It’s often said about ambitiously failed works of art that they have greatness in them. That but for the grace of the muses – a better edit here, a dialogue tweak there – the work in question would have been able to vault that shadowy and indistinct line that separate those things which ultimately worked and those that didn’t. This isn’t much help to the filmmakers, of course, because such statements are often left vague and fuzzy, the speaker trailing off into an indecipherable musing on what exactly it was that left them so nonplussed.
In the case of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds, the film doesn’t just have greatness in it, there’s mighty rivers of greatness simply leaking out of the thing. Its multi-lingual dialogue sings and trills with dangerously poetic abandon. The spine-shivering soundtrack is heaped high with deeply wonderful slabs of tweaked Morricone and Schifrin, not to mention an excitingly repurposed David Bowie track from his “Let’s Dance” period. There’s at least two Oscar-worthy performances in here, and that reckoning doesn’t even take into account watching Brad Pitt – as a flinty Appalachian officer leading his titular band of Jewish-American soldiers around the Western Front scalping Nazis – having more fun than he’s been witnessed experiencing on-screen since the early 1990s.
One could rattle on about any number of other things about the film, from Robert Richardson’s classically gorgeous widescreen cinematography to the numerous sequences of Hitchcockian heart-stuttering tension, but the point is clear. This is passionate and unique filmmaking in the greatest auteurist sense. Certainly Inglourious Basterds nods at numerous other films — from The Dirty Dozen and Sergeant York to The Battle of Algiers and the 1978 Italian shlocker that gave this film its name (this is Tarantino, after all, and cinematic quotation is just the lingua franca) — but this is much more than just a geeky, wink-wink mash-up. For all the references on display here, the film somehow isn’t always reminding you of ten other films, a rarity in these footnoted and hyperlinked times.
So then why doesn’t Inglourious Basterds take that leap into greatness? As is too often the case, Tarantino had the components of a masterpiece in his hands but let them slip through his fingers. He works on the script for something like ten years, during which time the thing morphs from a straight World War II “guys on a mission” flick to a mammoth miniseries. Eventually the monster gets whacked into shape as an audacious, five-chapter exploration of fantasy and wish fulfillment, as seen through the prism of pre-Spielberg WWII cinema.
Four of the chapters work fantastically, the last collapses under the weight of the filmmaker’s conceit. As with following the tart, smart Kill Bill with the dreadfully otiose Kill Bill 2, or simply thinking that a great soundtrack could save Jackie Brown, Tarantino seems to have gotten high on the fumes of his own (admittedly addictive) creation here and just not known when to quit. It happens.
If it seems odd to accuse a filmmaker like Tarantino of excess, consider that his old reputation as cinema’s wild-eyed, blood-and-guts enfant terrible is far from earned. What impresses most about the man’s films is not their punches of raw violence but their addictive focus on the spoken word. Yes, Reservoir Dogs spilt its share of claret, but it would barely have raised an eyebrow without the goony poetry of the characters’ motormouth interactions.
These verbal skills of Tarantino’s have solidified in Inglourious Basterds into something quite formidable. This is particularly true with the character of German officer Hans Landa, played with lip-smacking zeal by journeyman German actor Christoph Waltz, who deserves every one of the many accolades that will be hurled at him this year. From the first chapter (“Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied France”) — where Landa interrogates a farmer hiding several Jews under his floor, to later, when Landa questions a woman whom he doesn’t realize is one of those same Jews the farmer was hiding from him – Waltz brings an air of gleefully calculated malice that’s like little else ever seen on film. Flitting effortlessly from one language to the next (Tarantino’s obsession with words achieves a new height here, with many plot points revolving around minutiae of linguistics and translation), Waltz is an impish demon who expresses more malevolence through the devouring of a piece of strudel than most actors can by waving a gun.
But by the time Tarantino is done with Waltz, it’s too much of a good thing, just like the film as a whole. In its fevered journey through a quasi-fantastic warscape – where British officers talk in full, whiskey-soaked private-club cliché (“Let’s give Jerry the what-for” and so on) and a band of American commandos can tear around Europe for years without having to learn any German – Inglourious Basterds builds to several beautifully calibrated mini-climaxes, but exhausts its energy (and invention) well before the fiery, bullet-pocked, and strangely anticlimactic finale.
There is greatness in this film, and but for about 15 minutes’ worth of grandiosity and overkill, it would be a great film, indeed.