That’s not to say that Quentin Tarantino has made a bad movie. Rather, he’s made a Tarantino movie: if you’re the right sort of viewer, it can be lots of bloody, perverse fun. Basterds works conscientiously at upending decorum, good taste, and historical verisimilitude by presenting the European theater as a Wild-West-meets-splatterpunk vision, a sadist’s paradise. Unreasonable as it may be, we want to buy into it while watching it. And sadly, who can insist—reasonably—that Tarantino’s gory vision, though not its particulars, is all that far from the terrible truth?
But the ex–video store clerk’s flick is less about war than war movies. Even more than the title’s calculatedly poor spelling, the tip-off to its main agenda is its hero’s name: army lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), a salute to 1950s war movie fixture (and ex–navy frogman) Aldo Ray. But instead of Ray’s brutish, short-fused screen persona, this Aldo is a sleepy-eyed, laid-back good ole boy from Tennessee charged with leading a squad of Jewish American soldiers behind enemy lines to slaughter and scalp as many Nazis as they can.
As the Basterds’ reign of terror leaves mutilated, hairless corpses strewn across the Third Reich, Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), a French-Jewish refugee who barely survived her family’s massacre at the instigation of SS colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), has been quietly managing her own cinematheque in Nazi-occupied Paris. But both her humble movie palace and her lissome person attract the unwanted affections of Fredrick Zoller, a movie fan and German private whose single-handed slaughter of over 200 Allied soldiers from a sniper’s nest makes him the Reich’s Alvin York and Audie Murphy combined. Joseph Goebbels has even supervised a movie about the crookedly grinning private’s exploits—starring Zoller as himself, Murphy-style.
Using his war hero’s capital, Zoller persuades Goebbels to move the film’s exclusive screening for the Nazi elite from a ritzy Parisian palace to Shosanna’s smaller, classier theater. With help from her black projectionist lover, she plots to use this grand occasion to wreak her apocalyptic vendetta against the Reich’s leaders, including the führer himself. What complicates matters is that, unknown to her (or to them), Aldo’s angels of death have the exact same plan in mind.
Ridiculous? You bet. But Inglourious Basterds’ central theme (inasmuch as it has one) examines the expectations audiences bring to war movies: for example, how one crowd’s catharsis can be transfigured into another crowd’s horror—and back again. But then Tarantino and his cast (Pitt and Waltz, most conspicuously) seem to be having way too much fun to claim even this much seriousness.