"Torture vs. Torture Porn": A Spoiler-Free (TM) Review of "Inglourious Basterds" (2009, dir. by Quentin Tarentino)
"If you had a chance right now, to go back in time and stop Hitler, wouldn't you do it? I mean, I personally wouldn't stop him because I think he was awesome, but wouldn't you do it? - Cartman, South Park ("Make Love Not Warcraft," season 10)
I'm afraid that I'm somewhat ill equipped to tackle the topic of Quentin Tarantino as I've not seen Pulp Fiction or Kill Bill. I've pondered my way through two other of his seminal works, though: Reservoir Dogs and True Romance. I liked True Romance considerably more, which is telling because Tarantino did not direct the film - he wrote it. Tony Scott, who's directed everything from Top Gun to Man on Fire, sat in the canvas chair for that one. Notably, he drastically changed the ending, telling Tarantino that the film did not earn the right to have a depressing, anti-Hollywood ending as planned. Those lines from the True Romance audio commentary have lingered with me and colored my viewing of Tarantino as an artist.
But look! Nazis! Man don't you hate Nazis? I know I do! Murder & mutilate them! Capture them and torture them! Bludgeon them to death! Scalp them! This was the premise of Inglourious Basterds as presented to me by the trailer, two hours of savaging Nazis. "Behind enemy lines, there are no crimes," the trailer screamed. While there is blood shed a' plenty, Saving Private Ryan has 400% more carnage than this film, albeit, with 400% less scalpings. The film depicts torture, yes, but despite the presence of Hostel director Eli Roth as Sgt. Donny "The Bear Jew" Donowitz (who spends his time introducing baseball to Europe), the movie is not torture-porn. Torture-porn is that ironic genre that claims to criticize the excess and indulgence of society, even while indulging dark human hearts in every perversion imaginable, see, Hostel, for instance. Actually, no, don't see it.
We learn from the trailer that the premise of the film revolves around All-American Brad Pitt (as Tennessee born-and-bred Jewish American, Lt. Aldo "the Apache" Raine) leading a squad of Jewish American grunts behind enemy lines to conduct a guerrilla war of terror. But this is a Tarantino film, mind you, and the story isn't entirely linear. While we meet arch-villain SS Col. Hans Linda (Austrian actor Christoph Waltz, in an Oscar-worthy turn. Seriously, Ebert thinks so too) in the first chapter, the ebb and flow of the Basterd's campaign takes place over five denoted chapters. Only Quentin Tarantino would even think of making a WWII movie in which a film-within-the-film receives so much attention. Only Tarantino would make this work, as he does. I'd tell you why and how it does, but didn't I promise this is a "Spoiler-Free" review? Inglourious Basterds is a fantastic movie, lushly shot and strongly acted. Beyond it's visual beauty, it is well edited and has an appropriately quirky soundtrack. I give this film an 87 out of 100, but can't depart without offering some social commentary to boot.
I left the theater wondering how many of the people who smiled and cheered (a few times audibly) the torture of prisoners at the hands of the Basterds would approve of the Bush administration's openness to torture, like water boarding, etc. I remember the way my stomach flinched when I watched Saving Private Ryan for the first time, especially when the GIs gun down to surrendering Germans at Normandy. (Let's not fool ourselves in thinking that our efforts in WWII, however necessary, were done with clean hands and a pure heart. J.R.R. Tolkien said WWII turned "elves into orcs" and that the Allied strategy was akin to using the One Ring against Sauron.) Just war theory/practice is the subject for another day but the historical reflection of Basterds gives us a view on the present. Do ends justify means? What if stopping Hitler could only be accomplished by slaughtering men and women who were not actively part of his evil? What about the image of God? What about prohibitions against murder? Is "collateral damage" okay according to Scripture? Cartman asks a good question. Go see the movie, and reflect on your answer.