Sunday, September 06, 2009

Inglourious Basterds

I agree with Roger Ebert that - I'm paraphrasing - no good movie is ever too long and no bad movie can be too short. Inglourious Basterds is too long.

I enjoyed most of it, but not consistently and there were several scenes where it was clear that Tarantino was just indulging himself. I like Tarantino's dialogue when it's clever and well-delivered, but in these scenes it just went on and on, adding nothing to the story and failing even as entertainment for its own sake. Pulp Fiction tended to ramble too, but at least it was Samuel L. Jackson and Christopher Walken doing the rambling. Basterds tries to do the same thing, but - except for Brad Pitt - with much less interesting actors.

Not that it's poorly acted. It's certainly not that. But another problem with the movie is that it can't decide what it wants to be. Is it Shindler's List or The Dirty Dozen? The scenes with Mélanie Laurent as a Jewish woman in Nazi-occupied Paris are powerful and emotional. She's a wonderful actress and I felt what she was feeling every step of the way: fear, horror, relief, anger, vengeance. I loved that stuff.

I also loved the bits with Brad Pitt and his Basterds. That's the Dirty Dozen stuff. Pitt's hilarious as Lt. Aldo Raine, a tough-as-nails mountain boy who's put together an elite Nazi-hunting squadron made up almost entirely of Jews. The graphic violence and the humor found in it are pure Tarantino and it's fun to watch.

What the film never pulls off is marrying these two parts. It was jarring to keep switching back and forth between them without any transition. And the serious stuff undermined the goofiness of the fun stuff.

Tarantino almost solved the problem with Christoph Waltz as the movie's main villain, Col. Hans Landa. He's a great character: a charming, but deadly member of the SS who's been nicknamed "The Jew-Hunter." He's responsible for ferreting out all the French Jews who've gone into hiding since the Nazis invaded, and he's very good at his job. He takes pleasure in it too, not because he has anything against Jews personally, but because he loves using his skills as a detective. In any other country or period of history, he would've been the hero.

Don't misunderstand me, he's not at all heroic in the movie. He's a monster. But he's well-written and brilliantly acted and it's just possible to imagine that under different circumstances he would've been someone to admire. As it is, you cringe every time he's on the screen - especially if any of the heroes are present - because you have no doubt at all that Landa's going to figure out what the good guys are up to. He's going to find that one little loose thread in whatever story the good guys are telling and he's going to pull on it until the whole thing unravels and they stand revealed. He's genuinely frightening.

The problem is that the script asks too much of the character. He's supposed to bridge the film's two moods. He's responsible for most of Laurent's misery and horror; he's also the character with the best chance of uncovering the Allies' grand plan that Pitt's team is playing a major role in. But you can't set up a villain who would've been right at home in Defiance and then knock him down with tactics out of Top Secret. Even if - as I suspect - there may be a thoughtful reason for doing so.

At one point in the movie, someone refers to the Allies' plan for wiping out a bunch of high-ranking Nazis as a "terrorist action." And - since it involves suicide bombers and killing a large number of civilians as collateral damage - it really is. I don't think this is accidental. Tarantino's too smart a guy to toss a word like "terrorist" into his movie and not intend for us to mull that over. Are the Allies terrorists? They're obviously the good guys in the film. The Nazis are never sympathetic. The only one who has a shot at that is Daniel Brühl's young private who's smitten with Laurent's character, but even he becomes creepy and unlikable before long. So, if the Nazis are Nazis and the Allies are terrorists, who are we supposed to root for? The less evil side, I guess.

There's another element working here too. All that graphic, terroristic Nazi-killing is obviously supposed to be cathartic. It certainly is for the characters, but it's so indulgent that I'm guessing it's supposed to be for the audience too. In fact, there's a scene where Pitt describes watching one of his men beat Nazis to death with a baseball bat as "the closest we ever get to going to the movies." And when it happens, sure enough Pitt and the rest of the men have joined the audience, revelling in the graphic death of a Nazi sergeant. Or maybe it's the audience who've joined them since we're enjoying the scene in exactly the same way that they are. We're all at the movies together watching Donnie beat Nazis to death. We're now part of the team; complicit in whatever they do next. Only what they do next is plan an act of terrorism.

I'm not sure how Tarantino wants me to feel about that, but I know how I felt. Uneasy and creeped out. They lost my full investment in the mission when they started strapping bombs to themselves to sneak into a civilian event. Even if the success of the mission meant an early end to the war, I wasn't able to get behind it. Maybe that's the privilege of thinking about it 60-something years later. Maybe I would've felt differently about it if I didn't know that the Nazis would end up defeated anyway. But I do know how the war ended and that affects my ability to put myself in the moment. So now I'm detached from what's going on, just watching other people get their catharsis, and it's not much fun. It looks like it's supposed to be fun, but it's not.

So we come back around to the imperfect mixture of serious and fun in the movie. If the Nazis had stayed cartoons; if the Allies hadn't crossed the line into terrorism, I could've stayed behind whatever mission they came up with instead. Conversely, if all of this had been played as a legitimate, serious questioning of whether US-sponsored terrorism is ever justifiable - without asking me to support it in order to enjoy the movie - I would have appreciated joining that discussion. As it is, it's kind of a mess. An often enjoyable mess, but still a mess.

Three out of five tough-as-nails mountain boys.

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