There are elements of a Quentin Tarantino film you can always count on -- upturning genre conventions, strong female characters, extended conversational detours, and forceful violence. Right from its engaging, nail-biting beginning, Inglourious Basterds overflows with QT's signature style.
The opening scene in question involves Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) -- nicknamed "the Jew Hunter" because of his uncanny work during the nascent Nazi occupation of France -- interrogating a French farmer on the whereabouts of his missing Jewish neighbors. Like the infamous Christopher Walken/Dennis Hopper showdown in True Romance, their conversation grows increasingly intense with each line. However, where Hopper's ornately verbose history lesson/ethnic jab had little to do with the actual story, the dialogue in this exchange all relates directly to the plot. Landa knows exactly how to slowly inflict psychological stress on his subject so that the victim will eventually break -- an element of the character that Waltz underplays to arresting affect; this is one genial-seeming killer, and he's all the more terrifying because of it.
Since Landa has built such a terrifying reputation for himself, there is little surprise that many people want him dead. One of them is Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent), a Jewish woman passing herself off as a Gentile during the occupation. Landa wipes out her whole family, and years later Shosanna finds herself in the right place at the right time to exact revenge. She makes her living as the owner and operator of a movie theater that will host the world premiere for "A Nation's Hero" -- the latest piece of cinematic Nazi propaganda from Joseph Goebbels -- and Landa has been put in charge of security for the gala event. However, unbeknownst to Shosanna, a small unit of Jewish-American soldiers, led by the fearless Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), also plan to attack the theater that night in order to assassinate the upper echelon of the Third Reich -- including Hitler himself.
Laying his story out in five chapters, Tarantino manages to keep his densely populated tale clear; we always understand the character's goals, and see where they conflict with each other. And because Tarantino has such faith in himself as a writer, he fills each chapter with protracted verbal showdowns -- like the opener between Landa and the farmer -- that make an audience as white-knuckled as any conventional action scene. He knows well enough to punctuate all the verbal dexterity with blasts of kinetically staged violence -- it's hard not to flinch when Sgt. Donnie Donowitz (Eli Roth), one of Raine's men, uses a Louisville Slugger to bash in a Nazi's head. As memorable as the movie's violence is, Tarantino ratchets up the tension with his words -- and he's far more interested in the build-up than the release, something that might alienate those looking for a wall-to-wall bloodbath. Inglourious Basterds doesn't skip along swiftly, but anybody with a taste for Tarantino dialogue will savor every minute.
Tarantino has always cast his films to perfection, and the performers here know how to get the most out of the ornate language. Brad Pitt uses a hilarious Southern drawl, and his attempts at speaking Italian are a comic highlight. As a German movie star spying for the Allies, Diane Kruger manages to be sexy, tough, smart, and flirty. But she isn't the only hard-nosed dame in the cast, thanks to Melanie Laurent's striking performance; the French actress embodies both Shosanna's determination, as well as her fear, with equal aplomb. But as good as the entire cast is, Christoph Waltz walks away with the movie. His calmness makes the simple act of eating strudel more frightening that you could've ever thought possible. He exudes calm logic and mercilessness, and he plays Landa so matter-of-factly that even when the character does something unexpected it always seems thoroughly plausible.
Although the actors are flawless, it is Tarantino whose name will go hand in hand with the film -- he is by the modern definition of the word an "auteur." It's impossible to miss the distinctive mark he puts on all his films, but as an artist he doesn't repeat himself. Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction are both crime films, but they are very different in structure -- just as the badass female leads in Kill Bill and Death Proof are the way they are for very different reasons. Because Tarantino keeps evolving as an artist, Inglourious Basterds might not be the movie you'd expect, but those who still worship at the altar of Tarantino will find ample reason to keep the faith.
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