In the last several weeks, I’ve had several interesting debates online about the film Inglourious Basterds, by Quentin Tarantino. I’m currently working on a two-part article of my own, describing my complicated, sometimes-contradictory thoughts and feelings about the film. It is difficult for me to give any simple response about it; I am as troubled by how the film has been marketed as I am impressed with the craftsmanship of several of the movie’s vivid sequences. So… stay tuned for that.

In the meantime, I’m happy to share with you the thoughts of my observant friend Ryan Holt, who is among the film’s enthusiastic defenders. Think it over. And for another perspective, here’s a link to Michael Leary’s response at Filmwell.]

In the beginning, there was the “early Tarantino,” the man who gave the cinema such distinct and original exercises in pulp nostalgia like Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and Jackie Brown. These films marked a bold new voice in the realm of cinema, a pseudo-successor to a filmmakers like Jean-Luc Godard, but marked less with the spirit of the avant-garde than with the spirit of the fanboy. Tarantino’s films displayed, and were perhaps defined by, a kind of youthful exuberance as well as an extensive knowledge of the medium. Even when his early films made missteps, Tarantino’s excitement could be felt in every second.

At the turn of the millennium, the “middle Tarantino” took over. This Tarantino seemed to be in more in love with himself than the films he was making, descending more and more into self-indulgence and less impressive craftsmanship with outings like Kill Bill and Death Proof. Such films offered glimpses of a potentially brilliant filmmaker beyond what he had previously achieved, but they also gave shape to Tarantino’s most juvenile instincts. Tarantino was willing to play on a slightly bigger scale (he was now tackling the action genre with gusto), but these films lacked the tightness of his previous efforts, and, on occasion, the dazzling style. At times in both films, Tarantino seemed less like himself and more like another filmmaker trying to provide a pastiche of Tarantino’s established style. One could be forgiven for thinking that the Tarantino had begun his decline as cinematic artist.

Now a new Tarantino has emerged, arguably a better one than either of the previous versions. He shares many of the same stylistic hallmarks as the two previous Tarantinos, but he also demonstrates growth, with a greater understanding of his own craft and the kind of story he has been telling. With his latest film, Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino has finally made the leap from a distinct filmmaker to a great one, producing a film both of remarkable style and craft, but also of impressive substance.

Whether Tarantino actually knows the full extent of what he’s managed to produce in Basterds is up for debate. Tarantino has declared that he does not write with subtext in mind, and merely delights in what he finds afterwards. In other words, he enjoys playing film critic to his own work. Whether it was in his mind beforehand or after he had finished the script, interviews give the indication that Tarantino knows exactly what he’s made in Basterds. In these interviews, he’s not only disputed some of the simpler readings of Basterds, but has claimed that he was very much trying to make something more ambitious than his previous films (apparently viewing of Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood caused Tarantino to realize that he needed to take things up a notch). Indeed, the film itself makes this point rather overtly; with the kind of self-assured arrogance and bravado only a filmmaker like Tarantino would attempt, the last line of Inglourious Basterds is “This may just be my masterpiece.”

Such a claim would be damning if the film failed to deliver, but Basterds may genuinely be Tarantino’s finest outing. Stylistically, Basterds manages to impress. The visual palette for the film may be more restrained than in other Tarantino films, but it follows in the tradition of the World War II period piece, with the occasional dash of Tarantino attitude, carefully saving its full strength for the astonishing climax, which arguably contains the most iconic image of Tarantino’s career. If nothing else, the quality of the production design gives the film an aesthetic elegance not present in his other works.

But Tarantino has always been a writer’s director, and his writing has never been sharper. Basterds showcases Tarantino’s usual desire for toying around with his structural concerns. The narrative unfolds at a unique pace, in a unique way, often indulging strange asides. But rather than awkward, it feels strangely coherent, a mix of constant surprise and satisfactory development. Inglourious Basterds boils down to a two-and-a-half hour suspense game, each sequence upping the ante until things (literally) explode. The very fact that Tarantino can produce a twenty minute dialogue sequence and maintain the simmering suspense throughout puts him in the league of the best writer/directors around.

Such moments would not work if the characters failed to engage, but Tarantino has become more successful at his ability to craft fictional individuals. In previous Tarantino films, characters spoke almost interchangeably in so-called “geek speak,” with super-cool tone and obscure references to pop culture, and sometimes even with the same rhythms. Here, Tarantino offers distinct vocabularies to each of these individuals, each with the same level of affection, and the film is gladly devoid of the gimmicky references that have clouded his previous films (where references to the history of cinema occur, they do so because they are justified by the characters and the story itself).

Brad Pitt’s Lieutenant Aldo Raine, the leader of the Basterds, is exactly the kind of character we expect from Tarantino, broadly drawn and darkly funny. As in Burn After Reading, Pitt excels and delivers pitch-perfect comedic timing. But Melanie Laurent’s Shosanna, stunning and subdued, feels more like a character from a Bertolucci film than one crafted by Tarantino, only dressed up in expected Tarantino-isms during a rather striking moment set to David Bowie’s “Cat People.” This disparity between characterizations would produce a rather schizophrenic film were it not for one more lead character to bring them together: Christoph Waltz’s Hans Landa. Landa, a villain for the ages, treads both the more cartoonish waters of Lt. Raine and the more subdued territory of Shoshanna, goofy one moment, composed and charming the next, and cold and vicious soon after.

None of these protagonists, or even any of the characters in Inglourious Basterds, can be considered virtuous. Tarantino did this intentionally (he suggested at a press conference that if the film has a moral, it could be “everybody is everybody,” that there are no strict definitions of hero or villain), flipping the roles that World War II cinema has traditionally applied to the two competing forces in World War II. Here, the American forces fighting the battle are vicious and brutal, near psychopathic in their bloodlust. Raine orders his troops to utilize the fighting methods of the Native American Indians, a reference which in and of itself calls to mind America’s own past moral failures as much as it connects the face of Jewish vengeance with that of another culture. While the two historical figures, Hitler and Goebbels, are turned into comic buffoons without much humanity, the remainder of the Nazi’s are given a kind of humanity that the American Basterds never manage. Colonel Landa, the most villainous figure of the bunch, may not be a Nazi at all; he even states at one point that he participates in the Nazi party not because of any fervor, but merely because the Nazis offer an avenue to utilize his own unique talents. Last of all, Shosanna, the holocaust victim of the story, emerges as an innocent victim at the beginning of the story, but turns into a chillingly vicious seeker of vengeance by the end. Thus, the title of the film seemingly not refers to the titular group of American warriors led by Lt. Raine, but the whole spectrum of characters on display. In Tarantino’s picture of World War II, everybody is a basterd.

Thus the scenes of so-called anti-Nazi violence defy simplistic categories of revenge fantasy. The first notable event, where the Basterds watch with glee as a Nazi officer is beaten to death with a baseball bat, gives the Nazis a palpable humanity and a kind of nobility, while the Basterds are painted as bloodthirsty sociopaths who delight in bloodshed. A shoot-out in a bar gives a Nazi officer the role of an innocent casualty, a young father just trying to survive to parent his newborn child. The spectacular climax of the film goes for the edge of a horror film, recalling the climax of Carrie; the brass of the Third Reich all meet their maker, but they are a faceless mass of individuals trying to escape the horrible fate of burning alive in a horrible spectacle.

As with Kill Bill, Tarantino illustrates that revenge can never be quite as clean and tidy as we expect it to be. Shosanna learns that the hard way. She spends the film expertly crafting her grand revenge in the cinema (in a rather poetic move on Tarantino’s part, the cinema itself brings down the regime of the Third Reich, a retaliation for the Nazi’s ruination of the promising German cinema culture in turn for a propaganda machine, another idea running through this film’s subtext), but never lives to enjoy it, largely because even she, who has more reason to hate the Nazis in a deeply personal way than anyone else in the film, cannot keep her categories straight. She takes pity on a Nazi officer, and her act of mercy deprives her of her life. Only her ghost — footage she recorded and spliced into the Nazi propaganda film on display — watches the Nazis meet their end.

Despite painting his world in shades of gray, Tarantino does allow for one kind of firm moral judgment. In Basterds‘ last scene, Colonel Hans Landa receives poetic justice of an almost Dantean order. Throughout Landa has displayed himself a man of no principle or ethic, and he makes the attempt to slip effortlessly from his identity of Nazi “Jew hunter” to the identity of war hero, shaking off his legacy of brutality. But savage warrior Aldo Raine, a man of some kind of code as well as a man of blood, refuses to let that happen. In the way Tarantino films the scene, the person of Landa almost vanishes from the frame, replaced by the bloody image of the swastika that Raine carves into its forehead. Perhaps there are some identities we create for ourselves that are so unspeakably monstrous we can never truly escape them.

But when Tarantino is so intent on having so much fun at the same time — after all, he has laced his film with an abundance of humor — can all of this hit home? Such ideas have, in all likelihood, been lost on the vast majority of the audience who went to see the film, who merely had a good time. But the fact that the film works as entertainment does not deny the story’s depths or complexities, and those who enjoy it just as a good time are only crediting Tarantino’s aptitude for entertaining cinema, not denying his ability to tell a story that is something more.

Inglourious Basterds stands as a fascinating work of art, one of those rare films that plays broadly and viscerally and intelligently at the same time. Basterds may fall short of perfection (the movie often feels like a condensed version of a much larger World War II epic), but who needs perfection? Inglourious Basterds is always astonishing. Tarantino’s proved that he has still got it, and we can only hope that he does not lose it anytime soon.