“You know something, Utivich? I think this just might be my masterpiece.”
Bold words coming from writer/director Quentin Tarantino as this film cuts to black, using Brad Pitt as a vessel to convey admiration for his own work. A full decade has come and passed since then, so it only feels right that we take a moment to reflect on what the great director might see as his greatest work. For starters, Inglourious Basterds (2009) is arguably Tarantino’s most successful and well-received film, narrowly edging out the groundbreaking Pulp Fiction (1994) with eight Academy Award nominations. Though its only win came from Christoph Waltz for Best Supporting Actor, the film seemed to garnish near-universal acclaim, a position very foreign to the somewhat polarizing auteur. In the decade since Inglourious Basterds‘ release, Tarantino has put out three more films and none of them have achieved a similar nod of approval from critics and audiences alike, though we may be poised to see his latest in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood make an aggressive awards push this winter.
What sets Inglourious Basterds apart from the rest of the director’s catalog? This movie has a lot going for it before you even get into the thick of the film itself. People were ready for Tarantino to return in a big way. The director had only made two films in the past ten years, the two-parter samurai revenge tale of Kill Bill (2003) and half of he and Robert Rodriguez’s “Grindhouse” double feature, Death Proof (2007), both of which some critics saw as Tarantino failing on the promise he exhibited with his first three cinematic affairs in the 90s. Since Pulp Fiction shook the world fifteen years prior, Tarantino hadn’t been able to replicate the commercial success nor the awards push that film received. With Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino did what has since become a constant within his films: he told a period piece. Basterds had been kicking around his head since even before Kill Bill, but got temporarily shelved for that project and his foray into “Grindhouse” lore. When the infamous director was finally ready to move on this story about tearing down the Nazi regime, he was able to enlist Brad Pitt in a lead role, something that would greatly benefit the two of them by elevating each other’s work. Brad Pitt had arguably never worked with a more famous director before, while Pitt was also the biggest movie star in his prime that Tarantino had ever used in a leading role. It was a marriage that made sense and now ten years later with Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, it makes sense again.
Following Pitt, Tarantino filled out the rest of the cast with astonishing talent, as he has done throughout his career. Giving juicy roles to European actors who, at the time, were virtually unknown to American audiences: Mélanie Laurent, Michael Fassbender, Diane Kruger (whom Americans would have already known from National Treasure, 2004), and Daniel Brühl. Tarantino wisely allows us to fall in love with new faces, and in turn provided most of them a springboard from which they would bounce off into more successful careers. The greatest example of this came with the aforementioned Christoph Waltz, whose portrayal of the flamboyant yet brutally intimidating and conniving Colonel Hans Landa took on a life of its own following the release of this movie. The Austrian-German actor burst onto the scene a complete unknown to American audiences and was turned into an overnight star with his role here, receiving an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for this movie and reuniting with Tarantino three years later for Django Unchained (2012). He has had a very successful Hollywood career since then, and it can all be attributed to the sinister edge of Colonel Hans Landa.
The narrative structure of Inglourious Basterds also lends itself to being more accessible to a wider audience than Tarantino’s previous work, being his first film (aside from Death Proof) to play out entirely in chronological order. This of course translated to its Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. It is certainly one of the legendary writer’s tightest scripts, providing his typically meaty dialogue for exceptional actors like Waltz, Pitt, and Fassbender to work with. On top of that, the film is one of the director’s more reigned in efforts stylistically, featuring a camera that rests on the actors as they dish out dialogue for large swaths of time, only implementing his infamous calling cards like needle drops and over the top violence in small bursts and to great effect. As the film slowly builds towards its grand finale (another staple of Tarantino’s), the stakes gradually snowball before literally exploding before our eyes. With the climax followed by a stirringly satisfying scene of resolution before cutting to credits, this film ends on an incredibly high note and leaves audiences with a smile and a shot of adrenaline.
So, back to that final quote uttered by Pitt in his endlessly entertaining Southern accent. Is this Quentin Tarantino’s “masterpiece?” One could certainly make the argument that this is the case. It has all the best aspects of the writer/director’s career: an intoxicating screenplay, striking performances, hallmark scenes, memorable setting (Nazi occupied France is a great backdrop for his sensibilities), and moments of pure elation (seeing Hitler get blasted away by “The Bear Jew” certainly qualifies). It’s hard to look at this film and muster up any points of disappointment. It presents a thrilling story and executes it with the precision of a director who has mastered his craft. Perhaps the best way to view this would be that while earlier works like Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown (1997) might be even more exceptionally well-realized visions for the director, Inglourious Basterds can be seen as the peak of his career, when everything seemed to come together perfectly for him to make his most successful, accessible, and well-received film to date. With Basterds, Tarantino graduated from being the young rock star director who proved to be divisive among critics into the elder auteur we see him as today. You know Utivich, your friend Aldo — or should I say, Quentin — just might be right.