To describe Once Upon A Time In…Hollywood as Quentin Tarantino’s most personal film to date sounds rather meaningless; he’s never made an impersonal film, having made a career out of mixing the pop-culture ephemera that fascinates him into fizzy, potent, often intoxicating cinematic cocktails. But his ninth film feels like the most directly he has ever communicated his views on cinema, history, culture, and how they intersect with human lives. Stripping away the verbal and formal flourishes that define much of his work, Tarantino makes his most intimate, sincere film to date. It’s a funny, loose, uneven and melancholy Valentine to a particular place and time – until, suddenly, jarringly, it turns into something else. It’s a fascinating and flawed film that fascinates in part because of its flaws, and is a reminder of what makes Tarantino such a compelling presence in the world of cinema.
The place and time in question is Hollywood circa 1969. It’s a transitional period for the film industry, as the old studio system breathes its last and a new generation of stars and filmmakers plugged into the emergent counter-culture are poised to take over. The film represents this divide through the paralleled stories of two stars, one fictional and one real. On his way down is Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a cowboy actor who found fame leading Western series Bounty Law only to quit to pursue a film career – this didn’t pan out, leaving him stuck playing the villain opposite younger stars in TV guest spots, his only potential route back to the big screen is going to Italy to make Spaghetti Westerns (a possibility he abhors). He’s hit the bottle hard, and is increasingly dependent on his stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), a taciturn war veteran with a shady past who serves as Rick’s driver (after one too many DUIs cost the actor his licence), handy man, and drinking buddy. On her way up is Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), tipped as the next big thing, the belle of Hollywood’s social scene, and married to feted director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) – with whom she’s just moved into the house next to Rick’s on Cielo Drive. Tarantino succinctly lays out the contrasting fortunes of the two stars during the opening credits, intercutting Tate partying with friends on a plane back to LA and picking up her chic luggage at the airport with Rick and Cliff driving to a meeting with Rick’s agent Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino), cigarette butts falling out of the car when the door opens. Meanwhile, over at the Spahn Ranch where Rick and Cliff used to shoot westerns, a group of zoned-out young hippies have fallen under the spell of Charles Manson (Damon Herriman) – who seems very interested in Tate and Polanski’s home.
Eschewing Tarantino’s customary fondness for showy manipulations of structure and point-of-view, Once Upon A Time… is by and large a film not about plot but about character, atmosphere, and texture. This is a long, mostly plotless hang-out movie and mood piece, something like a collage or mosaic of its particular moment; that may frustrate for those hoping for the director firing on all cylinders, but if you can fall into its rhythms the film’s laid-back nature becomes its charm. Not every vignette works – a protracted scene that edits DiCaprio into The Great Escape while Rick discusses how he almost landed Steve McQueen’s role feels like an in-joke too far – but the film is a pleasurable indulgence for most of its ambling first two hours.
Shot by Tarantino’s regular cinematographer Robbie Richardson in saturated, summery blues and yellows by day and awash in multi-coloured lights under an inky-black sky by night, the film’s vision of Los Angeles is a beautiful dream, a film nerd’s fantasy, or perhaps a child’s memory. Long stretches are spent following characters as they zoom past the city’s neon signs in colourful vintage cars, the music and fashions of the period forming an immersive audio-visual cacophony around them. The era’s film culture is conjured with staggering attention to detail of the kind you’d expect of Tarantino, from the films, TV shows and industry luminaries namechecked (right down to a lovely turn by Nicholas Hammond as director Sam Wanamaker, who directs Rick to play a Western villain as “evil, sexy Hamlet), to the lovingly crafted props and costumes.
Most scenes simply follow Dalton, Booth, or Tate as they work, drive around, or interact with various people. The film is directed not with Tarantino’s usual swagger, but with an easy unfussy confidence, a willingness to let a scene gradually reveal itself. We spend a long while watching Rick interact with an eight-year-old method actor (a scene-stealing Julia Butters) – she considers the term actress ‘nonsensical’ – on the set of his latest TV pilot, a scene that starts out dryly comedic and eventually turns poignant as it reveals Rick’s deep-seated fear of irrelevance. We watch Cliff as he feeds his dog Brandy (with whom Pitt has excellent chemistry) in the trailer where he lives, and, in a potentially problematic but deeply entertaining sequence, reminisces about getting into a fight with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh)– the pay-off to which is subtle but possibly very revealing.
In Rick and Cliff, Tarantino finds two of his richest characters, and explores their relationship tenderly and at leisure. They have the unspoken understanding, unfailing loyalty, and mutual acknowledgement and tolerance of one another’s shortcomings that only exists between people who’ve known each other for years. DiCaprio hasn’t been this unguarded, this low-key and willing to appear undignified, in recent memory; he plays Rick as something of an overgrown child, petulant, inconstant (during an extended break-down in his trailer, played with brilliant incoherence and physical comedy, he vows never to drink again – one cut later he’s swigging from a flask), maudlin, and naive in ways both good-hearted and infuriating. Pitt carries himself with the understated but unmistakable charm and underlying menace of a film noir anti-hero, and an almost superhuman sense of physical assurance – he’s a figure of Hollywood mythology, Superman’s invulnerability (just watch how he jumps onto a roof) and charm with Humphrey Bogart’s morally dubious smoulder. Pitt has always been equal parts movie star and character actor, and this role uses both sides of his persona in a way perhaps better than any previously.
Crucially, both men are out of time and painfully aware of it, haunted by the knowledge that the sun may be setting on their careers and the world that produced the type of old-fashioned man they represent – Rick on screen and Cliff seemingly in life. Tarantino mines laughs from their self-pity, but also seems to identify with it on some level, and the film is suffused with the sense of an elegy for what once was, a monument to a bygone era.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the scenes centred on Tate. In one of the film’s best sequences, she goes to a screening of her latest film, the Dean Martin vehicle The Wrecking Crew, and sits incognito among the crowd; a long while is spent watching Tate react with delight as the audience around her crack up at her on-screen physical comedy. Much has been made of Tate’s relative lack of lines, not without justification, but it should be noted that Robbie does a great deal with facial expressions and physicality, turning an icon into a human – funny, charismatic, somewhat awed by her success – while capturing why she was iconic. At times, the film seems torn between those two goals, but Robbie’s performance manages to bridge the divide. Tarantino’s least mannered feature since Jackie Brown, this sees the writer/director in an uncharacteristically subtle and reflective mode. Until, suddenly, it doesn’t.
The spectre of the Manson family looms over the film, first glimpsed when Manson himself briefly appears casing Tate’s house, then again during an agonisingly tense sequence when Cliff finds himself at Spahn Ranch. This scene is almost unbearable to watch, thanks to its David Lynch-esque sense of uncanny Americana and Dakota Fanning’s chillingly affectless performance as Manson acolyte Lynette ‘Squeaky’ Fromme. The film’s final half hour arrives at that fateful August night, and it is here that the film shifts gear, employing the kind of devices and imagery more commonly associated with Tarantino’s name. Depending on one’s sensibilities, these final scenes will play either as a masterstroke or a fatal misstep – and a good case can be made for either. On the one hand, poignant notions about who writes history and the cathartic value of fictional violence are raised; on the other hand, these deeper dimensions – and the sincerity of the whole piece – are almost suffocated under the excess of the director’s imagery, the extreme content that can’t help but feel like a sop to old habits. These moments were presumably always the intended endgame of the film, but can’t help but feel as though intruding from a completely different work. On the other hand, they’re clearly as personal, purposeful, and sincerely felt as everything else here – perhaps so personal that the director can’t quite explain them to anyone else.
If this review runs long and feels contradictory, that’s because the film is much the same way – a fragmented, languid film that abruptly redefines itself at the last minute, a film that sees its director eschewing his usual tendencies then perhaps taking them to their logical conclusion. It feels in many respects like a classic and in others like a mess, and both its successes and failures demand to be dissected and debated at length. It is as brilliant and imperfect a film as its brilliant and imperfect maker has ever made.