Starting with a gobsmacked VHS screening of Reservoir Dogs way back in '92, I've seen every Quentin Tarantino movie dozens upon dozens of times, but Inglourious Basterds is the first I will have seen only once before writing about it. Like the absolute best entries cinema history has to offer, his work demands repeat viewing, as much to catch all the in-jokes, references and homages as to see their cumulative, strikingly original impact. All of which is why I can only try to sufficiently deconstruct, classify and characterize Tarantino's latest, a wartime opus whose shortcomings upon first viewing are as immediately recognizable as the fact they will after many more of them prove to be virtues, ultimately creating a singular tribute to WWII movies done in the writer-director's signature, genre-bending style.
While the star of the film is really the story, there are three characters who cement together Inglourious Basterds' unwieldy but surprisingly even-weighted chapters. First, there's Colonel Landa (Christoph Waltz), a Nazi officer who earned the nickname "the Jew hunter" thanks to his indefatigable, shoe-leather-and-shark's-grin persistence. Next, there's Shoshanna (Melanie Laurent), one of Landa's few targets who escaped, who lives under an assumed name and manages a French cinema. And then there's Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), an American soldier who recruits a rabid team of Jews to hunt down Nazis and strike fear with their exploits.
When the heroism of a German soldier named Frederick Zoller (Daniel Bruhl) is set to be immortalized in a propaganda film called "Nation's Pride," Zoller schedules the premiere as Shoshanna's theater in the hopes of winning her affection. But the news that Hitler, Goebbels and several other high-ranking Nazi officials will attend inspires not one but two separate assassination plots, one from Shoshanna and one from Aldo, with only the tireless cunning of Landa standing in the way of their success.
A common criticism lobbied at films of late is that they're just too long, and Tarantino certainly tests his audience's patience indulging in the details of his WWII-era world: dusty cellars and panoramic vistas, classic movie marquees and French cafes create the real sense of a world poised on the edge of violent conflict that could erupt at any moment. (Remarkably, Tarantino's films all maintain a similar sort of razor's-edge dance between lip-snacking dialogue and the promise of deadly confrontation.) Suffice it to say it's undeniable that the film could easily be trimmed by 20 minutes of so without losing its emotional core – and indeed, perhaps picking up a stronger dramatic momentum. But it's also easy to imagine that deliberate pacing will eventually become part of its charms: on first viewing, we don't yet know why we should be on edge, but subsequent viewings will remind us that in virtually all of the director's movies, it's the anticipation of what we know is about to happen that thrills us, not the payoff of its comparatively superficial surprises.
Meanwhile, a colleague astutely observed that Inglourious Basterds is a sort of fantasy-metaphor for Tarantino the cinephile: film quite literally wins the war. But even bigger than that is the film's sense of mythmaking – the creation, acceptance, inflation or refusal of identity that often redefines the details of history, much less reality in general. This is seen in Landa's embrace of his "Jew hunter" nickname, the formation of the Basterds as vengeance-seeking Jews engaged in a holy war against their would-be oppressors, and the elevation of Zoller's heroism to literally propagandistic proportions among many other examples. But all of them are reflections of humanity's willingness to put perception first and ignore the numbing minutiae of what really happened in favor of the broad strokes of how big, broad and significant it seemed – an irony that any film-literate viewer (much-less a cinematic encyclopedia like Tarantino) is deeply aware of, whether a story is "the truth," based on it or even really true.
Of course, even in real life, the eventual record, or what goes down in "the history books" often overshadows actual events, but while Tarantino does his best to make the "facts" in his film the stuff of legends, his theme serves as a fascinating commentary on the characters, their actions, and even the film itself, especially since one imagines many would prefer to remember a more cathartic end to Hitler's regime than the considerably less exciting one that history remembers.
Ultimately, the film's most immediate problem is its lack of urgency; for a film that purports to be about a man on a mission, there's a lot more man than mission, and a lot more conversation than action. But in the same way that Jackie Brown languished in the lifestyles of its characters, Inglourious Basterds has a lived-in feel that gives it deeper authenticity and more lasting power – especially after you've figured out where it's going. There are scenes upon scenes with dynamo exchanges and nailbiter showdowns, but their impact is measured more in character detail than cumulative body count.
Overall, Inglourious Basterds is imperfect, particularly in our single-serving (much less single-viewing) movie culture, and probably counts as a lesser work to those who primarily associate him with katanas, kung fu, and cut-off body parts. But there's no denying it's also a richer and more textured experience than many of its predecessors, because it abandons the pretense of homage and inspiration immediately following its title card and just becomes its own movie. In which case, Tarantino both falters and triumphs, but allows history to judge rather than the first weekend's box office returns, making myth again become reality, and vice versa: Inglourious Basterds is not necessarily a fully or immediately satisfying experience on first viewing, but Tarantino's remarkable achievement is to make even its seeming problems so interesting and compelling that you not only need, but desperately want to see it many, many more times, either to make sure you're right, or more likely, prove yourself wrong.