Inglourious Basterds' hook is clever, canny, and seemingly irresistible. A squadron of Jewish-American soldiers, led by a gentile backwoodsmen (is there any other kind?), drops behind enemy lines in 1944 Germany and sets about killing as many Nazis as possible. While Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) leads his titular squadron on an Apache-inspired campaign of terror against the Germans, a quiet, beautiful young cinema owner endures the unwanted attention of a chipper Aryan sharpshooter. Unexpectedly, these overtures lead to a meeting with Goebbels, a tense dinner with the man who killed her family (he does not recognize her) and the opportunity to exact retribution on her kin's murderers. The climax sees the Basterds' official mission unknowingly collide with Shoshana's personal revenge plot, as a propaganda print and occupied theater goes up in flames, and the Fuhrer goes down in a flurry of bullets. Yes, the movie's hooky all right, but in the finished film the goofy high concept (Nazi-hunting Jewish guerrillas) is probably the least interesting element; one frequently wonders if Tarantino couldn't have made a better film by foregoing the cartoonish central device and withholding the residual hipster winking (dramatically toned down, but still a dominant element in the director's style).
The very best sequences in Basterds don't need postmodern parody or black comic nihilism. They are about character, and wit, and tension - these are passages that would be at home in a Melville or Hitchcock film. Primarily I'm thinking of two scenes. There's the initial visit of the jovial "Jew hunter" with his ridiculous pipe (that rare touch that strikes just the right note of whimsical exaggeration), loquaciously wearing down a French farmer hiding "enemies of the state" beneath his floorboards. And then the ingenious drinking game in a cellar tavern, which begins with playing cards on foreheads and winds up with genitals blasted all over the cobblestone. These scenes are often diabolically clever, wildly referential, and ruthlessly merciless. Yet they could easily be all of these things, and still exist within a moral and/or "realistic" framework. What does Tarantino achieve by eschewing the acute moral viewpoint of a Melville or the dry sense of humor of Hitchock (whose subversive jokes were subtle)?
Well, for one thing, a number of excellent moments in Basterds (and they are mostly moments) do rely on Tarantino's self-conscious grasp of film history, the winding relationship of pleasure and plot, and a wild bending of tone and style (plus the director's trademark willingness to slaughter plot and character for effect - i.e. spoilers ahead). For example, the burning of the theater as Shoshana's face fills the screen, the revelation of her Jewishness to the Nazi audience at best coequal to the bevy of associations arising from her gigantic blue visage - and the sheer kick of the visuals taken in isolation. Or how about Shoshana's death, only a few minutes before her larger-than-life screen image goes up in flames - scored stirringly to a sweeping Ennio Moricone pop elegy; or Shoshana's preparations for the deadly premiere to the tune of the delightfully anachronistic (and yet, it goes without saying, perfectly appropriate) Bowie tune "Cat People" - subtitled, ahem, "Putting Out Fire" with the requisite tongue-in-cheek obviousness.
Indeed, Shoshana, or rather Laurent, proves to be a fashion pin-up extraordinaire in her prole chic tomboy gear; a number of shots and/or costume changes exist only, it seems, to glamorize this smoldering young actress. Rightly so, of course - what was it Godard said once upon a time? Yet, ironically, the gun gets the girl in the end and one watches Shoshana's beautiful death throes with discomfort. While her demise could be explained in plausible dramatic terms, following the torture and strangulation of another frustratingly gorgeous screen goddess (Diane Kruger as German movie star Bridge von Hammersmark) it just seems that Tarantino's proving he's above beauty or that beauty, violence, sexiness, and cool are all the same thing, man...
Are they? This brings us back to my fundamental discomfort with Tarantino's overall approach here, and the nagging suspicion that a work of full, here's the word I'm looking for, maturity might ultimately be superior. From the perfectly composed yet wildly divergent opening credits (complete with anachronistic "MMIX" under the main title) to the various chapter headings to the impulsive needle drops to the stylishly cartoonish performance of Brad Pitt - and indeed, all the Americans - Inglourious Basterds stubbornly hangs on to the adolescent showoff in Tarantino's persona. This, even as the writer/director (emphasis on both) branches out and imbues much of the work with new levels of subtlety and sophistication.
Also it must be said, the central conceit often borders on tastelessness, exemplified by the boorish "Bear Jew" (Eli Roth) jeering a dignified German before bashing in his skull with a baseball bat, or trapping a captive audience in a chamber of death in which it's the Jews who stand aside to watch their enemies squirm and scream and bellow like slaughtered cattle. At what point does the conceit of switching Jewish and German roles as victim and victimizer - while maintaining the moral culpability of the latter - cease to be clever and become merely offensive? Probably at its very inception.
If the Basterds represent Tarantino's boyish, brutal side, the brash geek puffing out his chest and slumming with the tough guys, then Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), the aforementioned "Jew hunter", gives voice to the filmmaker's canny, amoral sophistication. Erudite, perpetually cheery (because brooding through mass murder would be so gauche), effeminate at times, but always able to assert his power when need be, Landa loses his composure only twice: choking a crippled film queen to death (in an eccentric burst of patriotic violence - though Landa will soon betray the Fatherland too), and faced with the thick blade of Aldo's bowie knife.
Blankly dishonorable (whereas Landa is impeccably disingenuous), the American calls the German's bluff and decides to leave one last grisly tattoo, a sort of farewell gesture to the Basterd habit of mutilating those who are spared death. At this point we realize that if the film has had any hidden structure, beneath the sprawling, often un-intersecting storylines, it has been the war. Not the one between the Allies and the Axis, nor the Jews and the Germans, nor even reality and whatever fantasy parallel universe we've dropped into. No, it's a war between the two duelling aspects of the Tarantino persona, until this film cunningly integrated: the brash, gimmicky show-off who emulated exploitation flicks and indulged in gruesome violence, and the smart, sophisticated scribe whose articulate, playful dialogue betrayed the latent adult sensibility behind the teenage shenanigans. Here, at last, Tarantino leaves no doubt as to where his ultimate sympathy lies. After Aldo carves a grisly swastika on Landa's brow, the crude roughneck leans back to admire his handiwork. "Yep," he drawls. "Think this may be my masterpiece."
Cut to "Written & Directed by Quentin Tarantino" in bold, yellow, stylized font, cue the arresting Morricone selection, and suddenly we're inclined to agree. Yes sir, with that stellar close admiration swept away most of my doubts, objections, and hesitations. It reminded me that boldness is a virtue, and that if Tarantino had not quite made the film I might have hoped, he had nonetheless fully realized the film he had made. Tarantino's frustrating that way - it would be nice to dismiss Pulp Fiction as a dated relic of the ain't-it-cool nineties, but the film is so sure, so well-shaped, so confident and strong that it holds up despite our better judgement.
Likewise, Inglourious Basterds knows what it's doing, does it well, and ultimately commands our recognition. Is it great? Quite possibly, though repeat viewings will have to confirm that. If so, it's great despite the carelessness with which it dispatches its hook, luring us into the theater with the novel concept and that diverting our attention elsewhere. Like many a great film, Tarantino's movie renders its flaws indispensable to its achievement and embodies its own vision so thoroughly that our complaints are rendered relatively toothless. Inglourious Bastereds is something to behold - a fascinating, unruly, sometimes frustrating, very rich tapestry. If it's a masterpiece, it's a shallow one, but these are plentiful shallows nonetheless. Objections duly noted, and overruled. Like another difficult, impressive and occasionally transporting film (Antichrist) it must rank as one of the singular achievements of 2009.