Two against one 

‘Basterds’ plots tonally at odds.

'INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS': Bradd Pitt stars in Quentin Tarantino's latest.
  • 'INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS': Bradd Pitt stars in Quentin Tarantino's latest.

So here's my problem with “Inglourious Basterds:” I don't quite know what to make of it.

When the trailer came out, I thought, wow, Tarantino's bringing Nazisploitation to a whole new generation. Because that's how the trailer looked, splatter-fests and goose-stepping and leather jackets and French ladies and human caricatures.

The movie doesn't start that way, though. It starts with a simple scene between an SS colonel (played by Christoph Waltz, who, if there is any justice, will go home with a box full of Best Actor trophies) and a dairy farmer who is harboring Jewish fugitives. It's reminiscent of the best classic war dramas of decades past and the best of Tarantino's more intimate scenes — taut, nerve-shredding, packed to the teeth with pathos. Only one Jew makes it out alive, a young woman named Shoshanna.

Soon after, we meet the Basterds themselves, a crack team of Jewish-American soldiers charged with killing (and scalping) as many Nazis as they can. They're headed by Aldo “The Apache” Raine (Brad Pitt), who likes to let the odd Nazi go free after carving a swastika into his forehead. Tarantino's scenes with the Basterds are played with his signature gallows humor: pitch-black comedy that somehow succeeds at being both lively and disconcerting.

But soon we're back with Shoshanna again, following her life under an assumed name as a movie theater owner, and we return to mature drama and suspense worthy of Hitchcock. Shoshanna draws the unwanted attentions of a German war hero and finds herself in the company of the Third Reich's elite; she is thus presented with an opportunity to get her revenge by killing them all in one fell swoop.

Then we're back with the Basterds, and so we go back over the top again, and here's where the trouble begins for me. The film is part splat-sticky Nazisploitation revenge porn, which I don't have a problem with, really. I love trashy cinema, especially when it's this well done, which it almost never is. But it's also part powerhouse war story, a stark look at monstrousness and vindication. There's a jarring stylistic gear shifting each time we switch stories, and it leaves the film feeling uneven and fragmented. It's two films in one, and they slowly twist themselves together as they dance toward the climax at Shoshanna's theater, but they never quite get their steps in sync.

 Intentional fragmentation of a story is part of Tarantino's signature, but this is different. It's like being served steak au poivre with a side of donuts.

And then there's the ending, the part I really want to talk to you about but can't, for obvious reasons. If the black comedy of the Basterds, perfectly executed though it was, detracted from Shoshanna's story, it's nothing compared to the ending, an orgy of that revenge porn we've been building on for over two hours. Shoshanna's side of it is artful and harrowing, while the Basterds side of it is just gleeful blunt force trauma.

The ending leaves us with … what? The problem, at bottom, is that I don't really know what Tarantino was trying to say here, if anything. Nazis are bad and we should cheer their torture and death? OK.

Maybe he wasn't trying to say anything. Maybe, as my movie companion put it, he was doing a grown-up version of Captain America punching out Hitler on the cover of a Marvel comic. I suppose that's possible, but if so, he ruins that fantasy with a very real and moving human story.

It sounds like I hated it, but I really didn't. “Inglourious Basterds” is well written, well directed, well acted (Pitt's the weakest of the bunch, but he's still pretty good), well edited. There is much to love in this movie, but the whole seems rather less than the sum of its parts, almost as if it builds itself up to tear itself down, and I'd much rather discuss that with you than review it for you, if for no other reason than the fear that I've missed something.




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