Melanie Laurent, in 'Inglourious Basterds'

Dir. Quentin Tarantino
(2009, R, 153 min)
★ ★ ★

Inglourious Basterds opens with its best scene. Colonel Hans Landa of the SS (Christoph Waltz), nicknamed “the Jew Hunter,” visits a French dairy farm in 1941. His conversation with the taciturn farmer (Denis Menochet), which reminded me of the slow-building Anton Chigurh scenes in No Country for Old Men, is full of tensely simmering dread; Landa knows the farmer is harboring Jews, and the farmer knows he knows, and over the course of about fifteen minutes they sit at his kitchen table and engage in a kind of chilling small talk that faintly conceals their real subject.

The scene ends and another begins. The film is divided like that into chapters, and they’re all good, but sometime after that superb opener I became restless, and when the movie ended I was unsure why I felt curiously … dissatisfied. The whole is less than the sum of its parts.

The parts themselves are excellent. Writer-director Quentin Tarantino is a singular filmmaker, perhaps the only one with the audacity to have made a World War II movie like this one, full of a lot of the same self-aware theatricality that distinguished his masterpiece Kill Bill. It’s rather a relief, actually, after last year’s The Reader especially, to watch a film that approaches this era with abandon instead of rigid austerity.

But each chapter feels isolated; dramatic tension ramps up, is released, and then starts over again, creating a narrative flow of stops and starts instead of constantly building momentum. There are the title “Basterds,” a covert American military unit composed mostly of Jews who specialize in killing and scalping Nazis. They’re led by Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), who speaks with a Tennessee accent that sounds like he’s making a point of it. Elsewhere is Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), a survivor of the opening scene; she’s a Jew hiding under an assumed name in Paris, where she owns a movie theater. And Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger), a German starlet secretly working for the Allies. Col. Landa pops up now and then. So does Hitler (Martin Wuttke). Mike Myers has a distracting cameo as a general where all I could think was, “Why is he in this movie?”

The storylines dovetail — mostly — but they never fully cohere, so what we get is a film of a lot of good bits and pieces, like the violent interlude describing the Basterds’ recruitment of bloodthirsty German turncoat Hugo Stiglitz (Til Schweiger), and a meeting between Shosanna and Landa years after she escaped his grasp. The ending is worthy of note, but I won’t note it; when the film was released to theaters, I only had to glance at the headlines of articles to have it revealed to me, because to even allude to it is to spill all the beans. Interesting finally is Tarantino’s use of film not only as a gonzo filter through which to view the war, but as a setting and even a means of warfare — a reckoning born of the literal and figurative flames of celluloid.