Quentin Tarantino’s latest Inglorious Bastards caps a fairly uneven decade for the auteur filmmaker. After the one-two-three punch of his 90’s work culminating in the absolute perfection that is Jackie Brown, Tarantino had a longish six year break where apparently all he did was watch movies. Kill Bill Volumes One and Two was a slapdash mix of every filmic influence of Tarantino’s upbringing all latched onto a violent revenge story. Stretched into two films, the movie(s) are equal parts good and bad with moments of genius mixed with moments of tedium, feeling more like a walkthrough of Tarantino’s greatest hits at its lowest and classic Tarantino wit, dialogue, and action at its heights. And then Death Proof, with it’s languid, almost too relaxed for its own good first half and it’s action packed latter half (almost feeling like two separate movies), basically being all about referencing and playing off of the grindhouse movies of his youth.
Not that his previous movies lacked these self referential quirks. They are littered all across Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and most especially, Jackie Brown. What differentiates Tarantino’s 90’s trilogy of films from his 00’s trilogy of films? The 90’s films are certainly more entrenched in the gritty crime stories that were a basic part of 90’s indie cinema but there’s a bit more to it. His work of the 90’s feel more like original stories, even Jackie Brown strangely his only adaptation, laced to Tarantino’s sensibilities and tastes. His films of the 00’s feel as if they work backwards. They start with his favorite genres and films and then laces these stories to narratives that don’t wholly work on their own.
Inglorious Bastards (spelling corrected to keep from driving myself crazy) certainly fits this wholesale description, ripping straight from his favorite B-movie WWII man on a mission movies. However, this film transcends both Kill Bill and Death Proof because it stretches from these confines to tell its own story. Occasionally, here and there, the film tries to burst back into the overly stylish Tarantino threshold, but there’s a certain restraint in that regard.
And that’s the core of why the film works. Tarantino’s focus strays away from the Bastards from a good amount of the film. In fact, the majority are given no dialogue whatsoever. The men on a mission movie that Tarantino seemed set out to make is put on the backburner for the story of Shosanna (played by Melanie Laurent), a French Jew who escapes death at the hands of Col. Hans Landa or “The Jew Hunter” (a great performance by Christoph Waltz) as a child and who comes to own a Parisian movie theater where she finds the chance to kill the entire high command of the Nazi regime. The Basterds,a squad of Jewish Americans assigned to collect 100 Nazi scalps each as lead by Lt. Aldo Raines (played by Brad Pitt), also have their own plan of blowing up the movie theater but it almost seems incidental.
The Basterds seem almost relegated as a subplot in their own movie as the main action and the main thrust of the narrative force belongs to Shosanna’s story, a character that barely even comes in contact with any of the Basterds over the course of the movie. In fact, take away the Basterds and little would be lost minus a few scenes of violence and an exquisitely tense bar scene. It’s telling that Pitt seems to play Aldo Raines as little more than a roguish cartoon character while Laurent and Waltz get to form actual characters.
In the end, what this film represents, as much of his work this decade has represented, is his love of not just genre films but of the power of film in general. The climactic scene at the Parisian movie theater is almost poetic in its technical elegance while also mind numbingly violent in its utter violent devastation. It’s what the power of these films do to the audience as much as it is about what happens on screen.
Just moments before, we witness a Nazi audience cheering and howling at the violent retribution against American forces on the screen, and then that final utter irony, as Tarantino puts us in the Nazi viewpoint in a way. The audience I was with cheered and howled just as hard as the Basterds mowed down machine gun fire amidst the burning wreckage of the theater as Shosanna’s visage projects ominously over the violent chaos, cackling with glee. If these weren’t Nazis, if this was almost any other group of people, this scene would be abhorrent. The great dichotomy of cinema separating what is real and what is not and what is acceptable and what is not, in terms of screen violence is explored in interesting ways here but its almost revolting in its way. One can feel almost disgusted with the filth that the film uncovers both in its characters and in the audience.
It’s fitting that Tarantino ends this decade on a high note as he ended the nineties on a high note with Jackie Brown but, in my mind, his next film needs to be radically different. After Inglourious Basterds, he needs to make a film completely free of violence. I think he crafted something quite elegant in its handling on the themes of revenge and violence in cinema and after that last scene in the theater, he needs to step away from screen violence for at least one movie. What that movie may be or what it could be about, I couldn’t really say but it’s just something I’d like to see happen. I think he’s made his ultimate statement on both the pleasures of cinema violence but also on what it says about us, the audience, that revels in it so deeply on a primal level. Taking a step back from that for at least one movie, would be something quite interesting to see from an already fascinating filmmaker.