‘Inglourious Basterds’: The suspense will kill you

August 17, 2009

No matter what you imagine Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” is going to be, think again.

 

OK, yes, Tarantino’s film is a World War II thriller with scenes of gruesome violence. But anyone who comes in expecting – or hoping – that the action defines the film will be wrong.

 

What Tarantino understands is that the key ingredient in a thriller – the thrill, if you will – is the suspense, not the payoff. Sure, in any work built on a tension/release model, the release feels good – but it’s the tension that thrills you, that makes you squirm and feel totally alive to the moment.

 

That’s why the saying goes, “The suspense is killing me.” It’s the anticipation that makes every nerve jangle, not the catharsis.

 

And that’s what the cagey, canny Tarantino has done with “Inglourious Basterds,” his most accomplished, crazily entertaining film yet: He’s created a series of scenes of unbearable, exquisite tension. He positively luxuriates in suspense – just before he hits the release and lets the screen explode with gunfire and other pyrotechnics.

 

It’s as if the five acts into which this film is divided are each a big bomb with a long fuse. Early on in each act, he lights that fuse, then lets the audience simmer in the suspense he creates, even as they wonder how much longer before the burning fuse reaches the dynamite.

 

What stokes that suspense? Talk – lots of talk. Great gushing torrents of the kind of funny, complex dialogue for which Tarantino is so justly known.

 

Tarantino has written a series of highly recognizable tropes – sort of non-interrogation interrogation scenes, as it were – in which the good guys are cornered by the Nazis, who may or may not know who they are and what they’re up to. Can the heroes play the hand they’ve been dealt and walk away? You can almost hear Tarantino’s brain calculating just how long he can let this play out, what tense little twists and clever escapes he can incorporate into these conversations that will ratchet the pressure without forcing matters to a head.

 

The film – illiterate title spelling aside – has nothing to do with the dreadful 1978 exploitation film (with a correctly spelled version of the same title) that starred Bo Svenson and Fred Williamson, except in the broadest possible way: Americans fighting Nazis. Tarantino’s inspirations seem to be more classic action-thrillers: “The Dirty Dozen” and “The Guns of Navarone,” to name a couple.

 

The plot, such as it is, focuses on two sets of heroes. One is the eponymous band of American soldiers – Jews except for their leader, played by Brad Pitt with a squirrelly backwoods accent. Their mission: to hunt down and scalp Nazis, in an effort to demoralize German forces in the period just before and after D-Day.

 

Eventually, their mission winds up on a parallel track with that of French Jew Shoshanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent), who has escaped a Nazi slaughter of her family and now runs a Paris movie theater. She’s strong-armed into letting her theater be used for the premiere of a Nazi propaganda feature, which will be attended by Hitler and the entire Nazi high command. So even as the Basterds focus on blowing up the same target, she has plans to burn down the theater with all of the Nazis inside.

 

But the plot is less important than the elaborate dialogue scenes that Tarantino constructs. And the person who seems to have the most fun with these scenes is Christoph Waltz, who plays wily Gestapo Col. Hans Landa (and who won a best-actor award at Cannes for his performance).

 

Landa is like a huge, self-satisfied cat, smilingly toying with mice he has every intention of slaughtering. To him, the game is watching them nurture the hope that they have a chance of getting away, that they’re mere inches from freedom when, in fact, the opposite is true.

 

But that’s the beauty of Tarantino’s writing and Waltz’s performance. Like Landa’s victims, the audience can never quite tell whether he knows or he’s bluffing, whether he’s a sadist or just an ignorant fool.

 

It’s all about expectation – as is the response to every Tarantino film. At this point, it would seem that Tarantino has painted himself into a career corner with the expectations of critics and fans. The ultra-violence, the snappy dialogue full of hip pop cultural references – these are what the audience (and the critics) come in to the theater hoping/wanting/expecting to see.

 

But Tarantino is too smart to let himself be defined by the expectations of others. Yes, there are flourishes here – little spurts of style, as when a narrator (Samuel L.Jackson) suddenly delivers a dollop of backstory, or when a voice on a telephone is suddenly recognizable as Harvey Keitel, or when the soundtrack offers music from other movies (“Green Leaves of Summer” from “The Alamo,” David Bowie’s “Cat People,” big helpings of Ennio Morricone and Charles and Elmer Bernstein) that has nothing to do with this one, yet seems oddly fitting.

 

But those signature moves – along with the outbursts of wild violence that suddenly eliminate what seem to be crucial characters at unexpected moments – they’re like lagniappe to the larger purpose: creating a movie that repeatedly brings you to the edge of your seat for two and a half hours.

 

On that score, Tarantino has succeeded beautifully. “Inglourious Basterds” is further proof that he’s one of the most unique and inventive filmmakers working today.

 

 

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