What a weird series of contradictions Inglourious Basterds is. It's epic in look and feel, but it ends on a whimper and wisecrack. It never stops explaining itself (creating the illusion of complication), but at the end of this simple tale of revenge, it feels like the line from A to B has been a straight one. It's a Quentin Tarantino film about atrocity, yet none of the violence feels gratuitous (at least to desensitized me). It was as brutal as its story demanded, no more and certainly a lot less than the much-maligned original trailer suggested.
Despite my gorehound tendencies, I'm not disappointed about that. It felt mature, as did the dialogue, which was deficient of the fast-talking, pop-culture worship that has defined Tarantino up till now. In that respect, making a period piece must have been something of a personal challenge. I guess he got some references in by saluting things like spaghetti Westerns and the French new wave. That stuff's off my radar, and I can't imagine how far it is off the average teenager that I shared space with on Friday. It made me chuckle that these kids came expecting a bloodbath and were instead presented essentially a reading assignment, given the amount of dialogue and the fact that it's almost all in French or German. It felt like a very gentle fuck you. That's yet another contradiction.
At this point, you can't really amputate a Quentin Tarantino picture from his body of work -- it's all part of an ongoing discussion (and sometimes that discussion feels like one long declaration of self-satisfaction). More than any other working director, I can't help but judge all of his movies against his past work. I wonder how Basterds would be taken on its own, not as Tarantino's grown-up quasi-historical epic. For one thing, I suspect it would have been made to come in at under two hours. Basterds didn't feel bloated to me, save the entirely expository scene, in which a pointless Mike Myers explained Operation Kino (the military plot to assasinate Hitler and other important members of the SS). Still, I can see how it is patience-testing, as it is a lot of sitting around and talking for relatively obvious pay-off (although Mélanie Laurent laughing at her oppressors via a projection on thick smoke is about as good of cinematic imagery as any I've seen this decade -- that alone was pay-off to me). I felt like the whole thing was tense, though. It affected my physiologically -- my pulse elevated, my hand strained from clenching. The movie is essentially a series of uncomfortable conversations, in which some powerful bad guy doesn't and can't know the secret of the good guy he's talking to (whatever it may be). I think it did a tremendous job of conveying the claustrophobia of occupation.
I just have one more point, but it's a major spoiler, so it's going under a cut...
Ultimately, the film made me wonder if Colonel Hans Landa, the Nazi "Jew Hunter," got a raw deal. Yes, his oppressive presence is conveyed in every uncomfortable conversation he has (and as the film's arguable central character, there are a lot of those) and he's obviously just heinous, but he is honest. The film is bookended by two deals struc by Landa -- in the first, he visits a farmer in the French countryside, and (in the rare English sequence) agrees to not prosecute him if he confesses that he's been hiding Jews. After the confession, Landa maintains his end of the deal. In the final deal, struck with Brad Pitt's Aldo Raine (or, rather, his superior), he allows Operation Kino to transpire, providing that he's given amnesty and, in fact, acknowledged as having been part of the plot all along. In the very final scene, Landa's fellow solider is shot, the deal is essentially terminated and Raine carves a giant swastika in his forehead. Not that anyone of his character deserves fairness, but given Tarantino's investment in spoken communication, I thought he might have more mercy for a man of his word. If that constitutes a contradiction, surely it's the most welcome one of all.