In Inglourious Basterds, the quintessential Quentin Tarantino scene unfolds again and again: a long, sinister conversation between someone with power and someone without. Usually, but not always, the powerful person is a Nazi, imposing on someone’s time at excruciating length; it’s rambling as triumph of the will. None of this is as boring as it may sound: Tarantino plumbs these sequences for considerable suspense. When will the Nazi get to the point, or go away, or just kill someone and break the tension? The menacing one-sided chat goes on and on, while the listener sweats and tries not to give up whatever information is being demanded. In Tarantino-land, the Nazis don’t have to torture you; they talk to you.
Brad Pitt and his merry band of “Basterds” are less loquacious (though Pitt, too, uses the chatty method of extracting info). This group of Jewish-American soldiers, led by Pitt the Gentile hillbilly, prefers to rough up their Nazi prey, often for the sheer bullying fun of it. A glowering Boston Jewish bruiser, played by Hostel director Eli Roth, emerges from the shadows with a baseball bat and ends a frightened German soldier rather messily. The Basterds’ story is interwoven with that of a French Jewish girl (Mélanie Laurent), who escapes the Nazis early on and winds up managing a Paris movie theater; she has violent plans of her own. Pitt and Laurent are two sides of the same vengeful coin, with movie-love giving it a hot spin.
Tarantino always sets out to make The Ultimate Movie of Everything Quentin Loves. Inglourious Basterds is his brutal-cool reverie on war, though until the very end he stops short of wholeheartedly enjoying the sadism — the young, terrified German soldiers Pitt mutilates are humanized as much as the victims of the Nazis, and sometimes we feel that those German soldiers are victims of the Nazis, unpolitical kids conscripted into an insane system they might not believe in. The chief villain is an elaborately inquisitive “Jew hunter,” a Nazi colonel who in saner times might have been a great detective; sportively played by Christophe Waltz, this Nazi is allowed depth of motive and layers of feeling about what he does. He’s also a bit of a boor, endlessly impressed with himself.
The marquee star is Brad Pitt, and he turns in a one-note performance — malevolent amusement, mostly — though the note is consistently entertaining. The 26-year-old Mélanie Laurent, an actress to watch, sprinkles her deadpan with barbs of rage and grief. Once again, a woman walks away with a Tarantino film, and he cheerfully lets her take it. Inglourious Basterds is a long, strange pop artifact, studded with instant-classic moments and sealed with a legitimately great image of a laughing face swathed in fire and smoke — even if the entire film were junk, it’d be worth it for that shot alone, an immaculate essay-in-pictures about the power of cinema. As always, Tarantino works with a heady mix of playfulness and classical rigor, and getting out of L.A. and America — as he also did with Kill Bill — adds a pleasant old-world gravitas to his play. He may appreciate the Basterds on a bad-ass Lee Marvin level, but the French girl who shows movies — and shows that the dream Leni Riefenstahl helped build can be blown apart the same way — is his true hero. I don’t know whether Inglourious Basterds is Tarantino’s masterpiece (it’s too early to say), but it proves he’s still a master.