Warning: total spoilers.
By and large, I’m a fan of Quentin Tarantino. Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill Volumes 1 & 2 and Death Proof are among my favourite films, and I’m far from averse to cinematic violence. I hadn’t heard much about Inglourious Basterds, but given that it was Tarantino, I was willing to give it the benefit of the doubt.
This is not a course of action I would reccommend to anyone.
Inglourious Basterds is, without a doubt, one of the worst films I’ve ever seen. It is a Tarantino production only insofar as there is graphic violence, and even then, it’s not up to his usual standard. But I’m getting ahead of myself: first, before we proceed any further, a plot summary.
Our story begins in Nazi-occupied France, where Col. Hans Landa, central antagonist of the film and nicknamed the Jewhunter, is in the process of questioning a local dairy farmer, whom he suspects of harbouring a Jewish family. Drawn out over roughly half an hour, their conversation serves to introduce three plot elements: Landa’s facility with languages, his conversational eccentricity, and the eventual massacre of the Dreyfus family, who are hiding beneath the farmer’s floorboards. The latter is relevant not only as a means of demonstrating Nazi brutality, but because the teenage Shoshanna Dreyfus, our soon-to-be heroine, escapes and flees for the hills.
Cut to Brad Pitt – sorry, Lt. Aldo Raine – addressing a group of Jewish American soldiers, the titular Inglourious Basterds, as they prepare to head behind German lines. Their mission, as described by the distantly part-Apache Raine, is to collect the scalps of one hundred Nazis apiece, a task they are positively hankerin’ to accomplish. Over an hour passes before these two plotlines meet up, but then, at two and a half hours long, the film is quite happy to take its time. Eventually, however, all becomes clear, or at least marginally less uncorrelated: now four years older, Shoshanna Dreyfus is running a cinema in Paris under an assumed French identity, where a young Nazi soldier, Fredrick Zoller, the subject of a soon-to-be-released propaganda film produced by Joseph Goebbels, starts to take an interest in her life. Almost instantly, Zoller decides that Shoshanna’s cinema will be the venue for the premiere of his film – at which point, enter the Basterds and some British allies, who, with the help of German actress-slash-double-agent Bridget von Hammersmark, are planning to blow up the opening night, thereby killing not only Goebbels, but all of the Nazi high command and even the Fuhrer himself. Shoshanna, meanwhile, having been forced to endure a meal in the company of both Goebbels and Landa, has her own plans for eliminating the Nazis on opening night, operating parallel to, but not in concert with, the efforts of the Basterds.
Wacky hijinks, as they say, ensue. Or at least, that seems to have been the general intention. But despite its complex tangential plotting, eccentric supporting characters and bizarre premise, Inglourious Basterds is anything but entertaining. Though usually a master of black humour, witty dialogue and satisfying revenge plots, Tarantino has, in this instance, unfathomably failed to perform in even one of these categories, let alone all three. The grand finale, which features Hitler being shot with a machine gun as the leaders of the Nazi party burn to death, fails on so many levels that it’s difficult to articulate; and when watching Jewish soldiers gun down Hitler in a Tarantino movie isn’t even remotely funny, satisfying or relevant, then it’s fair to say that, somewhere along the line, things have gone spectacularly wrong.
More than anything else, Inglourious Basterds stylistically resembles a Tarantino version of the most recent Cohen Brothers offering, Burn After Reading. Both featured casts composed almost entirely of vile, morally bereft characters, none of whom were the least bit likeable, which consequently made them difficult to watch; both featured loosely interwoven, anti-cathartic plotlines where an excess of human error and mad violence saw everything go horribly wrong; and both starred Brad Pitt as a weird guy with a moustache, although at least in Burn After Reading, he was given a couple of good lines.
At every turn, the viewer encounters a mess of contradictions. We are meant to enjoy seeing Nazis shot, burned and beaten to death on principle, as Lt. Raine’s opening speech makes abundantly clear – a somewhat redunant message, as this will be the automatic position of most viewers. But from thereon in, the Basterds themselves are endowed with no personalities, no histories, no redeeming qualities: they are viscious, avenging demons, which might still be workable were it not for the fact that every Nazi they encounter is given more depth, more humanity and better dialouge than the whole group put together. This makes for some grim, uneasy scenes: there is simply nowhere for the viewer to turn. Raine and his men are faceless brutes, impossible to like, while the Nazis, though more complex characters, are still Nazis. With both sides thus rendered unpalatable, the only hope of narrative salvation lies with Shoshanna Dreyfus, but even there, the audience is denied. Tarantino has a solid history when it comes to revenge films, particularly as orchestrated through the actions of strong, wronged women, but in the final wrap, despite the fact that Landa is directly responsible for murdering the Dreyfus family, he ends up the only Nazi of our acquaintance left alive. Indeed, Shoshanna never so much as singles him out for revenge, instead concentrating her suicidal efforts on bringing down the whole Reich establishment, and while this is not a cardinal sin in and of itself, it stands as a massive and poorly-executed departure from Tarantino’s stock in trade.
Smaller problems, too, abound. Samuel L. Jackson’s token voice-overs are bizarre, given that (a) he doesn’t have so much as a cameo role and (b) the film is otherwise entirely unnarrated. The deliberate misspelling of Inglourious Basterds is shown only once, carved into a rifle butt, with no explanation. We see one character flash back to being whipped, presumably by the Nazis, in an incident which has hitherto never been mentioned, but which appears only minutes before the subject is killed, thus rendering it pointless. Shoshanna and her lover plan death for the Nazis, but while suicide is never discussed, neither do they try and save themselves. History is completely abused in orchestrating the grand finale, but tiny fragments of accurate socio-historical minutiae, like accents, hand gestures and detailed cinema knowledge, nonetheless prove the undoing of multiple characters. Arguably, this latter point is the straw which breaks the donkey’s back. Having spent over an hour painstakingly building up one suite of characters, Tarantino then kills all save one of them in the type of scene which is best described, in the immortal words of Something Positive webcartoonist Randy Milholland, as belonging to the ‘Rocks Fall, Everyone Dies‘ oeuvre.
I wish I could say otherwise, but when push comes to shove, Inglourious Basterds is two-point-five hours of my life – and yours – that can never be reclaimed. If you want to see a gripping action film with brilliant scripting, awesome effects, humour, genuine insight and future cult status, then I suggest you buy tickets for District 9. Anything else is folly.