Many movies give us "hard men", but rarely are they as deeply flawed as QT's characters. Foreign film can often surprise American viewers when it doesn't fit "the formula", but Quentin's movies are, well, quintessentially American and still manage to shock us with their plot twists. His most recent release is Inglourious Basterds, his war movie with (according to quotes of his I've seen) a title misspelling he simply refuses to explain. I have seen the title attributed to the American translation of Quel maledetto treno blindato, but that doesn't explain the spelling.
The movie is a WW II war movie wherein the 'Basterds' is an American unit, run by Brad Pitt who has a strong southern accent, and works behind enemy lines. He is tasked with terrorizing the Nazis. There is a villainous SS captain (done with sadistic glee by Christoph Waltz) who is often one step ahead of his prey, and is tasked with catching hiding Jews. There are many other characters -- the movie is long, but to even begin to describe them, will give too much away.
I want to talk for a moment about another recent WW II movie, Valkyrie, directed by Bryan Singer, and starring Tom Cruise. The movie centered on the historical plot to kill Hitler by people inside the Nazi party. Anyone with a passing knowledge of World War II knows the plot failed, and the rules of World War II movies, especially historical ones, dictate that we know how it ends. The movie could end on a high note -- or a low note -- but the story itself is carved in stone. I wasn't too interested in seeing a movie where a bunch of guys almost get Hitler, so I passed on that one. I was interested in Basterds because I assumed it would be a much more dynamic take on World War II. I knew that Tarintino is a director who does not really constrain himself. I had no idea how right I was.
Quentin Tarintino, as a director, is very, very thoughtful. He knows the rules, and he knows that breaking them will affect us, the viewer, in different ways. When he pauses to let us watch a person in a restaurant carefully spoon two scoops of sugar into their coffee and then pauses again -- twice more really, and three times if you count dialog around it -- for the waitress to put cream on strudel, it isn't because he is striving for realism or virtuality or anything like that. It is because he knows there is a rule that says that movies are real life with the boring parts cut out. As the director of Coraline said, 'animation is movies with the boring parts cut out' -- and by showing us this, he will rivet our attention on the characters doing these ordinary things.
He knows that stopping when we see a character blow up a brilliant yellow title of their name before cutting to their back story causes us to break from the narrative for a moment and laugh at what we see in the back story (even though it is violent). When he has the voices of key characters from Pulp Fiction in the movie, we may wonder if we are in the movie's narrative or a larger one.
I'm not sure what he was going for in a red-washed moment when a woman puts on lipstick in a red dress while Nazi banners hang down outside her window, and David Bowie sings Cat People ('Putting out the Fire' ... with gasoline); but it is a brilliant moment where he told me, at least, that this was the calm before the storm.
The technique of Inglourious Basterds is as unconventional as anything in the film. It is eclectic with breaks for narration, uneven authorial notes scribbled on the film, subtitles that sometimes do and sometimes do not appear when the characters are speaking languages other than English, and a sudden jump-cut to pornography. However, nowhere is he as unconventional in the structure of the narrative. There are at least two parallel stories that never truly meet. There are characters that get what is coming to them, characters that don't, and characters that it is debatable as to what is coming to them. Although in Inglourious Basterds, lots and lots of characters 'get' something!
It is hard to pigeonhole IB (were it not a 'Tarantino movie'). For a war movie there isn't much attention to troop movements. For a resistance-cell movie, there is comparatively little attention paid to the Basterd's exploits. There are Jews who are hunted; there are hunters; there are romances and would-be romances; but IB is not a romantic comedy, and it isn't a thriller. Certainly, it fits most comfortably into the comedy role as there are a good many laughs in it (but be aware, many of them are in disbelief at what you just saw).
Inglourious is violent and bloody in places, but where it shocks the most is where it serves you something you just did not expect. The performances are probably sterling. I say 'probably,' because I could not buy Brad Pitt's accent; but that is likely due more to Pitt being the actor I couldn't help but place as a person, regardless of the role. More compelling is Daniel Bruhl as the young Nazi war hero Fredrick Zoller who must hit a wide range of notes throughout the film. Christoph Waltz shines as the brilliant SS officer, and the camera loves his iconic silver insignia. He won Best Actor at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival.
The movie is long; perhaps over-long, but it did not disappoint me. It shows us that Quentin Tarantino will be recognized as one of our period's greatest filmmakers, and that if he takes his time between projects, it is because his standard of quality requires that. His signature density of material adopted from other films is intact here with character references, call backs to scenes, and an embedded sense of history. I am not going to try to keep up with Tarantino; but from what I could see, he is both proving he knows his stuff while making sure that he is using best-practices from the movies he likes.
If you want a historical war movie, a conventional comedy, or don't like graphic violence then Inglourious Basterds is not a film for you. If you like the rest of Tarantino's library you're going to see this no matter what and you should. I would say that Inglourious Basterds will be as influential as anything that Tarantino has ever done. I have heard it said (of William Shakespeare writing Caesar's memorable if ungrammatically boast) that one should only break the rules when one has sufficiently mastered them so as to never make an unintentional mistake.
Whether or not that is true, I think it is clearly the case that Tarantino is a master of his medium. When he breaks the rules, it is not a mistake, it is just style; and I respect that.