Inglourious Basterds Movie Review: Ambitious, Exciting, Awkward and...Soulful?

Editor's Note: Russ's review contains spoilers.

The climax of Inglourious Basterds has the most terrifying image ever to appear in a Quentin Tarantino film. It is a movie vision of hell and an inversion of Holocaust ovens, flames consuming the wicked as a laughing ghostly beauty swirls in smoke. Though some of Basterds feels rushed and slightly below Tarantino's 'matter of fact' visual standards — Kill Bill aside, his films aren't known for visual splendor — that one vision is almost justification enough for the entire film.

Inglourious Basterds doesn't even need the justification. It is ambitious, exciting, awkward, wild ride. If Basterds is more frustratingly flawed than most of Tarantino's films, it also contains uncommonly memorable highs. Through a pair of converging storylines, the film pushes forward the ideas about storytelling, legends and propaganda that have always lurked in Tarantino's films. And by confronting evil head-on, rather than circling it in an elliptical daze, Inglourious Basterds may be the most soulful movie the director has yet made.

This is almost certainly not the movie you expect it to be. On one hand, there is Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) and his team of 'basterds', a Jewish-American hit squad targeting Nazi soldiers in occupied France. On the other, there is Shosanna (Melanie Laurent), a Jewish girl in hiding who is presented with the opportunity of a lifetime. The basterds see gruesome action, but this is not an action movie. Because hovering over both stories like the spectre on Brocken is Hans Landa, the Jew Hunter (Christolph Waltz), and through him the film revises and riffs on history, legend and evil.

Waltz's turns Landa into one of the most charismatic personifications of evil to grace a movie screen. The multilingual Jew Hunter is witty, friendly and urbane. His detective skills are inherited from Holmes, and his dedication to craft at work would be admirable if his intent was not abominable. (One might react to Landa the way Alien's Ash reacts to the xenomorph: "I admire its purity.") The performance is magnificent, and yet it threatens to break the film.

No one figure in the film manages to counter Landa. Aldo Raine, though vicious and dedicated, is too much a buffoon. (Is Brad Pitt's exaggerated country accent meant to suggest the soldier has deliberately created a cartoonish persona for himself? Thinking of Pulp Fiction's line, "let's get into character," perhaps so.) And Shosanna, similarly dedicated to her cause, is too often sidelined in the narrative. Neither comes close to equaling Waltz's versatility and energy, much less upstaging it.

Yet Basterds works, because Tarantino shapes it into a strange meditation on the human capacity for evil. It can be a confused one at times (viz: Eli Roth playing the most violent basterd and, off screen, directing the footage of Nation's Pride, a film within the film that looks a lot like the Nazi version of torture porn) but through Waltz's performance it remains powerful.

Landa is the most cut and dried version of evil ever seen in a Tarantino film. Previously he's cast gangsters, thieves and killers as morally ambiguous figures. Death Proof's Stuntman Mike was overtly evil, yes, but also ethereal. Landa is a recognizably human figure of pure evil, a grinningly personable and coldly effective killer. He is all the more frightening when you realize his acts may not be born of deep-rooted belief, but of simple opportunism. He's the ultimate Nazi soldier in more ways than one — I'm thinking of the old notion of men in Nazi uniform 'just following orders'. By contrast, Tarantino's Hitler is comical, almost inept. The film suggests that the officers and rank and file soldiers were the Reich's real motivating villains. Hitler is a catalyst.

By casting marquee movie star Brad Pitt as Raine, Tarantino actively invites the audience to misinterpret his vision of evil. Raine, bigger than life and initially easy to root for, is not the movie's hero. He hates Nazis, sure, but he has no honor. Shosanna is closer to being the hero, but in truth, just as the narrative is split between their two storylines, we have to assemble a sort of virtual protagonist from Raine and Shosanna. Things get more complicated when Fredrick Zoller, a famous Nazi war hero, played with jovial intensity by Daniel Brühl, stands up as more honorable than either Landa or Raine. For Raine, just wearing the Nazi uniform is enough to stain your soul forever. Brühl's performance almost calls that into question. That character quartet — Raine and Shosanna, Zoller and Landa, is the fascinating heart of the film.

Despite the film's achievements, I couldn't shake the feeling that Basterds was rushed. The editing felt occasionally perfunctory, even choppy, especially in scene transitions that linger with shots in ways that don't always appear meaningful. And while Robert Richardson's cinematography is much more lively than initial footage made it appear, some of the work looks more like television than cinema.

The fast production pace takes the heaviest toll in the three dialogue sequences that should be the film's most tense moments. One of the three scenes is salvaged by skillful use of a relatively obscure music cue (Charles Bernstein's 'Bath Attack', from The Entity) but none of the three conversations built quite the level of tension needed to make them truly suspenseful. They get close, and there are deliciously taut moments in each sequence, but no one is quite the show-stopper it might have been.

And Tarantino's propensity for self-aggrandizement has moved beyond ill-advised onscreen appearances to arrows embedded within the film that point straight back through the lens at the man behind the curtain. The title card, defiantly misspelled, is a perfect recreation of the front page of his widely-circulated screenplay. Shosanna seems to refer explicitly to Tarantino's warm receptions at Cannes when she proudly says the French respect directors. And try as I might, I can't distinguish the speaker of the movie's last final line, which proclaims the creation of a masterpiece. Is that the character speaking, or Tarantino?

I can forgive those indulgences, because for the first time I got the sense that Tarantino is considering the importance of what he's making. He has always revised and re-cast history, but now, though the guise of simple WWII wish-fulfillment, he's actually tackling a core element of the real world. Previously he's shown concern for the souls of his characters. Now, as he asks us to question just what evil is, I'd almost swear Tarantino cares about the souls of the audience.

/Film score: 7 out of 10