rarely get to the theaters to see anything these days, but I may make an exception.

  18. #19 Joy Reed
    August 27, 2009

    Whatever movie he ends up doing, his fans love him.

  19. #20 sinned34
    August 28, 2009

    Ugh, I haven’t subjected myself to a Quentin Tarantino film since I saw the execrable From Dusk Til Dawn, but I’m moderately interested in this movie. I’ll give Brad Pitt kudos for attempting to play offbeat roles, but he’s a horribly wooden actor. His high school-like acting talents were pretty much the only thing that prevented Se7en from being a perfect movie.

    I haven’t seen Inglourious Basterds yet, and I’m not certain if I will see it for a while, so I appreciate no spoilers in your review. However, I’m not so pleased about the spoiler regarding Harry Potter – I don’t read the books, I only watch the movies, and now I know how the last one ends. Thanks a ton, Jason!

  20. #21 Shawn Smith
    August 28, 2009

    sinned34:

    …spoiler regarding Harry Potter … and now I know how the last one ends.

    It wasn’t from Jason that you got any information how the last Harry Potter movie will end. That particular scene was rather minor, and I suspect it will not appear in either of the two movies that will make up the final part of the story. And anyway, after Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (the second movie), they haven’t followed the books very carefully, anyway. You’ll find the books are different stories.

    Now if you were simply being snarky, well, you fooled me. Good for you. :-)

  21. #22 sinned34
    August 29, 2009

    Well, that’s a little bit of a relief. For the record, that comment was only about 25% snark. Thanks, Shawn!

  22. #23 Divalent
    August 31, 2009

    Spoiler alert here, too:

    It struck me that scenes where the Bastards are ruthlessly and senselessly killing the captured enlisted soldiers (i.e., low level German foot soldiers as opposed to the intellectual architects of the final solution or the willing/knowing participants/enablers of it) were intended to make us reflect on the morality of those actions. That is, they were presented in an over-the-top way that highlighted the revenge aspect that often succeeded in eliciting the cheers, but upon reflection made you ashamed (particularly after the scene with Max’s father, although you do understand what had to happen to him).

    I think if your final conclusion is that their actions in those situations were acceptable or even tolerable, then you would have no right to complain about any treatment of captured American soldier under any circumstances.

  23. #24 Rieux
    September 1, 2009

    I just consulted a German colleague of mine. He says the bit about which three fingers to use is BS.

    Huh?

    I was an exchange student in Germany in high school. The three-fingers bit in the film was absolutely correct, and I kicked myself, after the movie revealed the “slip,” that I hadn’t noticed it immediately. (Guess I’ve been back in the States for too long.)

    I did notice that Michael Fassbender, as British Lt. Archie “forgets how to signal the number three with his fingers” Hicox, indeed had a notably weird accent in German. I thought the verisimilitude of the German angle to the movie was impressive.

    It seemed to me the weakest element of the flick was the crazily uneven mishmash of styles. Going from the suspense of the first chapter to “Yee-haw, let’s git us some gol-durned Na-zees’n scalp’em” to occupied-Paris drama to BOOM… well, I guess that’s the way Tarantino makes movies, but to me it was a little jarring, and not terribly appropriate for the context.

    Maybe I would have liked it better if I hadn’t watched all ten episodes of Band of Brothers in mid-August; as a result, in IB, as soon as the “PARIS, JUNE 1944″ card appeared, I kept expecting the 101st Airborne to march in. No such luck.

  24. #25 Johan
    September 14, 2009

    Tyler Cowen thinks the movie is anti-semitic and pro-nazi. Well sort of, any way http://www.marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2009/09/unacceptable-thoughts.html

  25. #26 noodle
    June 1, 2010

    this film was purely dreadful, it spent more time on crappy little details than the bastards themselves. the film had no structure at all. tarentino is a very overrated director, his films have no substance at all. the film did have its moments though, like the 5 minutes through the whole film where you actually saw the bastards in action. the rest, complete waste of time, and not sticking to the story of ww2 at all in any sense. do not waste your money on this film people, watch valkyrie (dunno if i spelt it right) instead

  26. #27 Sam
    June 20, 2010

    Agree with most things apart from you saying Jackie Brown is below excellent. Jackie Brown was one of Tarantino’s masterpieces, it’s just that it wasn’t hyped up as much as the others.

  27. #28 Steven
    January 19, 2011

    This movie is just crap. You know why? Because the concentration camps weren’t discovered until the *END* of the war!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    So the entire movie, I was just pissed off because a bunch of mob-looking people are killing honorable soldiers who only seeked to defend their country. ONLY a small percentage of the Nazi soldiers knew about the concentration camps, that’s why nobody in the Western societies even knew about it till they stumbled upon the actual camps at the end of the war!

  28. #29 John Small Berries
    April 24, 2011

    Steven, the first Nazi concentration camp, Dachau, was announced in the German press in March 1933. Throughout the period leading up to the Second World War, the German newspapers continually reported “the enemies of the Reich” being placed in concentration camps. German newspapers were certainly available outside the Reich, so your claim that “concentration camps weren’t discovered until the *END* of the war” is simply laughable.

    The extermination camps — an important distinction — began operations in June 1941; the New York Times reported on their existence on November 25, 1942 — two and a half years before Germany surrendered; certainly not “the end of the war” by any sane reckoning. The existence of the extermination camps was also known within Germany and its occupied territories as well; for example, a May 1942 Sicherheitssdienst report from Erfurt, Germany reported rumors amongst the population of Jews being shot by the thousands after having dug their own graves (extermination by shooting people in mass burial pits was the first implementation of the “Final Solution” in the extermination camps, but it was deemed inefficient).

    In the movie, when Aldo Raine is forming the Basterds, he mentions “rumors about the armada happening soon”, referring to the invasion of Normandy, which occurred in 1944. As the bulk of the movie was explicitly identified as taking place in 1944, it is perfectly plausible that Raine and the rest of the Basterds would be intent on avenging the Jews who died in the Nazi extermination camps, and not “killing honorable soldiers who only seeked [sic] to defend their country”.

    In short, your complaint about the movie depends wholly upon a shocking ignorance of history.

  29. #30 S
    November 8, 2011

    A crap film made by a director who lost the plot a long time ago (and in the case of this movie, “lost the plot” being an entirely apt phrase to use).

    Thats all you needed to write as a review because thats all this movie was worth.

    And I’m no tarantino hater. Res Dogs was his true masterpiece, followed closely by Pulp Fiction. How he can say that IB was a masterpiece alongside those other two I’ll never know. He clearly dos’nt know the value of his own work.

    Inglorious Basterds is a fucking silly movie. One professional reviewer stated that this was a movie that would benefit a second viewing. I disagree, in fact I’d go as far to say that this is a movie that would have benefitted from being left on the cutting room floor. It is quite simply a waste of celluloid. Had to happen to Tarantino at some point – every genius produces something crap somewhere along his career. This was’nt Tarantino’s masterpiece, it was his reason to quit making films if he cant do better than this. End of review.

  30. #31 John Jacob Lyons
    November 8, 2011

    I just want to say that I really appreciated Post 29 from John Small Berries. It is informative, well referenced and well argued.

  31. #32 Wow
    November 8, 2011

    “Real life, you see, is a place of moral ambiguity and gray area, and a place where we understand the importance of extending due process even to the most vile and loathsome people. It is one of the great virtues of fiction that we can, at least briefly, ignore those messy realities ”

    And ignorance of this is how you get all those people accepting torture of “terrorists” because they see episodes of 24 where EVERYONE watching knows the bad guy, what they did and what’s going on.

    And then ignoring that this is FICTION. IRL you don’t know that this guy has put a bomb in a playschool. You don’t know there even IS a bomb.

    So Bauer is right to torture and bypass the law because the setup is that he has the right guy. You’ll not see an episode where Jack has the wrong guy and does him over for the entire episode, ‘cos that’s not heroic.

    IRL, you usually have the wrong guy unless they were caught in the act.

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