Inglourious Basterds—Quentin Tarantino's sixth or seventh feature film, depending on whether you count Kill Bill as one movie or two—is a war movie in only the most technical sense. World War II and the Holocaust may be the setting, but the real theme of Inglourious Basterds is movies. Using tropes from his favorite spaghetti Westerns (vintage Ennio Morricone scores dominate the soundtrack), Inglourious Basterds is Tarantino's thesis on how the cinema can in its own way act as a catharsis to history. Call it Atonement with scalping.
As with all Tarantino films, Inglourious Basterds takes its time, telling several parallel stories that converge with the plot to kill Hitler (a liver-faced Martin Wuttke) and the entire Nazi High Command in a Paris movie theater. The most important characters are hillbilly commando leader Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt); gleefully sadistic SS Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz); and young Shoshanna Dreyfus (Melanie Clement), who escapes Landa's clutches in the film's first section and later seeks revenge for his murder of her family.
Aldo's section of the plot provides the movie with its title. He leads an elite squad of vengeful Jewish GIs and disgruntled German deserters; their duty, as he describes it, is to provide him with "one hunnerd Nazi scalps" each. (Tarantino being Tarantino, we get to see the scalpings in closeup.) The Nazis name the squad the "Inglourious Basterds." (Tarantino took the name from Inglorious Bastards, an Italian WWII movie from the late 1970s, but never bothers to explain the misspelling.) The more colorful Basterds include Sgt. Donny Donowitz (Eli Roth, director of the Hostel movies), nicknamed the "Bear Jew," who delights in taking a baseball bat to Nazi skulls, and Sgt. Hugo Stiglitz (Til Schweiger), who single-handedly slaughters a dozen Gestapo agents before deserting from the Wehrmacht.
Despite their deadly serious circumstances, the characters of Inglourious Basterds are as movie-obsessed as their creator. Shoshanna—living under the assumed name Emmanuelle Mimieux, itself a virtual cross-reference of French actresses—owns the Paris theater in which the massacre of Hitler and his henchmen is planned. Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger), a stellar German actress, is a spy for the Allies. Lt. Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender), a film critic in civilian life, is selected by his Royal Army superiors to parachute into France to reconnoiter with Aldo and Bridget. Receiving his orders, Hicox gets into a learned discussion with his commanding general (a nearly unrecognizable Mike Myers) and Winston Churchill (a totally unrecognizable Rod Taylor) on whether Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) runs the German film industry on the model of Louis B. Mayer or David O. Selznick. Add to that the inflammability of nitrate film stock, which plays a vital role in the plot to kill Hitler. (Tarantino is on firm historical ground in making both Hitler and Churchill movie fans. Hitler watched a movie every night, sometimes two; Churchill had stars such as Charlie Chaplin as guests at Chartwell, and nursed schoolboy-style crushes on both Vivien Leigh and Deanna Durbin.)
Throughout the film, Tarantino plays cat-and-mouse with the audience, just as the Nazis toy with their victims. At the beginning, Landa brings a courtly, elegant menace to his prolonged interrogation of a French dairy farmer (Denis Menochet). Later, in a French tavern, another SS officer converses on and on with Archie and Bridget, whom he obviously suspects of not being what they seem. Just as the audience begins to get restless, the conversation turns suddenly, explosively violent; long stretches of dialogue with a sting at the end are a Tarantino specialty, and nowhere has he pulled them off more spectacularly than here.
Choosing the Holocaust as the setting for a revenge fantasy was an audacious move, and various commentators have given Tarantino his lumps for it. But it was also, arguably, a stroke of genius. By providing an alternative ending to the Nazi era, Tarantino simultaneously underscores the mind-boggling horror of the real story and argues on behalf of cinema as a transformative art. Whether his argument holds up in all particulars is debatable. What is certain is that, for those susceptible to Tarantino's spell, Inglourious Basterds is a thrilling, darkly funny entertainment, superbly acted (especially by Waltz, who deserved the Best Actor award he won at Cannes) and filled with an astonishing number of wild surprises.
While Tarantino is earnest in his brief for his chosen art, there have been more trenchant screen portrayals than Inglourious Basterds of humankind's inhumanity. One of these is District 9, a South African science fiction film from first-time director Neill Blomkamp.
Holocaust and apartheid comparisons abound in District 9, which tells the story of space aliens stranded for more than 20 years in Johannesburg, their immobilized spaceship hovering over the city. As the movie opens, the aliens—nearly 2 million strong—are ghettoed in District 9, a shantytown notorious for crime and violence. The aliens—popularly called "prawns" for their half-crustacean, half-insect appearance—are despised by the human populace, brutalized by police and the military, and exploited by a group of predatory Nigerian gangsters.
The government has decided to force the prawns to an encampment 200 miles from Johannesburg. The official in charge gives the job of rounding up the prawns to Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), his slightly dim, pencil-pushing son-in-law. News cameras follow Wikus and his troops around District 9 as they try to force the residents to sign eviction notices. Those who refuse get beaten up or worse by the soldiers, as Wikus lectures weakly against violence.
For the prawns, this is the last straw—especially for one with the Earth name of Christopher Johnson, who is trying to reactivate the mothership and get back home. Wikus enters Christopher's shack, confiscates a suspicious-looking canister, and is squirted with an inky substance. Within hours he is vomiting the same ink; his fingernails come off, his teeth start falling out, and his left hand becomes a black, menacing claw.
From that point, the full force of the government's brutality is turned on Wikus. As the first person ever to have both human and prawn DNA, he becomes an object of study for government scientists, who care no more for his rights or feelings than they do for Christopher Johnson's. When Wikus escapes, he becomes the victim of lies broadcast constantly in TV news reports, and the target of everyone except the prawns he helped to oppress the day before.
District 9 is smashingly effective, both as a special-effects spectacle and a story of breathless, headlong suspense. Beyond that, it is a welcome throwback to the moral science fiction of the mid-20th century, resembling the work of Ray Bradbury, Philip K. Dick or Harlan Ellison far more than it does the Transformers-style dross of today. Blomkamp presents us with the prawns, whose appearance is as repulsive as anything in Aliens, and then rubs our noses in the depth of their feelings and the superiority of their intelligence. He also gives us Wikus, in an extraordinary performance by Copley, who only achieves his full humanity in becoming something other than human.
District 9 and Inglourious Basterds are very different from each other; yet both portray societies in states of emergency, and both achieve significant artistic distinction within the familiar boundaries of popular entertainment. Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker also portrays a state of emergency, but in a way that makes the other two films look frivolous. Then again, The Hurt Locker makes Long Day's Journey Into Night look frivolous. Seldom have I seen a feature film that forgoes so relentlessly the comforts of fiction.
Set in the early days of the Iraq war, The Hurt Locker uses hand-held cameras and other documentary-style techniques to depict a bomb disposal unit in the last 38 days of its deployment. It gives away nothing to reveal that the squad loses its leader, Sgt. Matthew Thompson (Guy Pearce), in a random explosion; the opening sequence, showing the blast and the events leading up to it, sets the palm-sweating tone for the entire film. The new squad leader, Sgt. Will James (Jeremy Renner) is bad news for the remaining squad members, Sgt. J.T. Osborn (Anthony Mackie) and Spec. Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty). James is a war junkie; he cannot live without the thrill of knowing the next second could be his last, and takes unnecessary risks that could get himself, Osborn and Eldridge killed.
The Hurt Locker's portrayal of war allows romance and fantasy no part. In the world of the bomb squad, no one and nothing can be trusted. The culture, the language, the people are inscrutable. The man using his cell phone on a balcony is pressing the button to blow you to hell; the kid who sells you DVDs on the street one day is a "corpse bomb" the next, an explosive planted in his stomach. Violent death can come at any moment. The soldier who isn't on his guard every second, checking for every conceivable eventuality, ends up in a body bag—provided there's enough left of him. If he survives to the end of the day, he celebrates by drinking himself into a stupor and beating up his buddies.
Bigelow keeps us on the edge of our seats throughout, presenting the second-by-second agony of living as a front-line soldier in Iraq. For constant, stomach-knotting suspense, The Hurt Locker is at least the equal of Clouzot's The Wages of Fear. (One scene shows Eldridge cleaning a dead soldier's blood off an ammo clip so his squad can use it in a firefight.) The screenplay by Mark Boal—a former reporter whose stories on Iraq provided Paul Haggis with the basis for In the Valley of Elah—is rock-solid, with not one word that seems bogus. The acting is similarly excellent. Of the trio of leads, only Mackie—who gave a memorable performance as a drug dealer inHalf Nelson—was familiar to me. In a just world, The Hurt Locker would give all three an immediate career boost. Renner in particular is a marvel. There have been three revelatory performances by unknown actors this summer—Waltz in Inglourious Basterds, Copley in District 9, and Renner in The Hurt Locker. But whereas Waltz and Copley's roles were showy, Renner's is quiet and inward. A stocky man with a fleshy, stolid face, Renner is one of those actors—Tommy Lee Jones and Russell Crowe also come to mind—who can convey a world of complex emotions without raising his voice or changing his expression. Renner has a wow of a speech toward the film's end, addressed to his infant son; rather than try to describe it, I will leave it for you to see, but it will rip your heart out.
The Hurt Locker is one of the greatest war films ever made. It is to our time what All Quiet on the Western Front was to the post-World War I era. It puts the lie to every romantic notion of war, including the Army's "Be All You Can Be" ad campaign. Eldridge says as much to a gung-ho Army psychiatrist: "What if all I can be is dead?" Aldo Raine, for all his bravado—or, more to the point, because of it—wouldn't have lasted five minutes in Baghdad.