Quentin Tarantino came back with a vengeance in 2009 after a mostly quiet mid-2000s to redefine his popularity by … really just reminding us of the stuff we’ve all enjoyed seeing him do for a couple decades now. But he has a greater thirst for blood now, and sometimes that’s all it takes. If anything, this is his giddiest production, with its cheerful go-for-broke aspirations masked under the nominally serious façade of a war movie. It’s also, curiously, his most nihilistic, with a sort of “what the hell!” attitude likely driving many of the script’s twists and turns and characters who are suitably marked for, and ready for, death at any point in the film. It is also his most fully-rounded film since Pulp Fiction, as well as, intentionally, his sloppiest. Within, the film’s seeming flaws (it’s having fun with the dour subject of men at war and general savagery, its lack of any semblance of sensible narrative form) actually become strengths under his subversive, indomitable vision of the world where all films are functionally nonsense and he’s simply reading this reality to its logical extreme by having fun with them. This is a man who will be swayed by no one, and he’s ready to shove our faces in that fact before he goes off laughing to the bank.
At times, Inglourious Basterds runs the risk of being stretched too-thin, with a multitude of subplots concurring in simultaneity – but there’s a clever bait-and-switch to the film’s narrative focus that throws our expectations into the air. Many people post-release took offense to the films lack of focus on the Basterds – a band of mostly Jewish American guerrilla soldiers whose goal is kind-of to kill the German high-command but mostly just to kill and kill some more, while enjoying themselves in the process. In fact, the film not only doesn’t focus on them, but it intentionally mocks them – Brad Pitt as leader Aldo Raine is an intentional caricature of American machismo, and almost everything they do throughout the film doesn’t work – their plans fail miserably multiple times, but they somehow manage to succeed in spite of themselves. That’s because, really, for all their window dressing, their plans are essentially American: to just kill people and have fun, and that part, since they are self-consciously artificial American stock characters, they pull off with pizzaz.
Late in the film Raine is forced into a situation where he has to speak Italian. It’s obvious no one would believe him, but it works nonetheless, not because it would work in the real world, but because Tarantino has intentionally created a wink-and-a-nod fantasy land that mirrors the many self-serious fantasy visions of war found in film where American soldiers inevitably succeed because the script’s view of the world requires it of them. The beauty of the final scene, in which Raine makes an exclamation about his “masterpiece”, is that his success throughout the film is predicated on the sacrifice of those around him who fall as a result of his inept plans and, in fact, others around him whose plans actually did succeed. It’s a fascinating trick, the kind only Tarantino could pull: he gives us the modern man on a mission war film that usually champions American individuals and war efforts, and then gleefully subverts the whole thing as he renders those Americans either incompetent, or above all, brutal savages looking for the indiscriminate kill above all else. It’s a savage act of filmic criticism, a skewering of American war-mongering and self-indulgent machismo found through murder-and-mayhem. If the film is a somewhat formless mess, that’s because Tarantino sees the same in all those other pro-American war films and, indeed, in American war efforts throughout history.
Instead, much of the film focuses on Shoshanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent), a Jewish girl whose entire family was killed at a young age by Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), this film’s most prominent and most compelling villain, and her plot to get revenge on him, Hitler and the Nazi leadership by exploiting their love for propaganda film is more emotionally involving than the Basterds’ quest to do the same for more self-righteously loopy reasons. She has a personal stake in Landa’s death in particular, and when all the film’s characters come together for the finale in a movie theater, she takes center stage. She’s set up the dominos and is ready to make them fall. She’s far more competent than the Basterds, a subversive commentary on many military films with the peasant, female, civilian and her black male assistant in fact more competent than the all-white male Basterds corp.
Elsewhere, the finale also reflects on the uses and abuses of film, as Shoshanna uses her theater for her end goals just as the Nazis use them for propaganda purposes. The film’s most brilliant shot, involving a face projected onto a cinema set aflame, is not only visually affecting but intelligently sees Tarantino championing her own filmic propaganda images, if used for the right cause. With her love of movies and her knowing weaponization of them, she achieves more than Raine and his gun-touting cronies, figures who embody filmic archetypes but do not command or control cinema and cannot exist outside of those archetypes, ever could. There’s a curdled affection for the power of film on display here, even as Tarantino acknowledges that it’s the Nazi love of propaganda film which is their true power and skill. Here it reflects their true downfall, with a hero using their weapon against them.
It must be mentioned that Colonel Landa, played by Christoph Waltz, is possibly amongst the most astounding villains to ever grace the screen, rivaling No Country for Old Men’s Anton Chigurgh for potentially the greatest on-screen villain of the 2000s. Christoph Waltz is phenomenal in the role, playing a character whose lack of remorse is matched only by his surfeit of cunning. He is a master of interrogation, and he fancies himself a much smarter, and more smarmily theatrical Nazi than just about any other. He is ruthlessly capable at what he does, which has led to the all-to-appropriate nickname “The Jew Hunter” being given to him, and there’s a sense he does it more because he’s good at it than because of any ideological commitment. At the beginning of the film, we are given a lengthy scene in which he tries to find out if any of a village’s Jewish population is still existent, and the scene is classic Tarantino, being most clearly reminiscent of (although not on par with) the early scene in Pulp Fiction that introduces Jules and Vic for suspense, although here it’s less subversively meta-textual. Waltz’s skill is a big part of why the character comes off as so charismatically frightening; he seems so likable at first glance, and he presents himself as a charming and eloquent individual. In the end, this can prove his greatest downfall – he’s far more interested in waiting to revel in the moment of his victory, in a sly, theatrical parody of self-indulgent movie villains who are often by definition more fey than menacing, than to just get on with it. Tarantino and Waltz have a demented energy to go ahead and make Landa both fey and menacing anyway, a slithering and serpentine crawling king snake of a character. And if the other performances in the film are strong, Waltz commands the screen with his every appearance.
But it is Tarantino, like Shoshanna, who is always in the back pulling the strings of the film we’re watching. He is a much more experienced director and writer now than when he directed Pulp Fiction, but his cavalier recklessness and love of film still permeates Inglourious Basterds to the core. He’s honed his craft considerably, most of all when it comes to suspense. In addition to the aforementioned scene revolving around Colonel Landa at the beginning of the film, there is a scene that takes place in a pub mid-way through the movie that is almost Machiavellian in its behind-the-scenes mastery. Furthermore, he continues to reveal an increasingly explicit interest in reflecting on filmic history and repackaging film genres long-gone and using this repackaging to undo the very genre it seemingly champions. He, like Shoshanna, loves film. More importantly, they both know how to kill with it.
All of this comes in a pop package, sure, but it’s free-wheeling, clever, gripping, funny, and, it has a subversive kick to complement its wild-man energy. It ups anything Tarantino has ever done for death-drive verve and sheer grandstanding postmodernist intellectualism and cinephilia. With its seemingly meaningless open-faced episodic inserts and its energetic sense of malaise and artsy meandering about, it eschews any semblance of reality or good-taste in about as subversive a commentary on film as one can imagine. It’s a mess, a completely false and artificial film that doesn’t much give a damn that it looks like a bunch of dumb Americans playing in the fields with action figures and having the time of their lives. In other words, it appears a lark, a film that doesn’t take war seriously in the slightest. Ironically, for precisely this reason, it might just take war more seriously than perhaps any American war film ever released.
It’s no secret: Tarantino loves film. He loves genre films. And he loves war films, but he’s not ready to excuse them an inch. In having a blast with war by self-consciously re-creating those ’70s war films he loves so, Tarantino posits, above all, that no film can truly understand what war is like, but can only comment on the representation of war in other cinema. Here, the idea that something like Saving Private Ryan is truly blood-curdling with its violence is a lie, and Tarantino makes no bones about exposing this lie. Tarantino, in every frame of every film, loves films, but he believes they are all fables, all lies, and all symbolic gestures. They tell us we can “understand war”, and he tells them to screw themselves. That doesn’t necessarily make this film morally excusable, for Tarantino’s reaction to this knowledge is to have the most fun with war he can, but it is, at the least, much less insidious than other movies that treat war with a false solemnity. It’s more entertaining too, warts, problems, and all.
But it is also, again, a stinging indictment of American war making, not just American war film-making. And it does so not by debating with these films in a “mature” light; it is an anti-mature film, and it wants to be. It goes straight for the jugular, the last “moral” war, the one we can all get behind, not the relatively safe critiques of Vietnam or Iraq, and uses it for its own party. It questions America’s single-minded problem-solving, within which violence is always the answer, even as it exudes Tarantino’s self-conscious love of filmic violence and his eternal exploration of revenge. If anyone thinks twice about this, they should simply look to Raine’s soldiers during the climax. Trapped in a burning theater, knowing they and the Nazis are already doomed by Shoshanna’s own doing, they do the only thing they can: riddle the Nazis with bullets indiscriminately. The Nazis can’t escape anyway; the bullets, and the bombs they have with them play like overkill, Shoshanna’s face burning on the screen above them all and towering over the day. She’s dishing out Tarantino’s own carefully planned, constructed, revenge-fueled form of justice, and the Americans are just killing haphazardly because it’s what they know how to do. That takes guts, and Tarantino’s out to give them to us on a silver platter. This is not a perfect film, and many of its successes are flaws viewed from another light. But it is fascinating, and precious few directors are fascinating these days. Tarantino, whatever else you may think of him, knows how to stew some trouble.