The cinematic equivalent of a Radiohead album dropping, each new Quentin Tarantino film since Pulp Fiction has inspired the familiar cycle of rabid fanboyism followed by an attempt, often dismissively labeled a backlash, to bring the praise down from its meteoric heights. Both sides stubbornly dig in their boot heels and kick up dirt. A scuffle ensues, offensive things are said about mothers, and the actual objet d’art is left behind a smoky haze, rarely appreciated for what it actually is until months or years later, when the dust finally settles. I'm not saying I'm above taking a hysterical position -- when In Rainbows was announced, I clicked my heels three times and wished those 10 waiting days would pass quickly -- but I'm going to try and avoid doing so for the sake of giving this film a fair hearing, because Tarantino films come with an entire luggage rack full of baggage.
When I first came across the trailer for Inglourious Basterds, my response was wholeheartedly ambivalent. I found Death Proof, the director's contribution to Grindhouse, moderately interesting in its approach to gender politics through girl talk and B-movie action. But it felt more like a rehearsal for Tarantino than the real show. So when this new trailer hit, suggesting a further submersion into the world of exploitation films via Nazi head-bashing, I slammed the breaks on my anticipation and waited for the filmmaker to prove me wrong. Having seen the film, I can imagine Tarantino enjoying a hearty laugh when part of his fan base shuffles out of the theater decrying the shortage of Nazi carnage in favor of deliberately paced, dialogue-driven sequences and multiple new diversions into film geekery. Tarantino devotes roughly equal time to discussing the cinema of G.W. Pabst and dramatizing the gory scalping of dead Nazi soldiers. It’s just that kind of movie.
Along with the basterds, a group of eight Jewish-American soldiers led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) and known for their brutal methods of killing and dismembering Nazis, Inglourious Basterds focuses on the exploits of an equally dangerous Nazi commander, Col. Landa (Christopher Waltz), a.k.a. "The Jew Hunter," and Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent), the French Jew who escapes his grasp to forge a new identity as the owner of a small but successful theater. Each member of this trifecta operates within a distinct narrative strand, and the film is neatly divided into Tarantino's trademark chapters, which converge in the films final act -- the premiere of Joseph Goebbels' penultimate propaganda film. With his typical use of pastiche, irony, blatant referencing, and clever, stylized dialogue, Tarantino delivers, in epic proportion, the fables, legends, and nightmares of World War II, filtered through the tropes, exaggerations, and manipulation of the era’s propaganda filmmaking.
And yet, the film is even stranger than it sounds. In many ways, this is Tarantino’s most mature work: Here, he uses both audience expectations to his advantage and his cinematic influences not as mere homage but to make an argument for cinema’s power to move and change people and, for better or worse, to outlive us. Its constant sense of tension is interrupted only by mostly successful attempts at humor and excessive (yet somehow fitting) flights of fancy, including a particularly disconcerting use of David Bowie’s “Cat People (Putting Out the Fire).” But Inglourious Basterds is not a thriller. Its spurts of violence and gore match some of the more gruesome parts of your average torture porno, yet it is far from an exploitation film. The grandiosity and gracefulness of his camera movements in the final showdown, not to mention the movie's metaphorical implications, elevate the film to beyond entertainment.
Here, Hitler is more super-villain than dictator, Goebbels more filmmaker than fascist, and history more a playground for Tarantino’s self-expression than something treated with reverence. This ode to cinema, complete with detailed treatments of film-splicing, reel changes, and the chemical nature of nitrate film, does not yearn for truth at 24 frames per second but rather celebrates everything those 24 frames have made possible. A hodgepodge of fact and fiction, extreme violence and thoughtful dialogue, Tarantino takes his audience through the extremes of cinematic representation, attempting to milk the art form for all it's worth to create a unified statement of everything he holds dear about it. Love it or hate it, this is Tarantino's most personal film yet. And he says as much with the film’s final line: “This might just be my masterpiece.” Personally, I don't think it is. But Inglourious Basterds still delivers far more than I could have imagined from the meager, misleading pre-release marketing, so I won't quibble with his boast.