Not to be reductive, but let’s begin by explaining what Quentin Tarrantino’s new film is not: As in, it’s not much about the Basterds, a hand-picked group of Jewish soldiers the Allies turn into an elite covert unit, fighting behind enemy lines in WW II France. Despite the sentiment of the trailer, it’s not really a bloody action thrill-ride, either. Nor is it a Kill Bill-style homage to stylized violence. No, the director whose work factors most deliberately in Tarrantino’s mind appears to have been Alfred Hitchcock.
Take, for example, the opening scene: At a remote dairy farm in France, a group of SS, led by criminally charming Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz, in excellent form) interrogate a farmer about housing Jews in his house. The two men sit at the table, volleying back and forth, settling into the business of attempted deception. Tarantino draws out the scene endlessly — Landa drinks several glasses of milk, the farmer brings out his pipe to smoke — before we even see that there are, in fact, Jews hidden under the floorboards. The film is filled with such scenes — a bit like the climactic, drawn-out final battle in Bill — where it’s as if Tarrantino is testing your resolve. The story eventually follows a young, orphaned Jewish cinema owner named Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent), and a young, dashing German soldier, Zoller (Daniel Brühl), who has just starred in the latest masterwork of propaganda by Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth), based on the soldier’s own story of derring do. Through his infatuation with Shosanna, he convinces Goebbels to premiere the film at her cinema, indirectly offering her a chance at sweet revenge.
Suffice it to say, the Basterds have similar intentions. As the head of the team, Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) is ornery, sadistic and almost a complete non-factor. Tarantino has turned the entire crew into his McGuffin, drawing you in with the idea of their story, but instead focusing far more on Shosanna’s plan to lock down the cinema with all the German officers and officials inside and set it ablaze. The effect, therefore, is peculiarly unsatisfying, like watching a 007 film about Miss Moneypenny and Q, with Bond only vaguely in the background. We rarely get to see the Basterds at work (though, the one notable exception is certainly graphic), which shows a level of restraint in Tarantino rarely seen before, as if he were channeling Michael Heneke.
The problem is, some of that restraint takes away what might have been the film’s more engaging material. It’s also not exactly consistent, in fact, at times he seems to be playing a game of “what can I get away with?” At odd times, he’ll throw in a ’70s-style freeze-frame-and-graphic maneuver, or suddenly use a VO (from Samuel Jackson, naturally) for one scene and never again, or inexplicably use a David Bowie song in the soundtrack that was actually written for a completely different film. The effect is oddly undisciplined, despite his attempt to ratchet down the stylistic overkill in other ways.
Piers Marchant is a Philly-based writer and editor, and the EIC (and film critic) for two.one.five magazine (215mag.com). His reviews can be found on 215mag.com and his tumblr blog, Sweet Smell of Success. You can also follow him on twitter @kafkaesque83.
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