Inglourious Basterds.Posted: August 24, 2009
The subject of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds is death. Not killing, although there’s plenty of that. Death. There’s not a moment in the film’s two-and-a-half-hour length that you aren’t confronting the difference between life and death, and the way one can turn into the other, for any of us, in the blink of an eye. This is probably true of all of Tarantino’s movies; offhand I can’t think of another filmmaker whose body of work is so able to make us confront the horror of this cosmic reality. That he’s able to do this while giving us an ecstatically good time at the movies makes his genius even more awe-inspiring.
Set in Nazi-occupied France in World War II, the film makes an interesting contrast to another war film of this summer, Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, about an American bomb squad in Iraq. The Hurt Locker is an excellent film, but with a different subject: not death itself, but danger. Its characters face the possibility of dying every day, and we come to understand the traumatizing effect this has on them in a most powerful way; but the film doesn’t compel us to feel horror at the fragility of our own lives. It’s happening to them, not us.
Tarantino won’t let you off that easy. The only way we get through the day in our “real” lives is to live in constant denial of the truth that we’re going to die and be consigned to some other world, possibly hell, or to nothingness, which might even be worse. A Tarantino movie blends humor and violence (and by the way, while the violence that happens in this movie is gruesome, it occupies surprisingly little real estate, screentime-wise) to strip away that denial and make you know the truth you spend the rest of your life avoiding. It’s a funhouse ride that isn’t kidding around.
Whether the characters whose lives are at stake in Basterds are Nazis, Jews, collaborator French, resistance French, or innocent bystanders, there’s no distancing yourself from them. Some critics have understood how great this film is, but others have complained that it rambles or even grows tedious over its length. I don’t know what the hell (no pun intended) is wrong with them. From the first scene of this epic film (in which an SS officer interviews, in suave and sophisticated fashion, a French dairy farmer he suspects of hiding Jews) all the way to its Grand Guignol climax and quiet denouement, I was gripped by it. Proper attention has been paid elsewhere to the superior acting in this film, but the main source of the film’s power is Tarantino’s writing. The man knows structure, and the man knows how to write dialogue that won’t let you go. Best of all, he knows how to make a movie that has its way with you and leaves you limp as more movies used to, but very very few do now.