Inglourious Basterds (2009)

In Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino rewrites history (and spelling) because, well, he can. The history in question would be the history of World War II, which we moviegoers have been painfully reliving, with brutal realism, since the war ended, I suppose, but especially since Schindler's List upped the ante on tragical realism in war movies. Tarantino is no tragedian, and neither is he especially a realist, so Inglourious Basterds looks with fresh brutality at man's inhumanity to man, but with a twist. This time, the bad guys get what they deserve, at least on a traditional war movie reading of just deserts, and no one stands on principle when it comes to brutalizing and murderizing Nazis.

Or, as Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) calls them, "Natt-seez." Raine leads a small unit of Jewish-American soldiers who have infiltrated Nazi-occupied France, where they wage a guerilla war on the Third Reich. They work for the OSS, and they enjoy their work. Their specialty is scalping the Nazis they kill, and they kill most every Nazi they find. Tarantino has a reputation (undeserved, if you ask me) as a filmmaker whose movies are gratuitously violent. In reality, more violence is implied than is ever seen in his films -- he's too stylized to be blatant or obvious. For a war movie in which revenge against Nazis is a prominent theme, the depiction of violence is quite restrained inInglourious Basterds -- as usual, more is implied than is shown although what is shown is sometimes gruesome and, not shockingly, rather satisfying.

Inglourious Basterds is steeped, as all of Tarantino's films, in cinematic tradition. The title is taken from Italian director Enzo Castellani's film Inglourious Basterds. Aldo Raine's name is meant to invoke movie star Aldo Ray, who starred in numerous war pictures and B-movies. The Basterds (and the plot) call to mind *The Dirty Dozen*, but the film is as much spaghetti Western as it is war movie. Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent), an escaped Jew, owns a Parisian cinema that shows the Third Reich's fave actress-turned-mountaineer-turned-director Leni Riefenstahl's The White Hell of Pitz Pal├╝, a film that is referenced again by undercover operative and suave movie critic (aren't they all?) Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender). Eli Roth, director of the Hostel torture/horror movies, plays a Basterd known as the "Bear Jew," a baseball bat-wielding Southie who enjoys beaning Nazis. (Roth is no better an actor than Tarantino, which is to say, not very good at all, but as Shosanna says, "We French respect directors.") That Parisian cinema is the setting for two separate and complicated plots to assassinate Hitler and key members of the Third Reich, as well as a movie premiere featuring a Joseph Goebbels film starring war hero-turned-actor Frederick Zoller (Daniel Bruhl), who tries to woo Shosanna.

The story begins on a dairy farm in Nazi-occupied France, where Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) interrogates a farmer he believes is hiding Jews. Landa, an effete, chatty, and astute monster, is nicknamed the "Jew Hunter." He's highly effective at his job, in part because he enjoys it. Waltz unexpectedly and brilliantly dances away with the movie -- his Landa is a Nazi monster like no other: ironic, self-serving, twee, honorable, ingenious (and of course, utterly evil).

Landa is the nemesis of the movie's heroine Shosanna, after he murders her family. Shosanna is an unlikely siren and object of Nazi affection. For Landa, she's the one that got away. Zoller, a monster of a different sort (and a cinephile in his own right), lavishes unwanted attention on her as well. In several instances, Inglourious Basterds twists cinematic tradition, taking qualities that would traditionally be considered virtues in a movie character (resistance, patriotism, killer marksmanship) and provocatively attaching them to Nazis in a way that forces a reconsideration of the so-called virtue. Shosanna is a calculating and vengeful lady in a red dress (and a propagandist filmmaker and would-be mass murderer), but her cause cannot be called unjust (unless one is a Nazi). This is also true of Raine (a.k.a. "Aldo the Apache") and his Basterds, who are brutal and bloodthirsty, but in the service of justice and retribution. Pitt's performance as the fast-talking, hard-boiled Southerner Raine approaches caricature, with a strong undercurrent of dark humor. It's the kind of mannered performance that complements Tarantino's mannered dialogue in a way that really works.

The meandering plot of Inglourious Basterds winds around sufficiently to incorporate numerous war movie tropes, and combines fact and fiction, movie history and world history, and comes to an utterly satisfying and inflammatory (in more ways than one) conclusion in which film itself is the agent of vengeance and correction (in more ways than one). Inglourious Basterds is fanboy cinephile Tarantino's homage to war movies, westerns, and to pre-war German cinema, but with his own postmodern twist: titles, keening spaghetti western music and grinding rock guitar riffs, and occasional narrative interludes featuring the voice of Samuel L. Jackson (discussing -- what else? -- pre-war film stocks). There's more too -- as a film that is essentially about Jewish anger and vengeance for the Holocaust, Inglourious Basterds references the ovens at Auschwitz and the tattooing of inmates, but in irreverent, table-turning fashion.

Depending on how much reverence one demands from films about the war and the Nazi atrocities, and whether one believes such films can (or should) be entertaining, Inglourious Basterds is either a film to be taken very seriously, or not seriously at all. Tarantino likes his B-movies, and likes, too, to elevate B-movie conventions to art. He succeeds better sometimes than others, and like a true contrarian, he succeeds better when he reaches higher, and is more ambitious. Inglourious Basterds is ambitious, irreverent, and accomplished. Like a work of high caliber fanfic, it is related to the war movie's canonical universe, and simultaneously exists outside that universe, offering an alternate ending that satisfies our desires with respect to historical reality and with respect to happy (well, more or less happy) movie endings.