Three elements stand out for me in Inglourious Basterds (2009). First is the acting of Brad Pitt, who is effective in his role as Aldo Rainey, the leader of the commando squad whose mission is to kill and scalp Nazis. Pitt’s Maryville, TN, accent is suspect, but he carries it off and convincingly parodies the image of a Sergeant York hillbilly war hero. Because of his notoriety as a Hollywood pretty boy and husband to Angelina Jolie, viewers may overlook or forget that Pitt has repeatedly shown his ability as a character actor: consider Twelve Monkeys (1995) or Burn After Reading (2008).
The second element is Tarantino’s typical reliance on long, slow scenes in which tension slowly, inexorably builds. The first time I encountered this method was in Tarantino’s early film Reservoir Dogs (1992), where a cop is tormented and tortured in a warehouse scene that seems to go on forever. We encounter these scenes again in Pulp Fiction (1994) and the Kill Bill films (2003, 2004). In Inglourious Basterds, one such scene occurs at the film’s beginning in the house of a dairy farmer, another in a Parisian bar, still another in an isolated location where Rainey’s commando squad is interrogating three Nazi soldiers. For long periods in these scenes nothing happens. Inane conversation takes place. Yet you know something is coming. You’re not sure what it will be or how it will transpire. The tension can build to extreme levels. When the tension explodes, whether the payoff in cathartic release is worth the long stretches of dull and boring inactivity is a subject for examination.
The final element is the climactic scene that features the murder of Hitler and Goebbels and most of the German high command in a movie theater fire, effectively ending World War II. Although the plot of the film had moved towards this moment, my assumption was that in one way or the other it would not happen because, historically, it did not happen—Hitler and Goebbels died, probably by suicide, during the last days of the war. Even though the story in this film is fictional, the world Tarantino places it in is historical (or so I assumed). In such a world Goebbels and Hitler are not assassinated. But in the world of this film they are.
Alternative realities are a characteristic of postmodernism. As a filmmaker who has built his method on imitating and quoting the cinematic styles of other filmmakers, Tarantino certainly qualifies as postmodern. But for me the manner in which two of the Nazi era’s most heinous villains died in this film had the effect of invalidating its story.