"Watching Donny beat Nazis to death is the closest we ever get to going to the movies." And with that choice line of dialogue, America's geekiest film director Quentin Tarantino simultaneously justifies and condemns the violence in his blood-laced WWII slaughterfest Inglourious Basterds.
Led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), the Basterds of the deliberately misspelled title are a scalping, torturing cadre of Jewish American soldiers who conduct a reign of terror against the Nazis, under direct orders of the U.S. military. (The film never explains the misspelling, except for a shot of the phrase written on Raine's helmet.) The Basterds' tactics are brutal, vengeful, and certainly wouldn't be condoned under the Geneva Convention, particularly Raine's trademark—carving a swastika into the forehead of the lone survivor they leave in the wake of every ambush.
Lt. Raines and company are tapped to join forces with German film star Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) in a covert operation set to take place at the premiere of Joseph Goebbels' (Sylvester Groth) latest propaganda film. Nation's Pride tells of the exploits of Private Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), a Nazi war hero after singlehandedly killing several hundred enemy soldiers from a bell tower. Pvt. Zoller is trying—and failing—to pitch the woo at Emmanuelle Mimieux (Mélanie Laurent), the comely owner of the theater chosen for the premiere, unaware that her real name is Shosanna. Having narrowly escaped the slaughter of her whole family at the hands of notorious Jew hunter Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), Shosanna has her own plans for the premiere, thanks to a basement filled with explosive nitrate 35mm prints.
The intricate plot offers a wealth of opportunities for scene-stopping showpieces of all kinds, from epic spectacle to intimate character work. From a storytelling standpoint, InglouriousBasterds is airtight, suspenseful, and totally gripping, thanks largely to Waltz, whose screen-busting performance ranks as one of the best that Tarantino has ever directed. As the spiky, predatory Col. Landa, Waltz unnerves everyone he encounters with an unsettling joie de vivre and penetrating intensity. His dedication to the Nazi cause and expertise at sniffing out Jews, traitors, and terrorists infuses every scene—with or without him—with tension and menace.
As Shosanna, Col. Landa's foil, Laurent's human, affecting performance proves that Tarantino is serious about creating meaty roles for women. In Shosanna, Tarantino combines the relentless focus of Kill Bill's The Bride (Uma Thurman) with the believable femininity of the women of Death Proof, and gives her a plotline with meaning and emotional depth. Laurent is more than up to the task, especially in a fantastic scene where she prepares for battle to David Bowie's deliciously anachronistic "Cat People."
Of course, the nominal star of the film is Pitt, who seems to be channeling his buddy George Clooney in O Brother Where Art Thou? Though some (like the Academy) believe Pitt to be deserving of top acting accolades, a comedian he has never been, and his attempt at a hillbilly accent fails miserably. He's painful in every single scene, always overshadowed by the other Basterds—even the ones who don't have speaking roles. One wishes that Tarantino had had the guts to cast a Jewish actor as Raines, rather than forcing Brad Pitt to pretend he came down from the Smoky Mountains.