(Note: This review discusses specific plot points. Do not read if you don't want to be spoiled.)
To explain why I love Quentin Tarantino, who better to do so than the jabbery film geek himself? "I don't want people coming out of my movie with only one idea of what it's supposed to be about," he says, in essence, on the Reservoir Dogs DVD commentary. "I want a million different people to come out with a million different ideas, as if they've each seen a million different movies." This generously democratic ideal -- embedded in all of his films, including his latest, Inglourious Basterds -- helps me to forgive Tarantino's many flaws. Not there's any shortage of criticism: I've already heard Basterds described as "irresponsible" and its director "an embarrassment," among other things. I can respect and acknowledge the validity of some of the charges while still considering it so far the movie of the year.
One swipe against Tarantino that is always off the beam -- and this where, I think, a certain myopia informs the basis of all attacks -- is the accusation that he makes testosterone-packed action movies as sop for his "fans." If anything, he's gone out of his way to alienate whatever fan-base may exist: Reservoir Dogs concluded with its colorful ensemble whacked, Pulp Fiction with its ultimate badass playing peacemaker instead of pumping lead; Kill Bill Vol. 2 followed the blood-splattery Vol. 1 with what Charles Taylor astutely called "a comedy of fidelity," one with barely any violence at all; Death Proof, originally the second-half of a three-hour Grindhouse epic, subverted the B-movie genre to which it was ostensibly paying tribute. Inglourious Basterds has been hyped as a Dirty Dozen-ish WWII flick; yet with typical perversity, Tarantino has made a war movie wherein its warriors are along the periphery rather than at the center.
That center is occupied instead by Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent), a young French-Jewish woman who escapes the clutches of a cunning Nazi "Jew-hunter" named Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), changes her identity, and becomes the owner of a cinematheque in German-occupied Paris. This character brings to the fore a fistful of Tarantino's pet themes: the power and vulnerability of women; the issue of race via Shosanna's love interest, the African-immigrant projectionist Marcel (Jacky Ido); and, of course, the director's uncontainable enthusiasm for movies themselves. You see this love by how tenderly Shosanna cleans the letters of the titles on her marquee. (Robert Richardson's cinematography, light-years above the visual drabness of QT's earlier pictures, practically caresses the images.) Yet as she attracts the unwanted attentions of a wide-eyed German war hero (Daniel Bruhl) and, subsequently, that of the Third Reich's high command to co-opt her theater for a premiere, Tarantino is also reminding us of something too often forgotten: that movies -- that art -- can be dangerous.
Bold, startling, and more than a little demented, Inglourious Basterds certainly courts danger both narratively and thematically. The Basterds themselves, led by the southern-fried gentile lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), are a cadre of Jewish-Americans dropped behind enemy lines (pre-D-Day, 1941-1944) to ambush German soldiers. With the notable exception of the brawny, bat-wielding Donny Donowitz (Eli Roth) -- who becomes renowned in Nazi circles as "the Bear Jew" -- the Basterds are largely indistinct and best-personified physically by the comically wimpy B.J. Novak (who plays Ryan on The Office). No Charles Bronson, John Cassavetes or Telly Savalas to spice things up, though the Basterds do add to their ranks a thuggish kraut (Til Schweiger) with a homicidal contempt for the SS, as well as a erudite British officer (Michael Fassbender) who attempts to use his expertise as a film critic to infiltrate the Nazi ranks. (His specialty, he explains to his superiors, is German cinema.)
A filmmaker wishing to appease his audience would have put us through the familiar paces of the genre: training; colorful personalities; planning the attacks; violent catharsis. Tarantino largely dispenses with these tropes, jump-cutting from the introduction of the team to a scene after the Basterds have already earned notoriety. Although he does ultimately, as they say, deliver the goods (as with the Bear Jew's baseball bat), QT remains far more interested in the elaborate building of suspense than its release. The avuncular "Jew-hunter," Landa, is essentially a stand-in for the director, always three steps ahead of everyone else, casually toying with his victims before lowering the boom. But the scene that best explicates Tarantino's M.O. is a nerve-rattling set-piece in a tavern that features not Landa but rather a group of drunken Nazis, a trio of undercover Basterds, a vivacious German starlet (Diane Kruger), and a relentless German major who won't let a suspicious accent go. For nearly thirty minutes Tarantino adds one development on top of another, tightening the screws so far beyond the pale it would have made Hitchcock scream, "Enough!"
The brutal tactics of the Basterds (who are encouraged by the part-Apache Raine to scalp their victims) and especially the apocalyptic climax in Shosanna's movie-house -- where a pair of disparate assassination plots finally dovetail in a manner that plays like a bizarre cross between The Dirty Dozen and Brian De Palma's Carrie -- have been derided by some. In a thoughtful critique, Daniel Mendelsohn accuses the filmmaker of playing a game of reversals -- of turning Jews into Nazis and Nazis into Jews and thereby cheapening the Holocaust via false equivalency. On the surface, I can see the author's point; and I would give it greater validity if tragedy didn't befall the heroes of the film as much as its villains. Moreover, the Nazis are not "tricked" into entering the cinematheque, as Mendelsohn claims; they bully Shosanna into hosting the premiere there, and she takes shrewd advantage of their manipulation. One could even go further and observe that the movie is held there in the first place because its star, Private Zoller -- the aforementioned Nazi hero who takes an unsuspecting shine to this closeted Jewish woman -- insists upon it in the hopes that it will impress the object of his affection. Tarantino has never been a political filmmaker; he's a deeply personal one whose love for character is as affectionate and observational as it is pitiless.
There are more levels and layers to Inglourious Basterds (and Tarantino's entire career) than its daffier critics are giving it credit for. (Nation's Pride, the monotonously violent Nazi film-within-this-film, is like a parody of what Tarantino's non-admirers believe his movies to be.) Armond White incoherently compares Basterds unflatteringly to not only love-of-his-life Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan but Frank Capra's Why We Fight propaganda series, as if Tarantino's picture shared the same universe with them. Even a relatively complimentary new article at Slate that asks if "one of the most overrated directors of the '90s one of the most underrated" today is another of the contrarian online mag's breathtakingly meaningless provocations. (I eagerly await: "Is Your Toilet Trying to Kill You?") If nothing else, we have a teeming ensemble of characteristically memorable performances. Pitt crafts a hoot of a caricature in Lt. Raine. The heralded Waltz (who won Best Actor at Cannes earlier this summer) fashions a Nazi unlike any Nazi you have ever seen. Amusing in a bit part is a nearly unrecognizable Mike Myers as the British mastermind of one of the assassination plots (a piece of stunt-casting reminiscent of John Candy in JFK), as are effective voice-cameos from Harvey Keitel and Samuel L. Jackson. In the most prominent female roles, Laurent and Kruger convey varied sides of Tarantino's own complex view of the feminine mystique.
Fortunately, Inglourious Basterds has much more going for it than a list of good actors. As Owen Gleiberman once described Pulp Fiction, it's a "feel-alive" movie, Tarantino's biggest mindblower since that revolutionary film (my head was spinning for hours after seeing it), and makes most movies today look gutless by comparison. If I'm troubled by certain elements, I'm less offended than I was by Saving Private Ryan, which Tom Carson notes pretends to be an authentic depiction of the historical record while actually glorifying cliches. Inglourious Basterds offers no such pretense. The deliberately misspelled title (in addition to being an in-joke about its creator's infamous illiteracy and a failsafe against nervous advertisers) tells us immediately that this is a film that establishes its own rules. Like Stanley Kubrick, the Coen brothers, and few others, Quentin Tarantino has proven himself to be a director whose movies hold up well over the years; like those other filmmakers, all creators of their own worlds, his movies exist outside of history and time. They're also more accessible than the product of most auteurs -- at least for someone like me, who was grinning all throughout his latest and who wants to see it again. There are possibly a million different movies here, each one worthy of analysis, and a few even deserving rebuke. For me, though, one rises above the others. Inglourious Basterds is a brilliant piece of crazy.