Rating: R, for graphic violence, strong language and sexual content
Length: 2 hours, 32 minutes
Theater: Southwind Twelve, 3433 Iowa
It’s not easy to wrap your head around “Inglourious Basterds,” writer-director Quentin Tarantino’s audacious fantasy of Jewish revenge against the Nazis. Featuring long, talky sequences that give way to sudden, almost cartoonish outbursts of violence, the film is both grindhouse and arthouse; an exploitation film as Jean-Luc Godard might have made. But if you give yourself over to the film’s languid rhythms and its stunning juxtaposition of playfulness and purposefulness, you might just discover that Tarantino has made a masterpiece — a glorious mash-up of every eccentric idea that has ever floated through his movie-mad brain.
“Inglourious Basterds” begins in Nazi-occupied France in 1941, where Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), nicknamed the “Jew Hunter,” has come to interrogate a farmer (Denis Menochet), whom he believes is harboring a family of Jews. For nearly 20 minutes, the camera circles around them, and the conversation proves even more circular: Nothing that the jocular, seemingly guileless Landa says can possibly be trusted. The violence, when it explodes, is as abrupt as it is gorgeously filmed — a frenzy of bullets shot into the floorboards, as shards of light and splashes of blood come streaming through the bullet holes.
So far all of this sounds like Tarantino’s last two pictures, the “Grindhouse” segment “Death Proof” (lots of talk, followed by a 40-minute car chase) and “Kill Bill Vol. 2” (lots of violence, followed by lots of talk, followed by still more violence). But those movies found Tarantino on a one-way journey into his navel, indulging his obsessions with comic books, Jean-Luc Godard, and cinematic violence at the expense of creating believable characters.
This time, though, he’s wedded his experimentation to a genuinely powerful idea: “Inglourious Basterds” is a kind of revisionist World War II history (or, perhaps more to the point, a revision of World War II movies). Tarantino is handing that era’s cinema back to the Jews, who have been portrayed in too many films as passive victims waiting to be saved by the Gentiles. (This is the movie Munich could have only dreamed of being.) Here they’re portrayed as ruthless, merciless, mirthful and determined.
Meet “The Basterds,” led by Lt. Aldo Raine (an inspired Brad Pitt, reminding us why he should stick to comedy), a feared group of Jewish-American soldiers (along with the occasional German-speaking Austrian), who have developed a reputation for (literally) scalping the Nazis they kill. Now it’s 1944, and Raine and his crew are having increasing success with their campaign of terror against the Third Reich, much to the dismay of Hitler (Martin Wuttke).
Meanwhile, in Paris, Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent), the sole Jewish survivor of Col. Landa’s killing spree on the farm, has reinvented herself as a Gentile cinema owner. When she attracts the notice of a handsome German soldier and actor (Daniel Bruhl), and then the minister of propaganda Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth), she realizes that she might have the chance to avenge the murder of her family.
Complete with a Marlene Dietrich-inspired actress (Diane Kruger) who turns out to be a double agent and a recreated Nazi propaganda film, “Inglourious Basterds” builds to an altogether mind-bending climax, which takes place — where else? — inside a movie theater. The mixture of comedy and terror sends us straight back to “Pulp Fiction,” or perhaps into Tarantino’s own DVD collection.
Everything in the film is play, an elaborate goof on film history — yup, that’s Samuel L. Jackson delivering the periodic bits of narration; and, indeed, that really is Mike Myers, in pancake makeup, playing a member of Winston Churchill’s inner-circle — and yet there is a fierce undercurrent of moral purpose. The climactic image of Roth’s Sgt. Donny Donowitz gunning down a Nazi is as cathartic as it is comic; as powerfully exultant as it is unexpectedly poignant.
You could spend hours debating the meaning of things here, particularly whether — by using celluloid as a very literal weapon — Tarantino is renouncing the art form that made him famous or finding a new way of embracing it. Save the arguments for later, and instead luxuriate in the moment-to-moment pleasures of this truly original work: The bright, pop-art colors of Robert Richardson’s cinematography; the ferocious, mesmerizing turn by Waltz, one of the great movie bad guys of the decade; and the ingenious bursts of postmodern tomfoolery (watch for the moment, early on, when Tarantino finds a way to effortlessly switch from subtitles to English).
This is easily the director’s finest work since “Pulp Fiction” — and just like “Pulp Fiction” it seems to singlehandedly rewrite the rules of cinema.