Inglourious Basterds: Laying all the cards on the table.
My colleague Crash, in his very good review of Basterds says “the Quentin Tarantino movie never arrives…the payoff never arrives.” I understand where he’s coming from, but I disagree. If you go in expecting an action flick, you’re going to be disappointed. If you go in expecting a Tarantino flick, you will not.
Since seeing the movie, I’ve been trying to wrap my head around the theme. At first I thought it was perception, then expectations, and then I thought about identity, and it—the movie and Tarantino in general—clicked.
Tarantino’s foremost talent is creating characters, and instead of plot twists, he does character twists. He’ll introduce a character, let you get to know them, and right when you think you have them figured out, he’ll have them do a 180…and it usually involves a gun. In Reservoir Dogs we think we know Nice Guy Eddie, until he casually dismisses the cop. In Pulp Fiction’s defining scene, we’re wondering if Samuel L. Jackson’s character is all talk, all of a sudden he proves he’s not. How about Robert DeNiro and Bridget Fonda’s bow outs in Jackie Brown?
So what’s that have to do with identity? Since the characters drive the movie, Tarantino has to keep them interesting, and he does it by never quite revealing their true identity—he always keeps you guessing, never quite sure what they’re going to do next.
And that’s the key to Inglourious Basterds—you’re never sure what the characters are up to. But Tarantino takes it to the next level by making a movie where, in addition to keeping the audience guessing, he keeps the characters guessing, too. Every scene in Basterds is driven by one character trying to uncover the true identity of another. At that, Tarantino creates moments of Hitchockian-quality suspense.
Take the opening scene: a quaint little farmhouse once upon a time in Nazi-occupied France. The farmer’s out chopping wood. A group of Nazi-looking cars drives up and out steps our villain, Hans Landa. Landa wants to know if the farmer is harboring any Jews. As the scene is set up, we don’t know if the farmer is. Through the course of Landa’s interrogation (disguised as a conversation), Tarantino masterfully reveals that the farmer is indeed harboring Jews. Once we know that, our attention shifts to Landa. We know the farmer’s harboring Jews, the farmer knows he’s harboring Jews, but do we know if Landa knows the farmer’s harboring Jews? Tarantino milks (literally) the suspense with Landa’s speech on being able to think like a Jew, lets us breathe with the comic relief of Landa’s Holmesian Calabash pipe…and then Landa gets down to business.
The other thing Tarantino excels at is building up the final confrontation between the protagonist and the antagonist, and that’s where I respectfully disagree with Crash’s stance that there’s no payoff.
There is, at least thematically. In a movie where every character takes on multiple identities—some lead double lives, some wear costumes, some are legends, nicknames, double agents—the true identity of Hans Landa is the most elusive. At the other end of the spectrum is Aldo Raine. The moment he appears, we know everything about him. Moreso, we feel he’s utterly incapable of deceit—and in the movie’s funniest moment, he proves it.
The showdown comes in two parts—at Landa’s character-defining moment, we lose any hope of ever knowing the real Hans Landa. Then comes Aldo’s, who defines his character by forcing an identity onto the Nazi. It’s a very satisfying payoff.
One more thing. A lot has been made of Tarantino rewriting history. I can’t help but think that by doing so, Tarantino’s performed a character twist on himself.
Anyway, I think it’s a teriffick mouvie. 5/5