What is Quentin Tarantino if Quentin Tarantino isn't cool? A director of many fetishes—feet, blades and jive—the former video-store geek's greatest trick was turning himself into a fetish object, endlessly quoted and slobbered over by fanboys. To imagine him without his smirking insouciance is like watching Pulp Fiction hitman Jules Winnfield relieved of his "Bad Mother Fucker" wallet. But the advance word on Tarantino's World War II pet project Inglourious Basterds was that it was slow, talky and—horror of horrors—earnest.
In a way, these warnings were true: Basterds may feature a Brad Pitt-marshaled squadron of merciless Jewish commandos, but the punishment they visit upon the Third Reich is only a small part of the movie's five chapters—it serves as a punctuation to intricate dances of dialogue, some stretching as long as 40 minutes and conducted in four languages. The movie ranks among Tarantino's greatest achievements, but it is not a shiny summer bauble. It is more like a housecat hunting for 152 minutes, depositing a bloody, broken bird at your feet and expecting you to love the gift as much as he does.
And make no mistake: Love—the unabashed, full-throated, spelling-challenged adoration of cinema—is what's at stake here. Inglourious Basterds is surely the first World War II film in which a heroic officer is a former film critic. It is a war movie about other war movies, and a war movie in which the deciding weapon is the movies themselves. "Watching Donny beat Nazis to death," says Pitt's Lt. Aldo Raine of baseball bat-wielding Sgt. Donny Donowitz (Eli Roth, the Hostel director), "is the closest we ever get to going to the movies." Basterds shares that estimation. It is a fantasy of scorched-earth revenge for the Holocaust, exacted in a Parisian projection booth, through the artistic medium shepherded into existence by the Jews. Inglourious Basterds suggests that if Tom Cruise really wanted to kill Hitler in Valkyrie, he would have taken the Führer to a picture show.
As this suggests, Tarantino may have dropped his flippancy, but he has not compensated with good taste. His reply to the moral abyss of the 20th century is to carve swastikas into Nazi foreheads and brain them with Louisville Sluggers. If you find this response insufficient and juvenile, I'm sure you're right. But if you, like me, have been waiting for someone to do the carving and the braining, Quentin is your man. His mastery is established in the first 20 minutes, in a prologue where Calabash-smoking "Jew hunter" Col. Hans Landa courteously interrogates a farmer. (Landa is played by Christoph Waltz in a performance that places him in the pantheon of feline villains, from Claude Rains to George Sanders; his smile—this is surely intentional—recalls Christopher Plummer's "good Austrian" in The Sound of Music. ) The opening scene follows Hitchcock's laws of suspense, except the bomb under the table is a family of Jews under the floorboards. Only the eldest daughter, Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), escapes. At the end of the film she is still hidden, but this time in the projectionist's booth, with an actual bomb made of flammable celluloid.
My colleague Chris Stamm observed after the screening that the rhythms of Inglourious Basterds owe a good deal to Godard, with the spurts of carnage partitioned by long passages of conversation. But while the discussions in Tarantino's Jackie Brown and Death Proof meandered in self-references, with unexpected violence as a punch line, the détentes in Basterds each escalate, until death is inescapable and stoically faced. (Often the deciding moment is signaled by changing languages—and not only because Col. Landa is a polyglot.) Until the final hellstorm, there are the consolations of fine music—much of it by Ennio Morricone—and the best of Continental acting, provided by Waltz, Laurent and Michael Fassbender as the film critic. The experience is like savoring a box of imported French chocolates, only the last one is filled with the wrath of God.
So why is Tarantino's opus being greeted with indifference, even disdain? Some of the blasé reception may be ingrained distaste for the Weinstein Company, or Grindhouse fatigue. But I suspect it has just as much to do with the way we have all been bought off by Hollywood marketing—our loyalty purchased not with payola, but with proximity to the hot new thing. This is why we stand in line each week, more excited by participating in opening weekend than by the sensation of the movies themselves. If a project has buzz (manufactured, disposable and above all safe, like the stuff wafting off Star Trek or District 9) you'd better associate yourself with it, so the buzz can be transferred to you, along with the accompanying Twitter followers and prime seats at Comic-Con. Now you're cool, the movie's cool, and everyone becomes a cog in the cool machine. What's lost in this surrender? Only judgment: the ability to recognize when a film is more than a fleeting diversion, to feel the luxurious cadence of a scene that begins with the taking of Allied prisoners and ends with the Jew hunter proposing a phone call so fantastically satisfying that all Tarantino's big talkers can say is, "Bingo!" Lose the ability to feel the thrill of that exclamation—and the potential of cinema to fulfill impossible wishes—and all that's left are the previews.
Against this paltry fate we have the real filmmaking of Inglourious Basterds: polarizing, courageous, dangerous. If it is guilty of bloodlust, at least it has something left in its veins besides novelty and hype. As Lt. Aldo Raine finishes etching another swastika into another Gestapo brow, he stops to admire his handiwork. "You know somethin'?" he asks in his Tennessee drawl. "I think this just might be my masterpiece." Look away, you children of cool, but a masterpiece it is.
is rated R. It opens Friday at Cedar Hills, Eastport, Cinema 99, CineMagic, City Center, Cornelius, Division, Evergreen, Hilltop, Lake Twin, Lloyd Center, Movies on TV, Oak Grove, Pioneer Place, Sandy, Sherwood, St. Johns Twin Cinema-Pub, Tigard and Wilsonville.