– Mathilde by Marie Joseph Eugene Sue (original source)
At initial, casual glance, the current big-screen releases Five Minutes of Heaven and Inglourious Basterds wouldn’t appear to have much in common. The first is a straightforward drama about a man meeting the IRA assassin who killed his older brother 30+ years before. The other is a revisionist historical-fantasy by Quentin Tarantino and containing his usual flourishes of over-the-top ultra-violence, pop-culture references and offbeat casting choices.
Both, however, share the central, driving theme of vengeance. In the excellent Five Minutes of Heaven, which is directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel (the acclaimed Downfall and the underrated sci-fi flop The Invasion, the latter of which is conspicuously absent from his press bio) and written by Guy Hibbert, protagonist Joe Griffin becomes increasingly — and understandably — fixated on his to-be-televised reunion with reformed killer Alistair Little as an opportunity to kill the murderer and avenge his brother’s death.
The first half of Five Minutes of Heaven is a re-creation of true events, while the second half is a speculative take on what might have happened if Alistair and Joe had the opportunity to meet. The film’s title refers to what Joe hopes to experience while watching his brother’s killer die. When the TV reunion’s producer tells Joe that his meeting with Alistair is an opportunity for “truth and reconciliation,” Joe thinks to himself, “Truth and reconciliation? I’m going for revenge!”
James Nesbitt (Bloody Sunday, Millions) conveys this private hunger for vengeance most admirably through his performance as Joe. As Alistair, Liam Neeson is initially cool as a cucumber but gradually shaken as his character becomes more aware of the consequences of his murderous actions as a teenager. Both Neeson and Nesbitt should be worthy end-of-the-year award contenders for their fine, challenging work here.
Inglourious Basterds may also emerge an award contender, and is already an audience-pleaser. It isn’t the first of Tarantino’s films to deal with the topic of revenge. Indeed, most of his films — from Pulp Fiction through the Kill Bill saga to his half of Grindhouse — feature characters motivated by the desire for retribution from people who have done them wrong.
Tarantino’s latest is unique among his works, though, in that it doesn’t feature just one person against another but a band of Jewish-American operatives (led by a very funny Brad Pitt) versus the entire Nazi party during World War II! The Basterds (the misspelling is inspired by the 1978 Italian film, Inglorious Bastards, which was reportedly hand-written as “Inglourious Basterds” on the VHS case in the video store where Tarantino once worked) are posing both a strategic and psychological threat to Hitler’s forces via their habit of scalping the numerous German soldiers they capture.
The Basterds eventually join forces with British intelligence, a French movie-theatre owner (the beautiful Mélanie Laurent) with a personal score to settle against the Germans, and a German movie star (a glamorous and funny Diane Kruger) who is secretly a spy for the Allies. They all face a formidable threat in the conniving SS Colonel Landa (the fascinating Christoph Waltz, who won the Best Actor award at Cannes for this performance). Mike Myers, Bo Svenson and Rod Taylor (as Winston Churchill!) also make guest appearances.
Like all of Tarantino’s movies, Inglourious Basterds simultaneously takes inspiration from and pays homage to prior cinematic genres and achievements, including 70’s Blaxploitation films, King Kong, Asian and martial-arts movies, film noir and, of course, the Nazis’ own works of propaganda.
Shades of the climactic opening of the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark can be seen in this film’s fiery finale, and I especially appreciated Tarantino’s inclusion of David Bowie’s theme song from one of my all-time faves, the 1982 remake of Cat People. The results are generally thrilling, even if some stretches of conversation tend to the long side.
Inglourious Basterds and Five Minutes of Heaven reach very different conclusions regarding the moral dilemmas and personal satisfaction possible in having one’s hunger for vengeance satisfied … or not. I can’t imagine a better double feature on the topic. See them, and let the debate begin.
UPDATE: Inglourious Basterds is available on DVD and Blu-ray and Five Minutes of Heaven is available on DVD and Blu-ray, now from Amazon.com.
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.