This review contains plot spoilers – read at your own discretion.
The final line of Inglorious Basterds, the seventh film by Quentin Tarantino, is uttered by Brad Pitt’s Aldo Raine, as he says, ‘I think this just might be my masterpiece.’ Whether a in-world remark from the over-the-top American Lieutenant or a meta comment from Tarantino himself, it’s hard to disagree that Inglorious Basterds may become just that – a modern masterpiece.
The film’s plot is more straightforward than other Tarantino features, despite its length of almost 150 minutes. Tarantino’s having fun with viewers here: where we would expect a game-changing third-act twist á la Reservoir Dogs, the plot beats are laid out to us in the film’s setup – a refreshing change, but of course there are some subversions of this. One thing Inglorious Basterds does expertly is keep viewers on their toes. Sure, we’re told what events are due to unfold, but the peripheral elements surrounding this are kept a secret. It makes the film a more rewarding experience – we find surprise in the characters’ journey towards the conclusion, rather than the events that ultimately unfold at the end.
Inglorious Basterds is brought to life by a terrific cast – it’s impossible to understate how good Christoph Waltz is as Landa, flitting from a comforting presence to menacing and sadistic in an instant. His performance is simply show-stopping, and absolutely deserving of the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. The only regret surrounding his character may be his conclusion – the ending is somewhat abrupt, leaving us with little resolution, and Landa is certainly a character that deserves closure.
The Basterds themselves are also sublime – Brad Pitt stands out as the overt, outlandish Raine, combining brutality with an underlying humour, best illustrated by his escapades speaking Italian, which provides a hilarious moment of light-hearted relief. Michael Fassbender is also spectacular as British Lieutenant Hicox: granted, the representation of British people is cliché, but there’s enough nuance in Tarantino’s presentation of Hicox, notably the German three-finger conundrum, that make him a memorable character.
There’s glimmers of excellence in others – Daniel Brühl’s Zoller is one of the most interesting characters here, and he delivers a splendid performance, but just as we begin to learn more about Zoller, as he violently attacks Mélanie Laurent’s Shosanna, he dies. This entire scene is made so captivating by Brühl and Laurent, as very little dialogue of import is uttered – a tribute to their individual talents and the chemistry between them.
The authenticity of the Second World War setting is unparalleled, and it makes for a very rich viewing experience. From the detail of soldiers’ uniforms to dominance of French and German over English in dialogue, Inglorious Basterds feels very engrained in the era it’s set in, noticeable even from the old-fashioned opening credits. This is occasionally contrasted with visual gags for character introductions (an element that soon became another Hollywood trope) and music from the 1960s and 70s, but instead of undermining the setting, it reinforces the nuance of Tarantino’s filmmaking.
As with many contemporary films, it’s the final scenes of Inglorious Basterds that arise debate. They certainly feels rushed – we go from the murder of all Third Reich personnel in Shosanna’s cinema to the end credits rolling in a matter of minutes, and for such an impactful sequence, more exploration of what came after would’ve been satisfying. That said, it makes sense why this isn’t the case: this isn’t a film about World War Two, rather the Basterds themselves, and as their mission came to an end with the death of Hitler, Goebbels and so on, it makes sense that their arc would conclude there too.
As one of the most highly-praised filmmakers of our time, it’s indisputable that Tarantino has numerous masterpieces in his filmography. But the question is, does Inglorious Basterds fit on this list? It’s certainly in the conversation – there’s a fascinating, subversive plot that proves hugely refreshing, some truly remarkable performances, and a vastly authentic and immersive historical setting. Even the points of debate of the film’s quality, from a rushed conclusion and lack of development of some characters, boil down to the artistic direction of Tarantino, and the nuanced way in which he presents stories on film. Only time will reveal whether Basterds earns the ‘masterpiece’ accolade, but for such an enjoyable ride, it wouldn’t surprise us one bit.