After the many commercials and the trailer for this movie, I was prepared to come away from it truly hating it. Quentin Tarantino generally dances along the edge of smarminess, fully aware of his post-modern referential style and near-terminal hipness, and probably pretty aware that he is on the edge as well. The mixed opinions about the body of his work come, in good part, from where the individual viewer stands in relation to that edge. For myself, I enjoy films that are smart in that way, but I don't want the movie to become a vehicle for that, but instead attempt something greater and use Tarantino's specialties to push the greater goal. His half of the Grindhouse movie, Deathproof, failed for me because it was interminably talky and the characters had given me no reason to care about what they had to say. The other tool that Tarantino sometimes overuses is the shock of violence, making blood spatter ironic and, as in the case of the Kill Bill movies, a little humorous (think of the Black Knight scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail if you don't think violence can be funny). And from what I had seen in the trailers, Inglourious Basterds was going to go too far towards violence with attempts at witty banter to keep up the humor.
But it turns out the trailers and commercials lied to the viewers. Maybe the plan was to entice viewers by banking on their most base instincts—blood and laughs—and then show them a film that aspires to something far greater. Inglourious Basterds is made up five chapters, and two of those chapters contain none of the namesake team at all, so the team of guerillas is not the primary focus of the movie. In some ways they are secondary to the most important plot of the movie, more facilitators than protagonists and ultimately serving as a distraction for the climax of the film rather than prime movers.
The movie begins in an unexpected place: the hillsides of France where a lone farmer and his three daughters are visited by a party of German soldiers at their home. The soldiers are led by Hans Landa, played by Christoph Walz, one of the two major acting finds for American audiences in the film. Landa is at the farm to verify the reports of where the Jews in the area have gone, appearing engaging and mindful of the interests of the farmer's family: he appears to recognize he is intruding and thus is exceedingly courteous, despite being part of the occupying force and the stereotype the Nazis carry with them in media. He even graciously changes the conversation to English since the farmer does not speak German and his own French is weak. However, the conversation quickly turns ugly when Landa reveals he knows that one of the Jewish families thought to have escaped are hiding in the basement, and that he has chosen to speak English because he does not believe the family can hear him. The result is the massacre of the hidden family with only one member escaping, the teenaged Shoshanna.
Thus are the events that make up the movie and its climax set up. Shoshanna grows up on the run and eventually ends up in Paris, running a movie theatre. She is played by another newcomer to American film, Melanie Laurent, a sublime actress who acts as a counterpoint to the usual over-the-top movements that characterize the actors in a Tarantino movie. Hauntingly beautiful, her face conveys subtle nuance of emotion without the necessity for words, a skill that is played up wonderfully in her lone scene with Waltz's Landa, as she confronts the man who has killed her family and expects to be killed herself at any moment.
We also get to see the origin of the Basterds, watching Brad Pitt delightfully chew the scenery as Lieutenant Aldo Raine, a native of eastern Tennessee put in charge of a squad of Jewish Americans, whose only purpose is to terrorize the German armed forces, especially the Nazis. The commercials and trailer make clear how the Basterds achieve this goal, and there is some delightful story-telling surrounding the description of the Basterds' techniques. Pitt clearly enjoys his role as the pragmatically sadistic Raine, who only allows survivors to leave his grasp with a swastika carved into their forehead so that even when they remove their uniforms, everyone will know what they are. Pitt steals nearly every scene he is in, so it's important to note he never appears onscreen with Laurent's Shoshanna. But he does appear on screen for some time with Waltz's Landa, who is so patently evil and manipulative that Raine just sits back and lets Landa do all the heavy lifting. There's a sort of coda to the movie, where Landa and Raine clash one more time, and if its conclusion is a surprise, then you just weren't paying attention in the rest of the movie.
After the two threads are established, they are mixed together as each party independently decides to firebomb the movie theatre at the premiere of Goebbels' next film. Shoshanna and the Basterds have no knowledge of each other but they share a goal, that of destroying the highest echelons of the Third Reich at the movie, including Hitler, who has decided to attend for his dear friend Geobbels. Each of the last three chapters deal with different aspects of their individual plans and then they move forward together in the final chapter, most of which takes place in the theatre itself.
Of course, being a Tarantino movie, there are relatively set scenes where there can be nothing but dialog, including an English spy receiving his orders with Winston Churchill in attendance and Shoshanna's terrific interview with Landa, now personally responsible for Goebbels' security. In the case of the latter, the tension is palpable both because the audience knows things the characters don't and, again, because of Laurent's acting skill and Waltz's previous scene where we know just how deadly a man he is. However, perhaps the most fascinating set piece takes place in a tavern in France where the Basterds are to meet their German mole. Nothing in a Tarantino film ever seems to go as planned and the Basterds find themselves playing drinking games with German soldiers. While the explicit conversation seems banal, lurking just underneath it is the tension of the audience knowing things some of the characters don't and the characters figuring out what the audience knows. The tension grows until it becomes more explicit than implicit in the conversation, fascinating the audience with dread for what they know must happen. And then, after the violence explodes, Tarantino continues the tension by further pushing the idea of games among those who survive the conflagration, with questions that demand answers not for the sake of the rules of a game, but for the preservation of the Basterds' mission.
So while this movie follows a relatively straightforward "espionage in war" arc, others of Tarantino's touches are all over it. He picks the music that seems right to him, no matter if it is contemporaneous or not, so we end up with a great deal of the music of Ennio Morricone along with the odd song by, for example, David Bowie. I sometimes find such temporal mash-ups to be disconcerting, but the choices in this case always effectively set the mood for the scene, either by ramping it up or playing its counterpoint and calling the emotional quality of the scene into relief. Similarly, Tarantino makes references to other films to build up the density of context and expectation. The audience thinks they know what is going to happen, and part of the delight is having those expectations overturned. Only once could I foresee exactly what was going to happen, and it made for a pleasing emotional period for both me as a viewer and for the audience.
One thing about Tarantino's movies that shows how well he keeps the user on edge is how the audience reacts. I was struck by the number of times in Inglourious Basterds people laughed at scenes that were expressly not funny, where offhand humor is used by a character to express shock and relief. And yet at times where the humor was pretty stark, a lot of the audience wasn't sure how if it was safe to laugh at those moments. And with an audience so malleable to the movements of the picture, the director can do amazing things.
The final chapter is explosive, troubling and yet satisfying all at once. Especially powerful is how Tarantino uses Shoshanna's face, usually so masterfully controlled but now contorted into a frenzy of emotion. Those few moments are haunting but made especially so by the combination of Tarantino's light touch (which is remarkable considering his sometimes very heavy hand) and and Laurent's acting. And at the end, the audience is torn between whether the movie is a comedy or tragedy, reflecting that pretty much no one's life is uniformly one or the other, as all the while Tarantino takes the biggest World War II movie trope and turns it on its ear.
Tarantino goes for something much bigger in Inglourious Basterds than small stories about unusual people. He sets his sights on telling an epic World War II movie and very nearly succeeds at that epicness. The end result is, shocking to me when I left the movie, very good and worthy of many viewings to pick out the nuance hidden behind the huge gestures. While the film is at timers bloody, the core story of revenge is deftly played. I'd like more of this from Tarantino as soon as possible. And I definitely want more from Waltz and Laurent as soon as possible.