Quentin Tarantino’s cinema has always been one of authorial
wish-fulfillment, his gangsters’ pop culture-inflected tough talk, his
African-American badasses’ use of the n-word, and his fetishistic love of
fierce femininity (and women’s feet) all reflections of their maker’s deeply
rooted concerns and compulsions. QT’s work is the lens through which his own
desires (and innumerable movie influences) are refracted, and thus Inglourious Basterds is something close
to an ideal Tarantino flick, an impertinent and often tasteless epic that
rewrites WII history as a fairy tale (“Once upon a time…” it begins) for gonzo
genre kicks and, in doing so, articulates its maker’s faith in film’s capacity
for self-expression. With his crazily revisionist tale of a group of
ass-kicking Jewish-American secret agents rolling through Nazi Germany
collecting Kraut scalps with a viciousness equal to that of their enemies,
Tarantino reconfigures the past as a rollicking prank. And yet, he also does so
as a means of demonstrating cinema’s preeminent might and its status as a
vehicle for realizing personal (and, here, communal) fantasies, with his
alterna-historical take on the fall of the Third Reich functioning, first and
foremost, as the director’s tribute to his chosen medium.
All of which, admittedly, makes Inglourious Basterds sound like an academic slog, and countless critics have found its structure – a series of long discussions punctuated by gunfire and/or brutality that bucks the tradition of QT’s Dirty Dozen and spaghetti Western influences, but is in tune with his own chit-chatty oeuvre – meandering and slack. Yet unlike the draggy opening half of Death Proof or the indulgences of Kill Bill, here QT’s protracted conversational set pieces aren’t merely self-satisfied show-offs; his dialogues serve to develop character, tweak convention, and still uphold his wartime predecessors’ thrill-first modus operandi by building tension with meticulous precision. Rarely have QT’s talk-a-thons seemed so primed to explode, beginning with [spoilers follow] a tour-de-force of sustained suspense in which a French dairy farmer in 1941 is visited by Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), nicknamed “The Jew Hunter,” who’s in search of the region’s one Semitic family that has escaped his grasp. Exuding a geniality and good humor that belies his coldblooded inclinations, Waltz is terrifyingly chilling. As continues to be the case throughout Inglourious Basterds, though, it’s Tarantino’s poised visual schema (striking shot-countershots; deft use of slow motion; pans, such as one around Landa and the farmer, that convey shifting upper-hand dynamics) and brash narrative structure (primarily long scenes and flashbacks, at least two of which get blaxploitation narration from Samuel L. Jackson) that create edge-of-your-seat tension.
That electricity continues once Tarantino flash-forwards four years to shift attention to bifurcated points of interest: the Basterds, a ragtag crew led by Tennessee-bred Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), and Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), a Jewish beauty who, having escaped Landa years prior, now runs a Parisian movie palace where Goebbels’ (Sylvester Groth) latest celluloid propaganda Nation’s Pride will premiere in front of the Third Reich’s high command, including the Führur (Martin Wuttke). How these parallel strands meet is a slowly unraveling mystery. Inglourious Basterds, however, gets most of its juice from moment-to-moment showdowns, whether it’s between Raine’s Basterds – which include The Office’s B.J. Novak and Hostel director Eli Roth as the baseball bat-wielding “Bear Jew” – and captured Nazi soldiers, or between undercover agents and a grinning Gestapo cretin at a basement tavern. This last sequence is one of Tarantino’s career apexes, a nail-biter of such formal assuredness and escalating anxiety that the pleasure of being strung along its minefield of cloak-and-dagger maneuvers is only matched by the scene’s underlying meta self-consciousness. The German actress-turned-double-agent (Diane Kruger), the Brit spy who was previously a P.W. Pabst-expert film critic (Michael Fassbender), the group’s pop culture-centric drinking game, the tête-à-tête’s element of deceptive performance – all of these facets potently convey Tarantino’s sense of film as a paradigm-shifting weapon, and as an instrument of making manifest outrageous pulp (revenge) fantasies.
In Inglourious Basterds, Hitler attends the film premiere because he recognizes the art form’s ability to inspire, Raine and company make reference to the theatrical nature of their work (via comments about baseball and Carnegie Hall), and Shosanna plots to end the war herself via highly flammable nitrate film stocks. While Tarantino’s cine-commentary is ubiquitous, it’s never intrusive or inapt, and as the story rolls towards its gleefully cathartic B-movie finale, the material even seems slightly at-odds with itself. The director’s giddy films-are-powerful pronouncements soon become juxtaposed with a faint but nonetheless present melancholy and anger – seen in the vengeful eyes of Roth’s Bear Jew as he doles out Hitler’s death sentence – over the recognition that no amount of clever cinematic tomfoolery can truly undo what’s done. Simultaneous celebration and critique, Inglourious Basterds nonetheless eventually favors the former over the latter, culminating in the image of a cackling face projected on a screen engulfed in flames (celluloid as righteous cleansing hellfire!) that exhilaratingly encapsulates Tarantino’s belief in the movies’ capacity to locate and communicate those things he and we think, feel, crave. It is, in a word, glourious.