Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Emile Hirsch, Margaret Qualley, Timothy Olyphant, Julia Butters, Austin Butler, Dakota Fanning, Bruce Dern, Luke Perry, Damian Lewis, Al Pacino, Lena Dunham, Kurt Russell, Scoot McNairy
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
It was the end of times. It was the beginning of times. It was, to put a finer point on things, the year the culture shifted. Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood locates the demise of square-jawed Old Hollywood and the birth of the more dangerous breed of 1970s New Hollywood. In many ways, this is the writer-director laying out a staggering culmination of his pop culture obsessions (blaxploitation, kung fu movies, corny 50’s TV shows, spaghetti westerns) while making his best work since 1997’s Jackie Brown. It’s a surprisingly elegiac film from a director known for juvenile posturing and shock tactics, carrying a thoughtfulness rarely seen in his back catalog.
Of course, the guy hasn’t gone completely square, but the conservative nature of the film (those damn hippies!) and fondness for classic pre-60s ephemera means that Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood carries a surprisingly fragile heartbeat. No one would ever accuse Tarantino of being an emotional filmmaker, but the central friendship between fading TV star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), and his best friend and longtime stuntman, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), is keenly felt throughout. In fact, the entire film can be read as a metatextual commentary on Tarantino himself; a guy who brazenly burst onto the scene in the early 90s with Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction; two movies which shook up the sagging American movie industry. Now 56, Tarantino is no longer the hip youthful juggernaut, but the middle-aged auteur watching the industry shift yet again under the weight of streaming algorithms.
Much of the film’s early section involves lavishly recreated areas of the Sunset Strip as characters speed around corners in their cars while blasting various pop hits. In the purview of such scenes are the long-haired hippies and young female wastrels hanging at bus stops or rummaging through trash cans. It’s a heightened vision of neon signs and iconography, but Tarantino is smart enough to simply luxuriate in these details. As per usual, he’s in no big hurry to hit plot points or push the narrative along.
Dalton and Booth are both fictional characters, and yet the world of kitschy Hollywood TV shows and B-movies they populate did exist. However, as he’s demonstrated to varying degrees in all of his films, Tarantino isn’t after realism or authenticity. He is a supreme lover of movies, and his particular geekdom gets the full treatment here, from reproductions of cheesy commercials to the western TV series Dalton is shooting in which he portrays a snarling villain. From Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill, to Inglorious Basterds, the world of a Tarantino film only factors in modern day relevance or historical veracity insofar as it relates to other movies and how those things can be inverted through his very distinct lens.
Dalton could be a stand-in for Tarantino, particularly in a scene in which he picks up some method acting tips from a precocious 8-year-old (Julia Butters) after relating a story about an aging cowboy who suffered an injury. As Dalton begins to break down, we are invited to laugh at his self-pity, especially because Butters rattles off some feminist-leaning wisecracks, but also because it represents Tarantino’s feelings about himself. He’s now the fading star on a comeback trail; the one who no longer has a place in our more progressive age. Whatever the case, Dalton and Booth’s exploits are occasionally interrupted by a secondary storyline, where the real-life Sharon Tate (Margo Robbie) lives next door to Dalton with her famous filmmaker husband, Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), and trusted pal/former lover, Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch). This thread generated most of the early buzz regarding Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, with speculation that Tarantino was making his epic Manson family movie, and while that aspect does factor into the overall plot here, it’s not chiefly the director’s concern.
This is a good thing, because Tarantino’s gifts have always been in writing and characterization. While Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood doesn’t have the crackling pop-culture heavy dialogue of something like Pulp Fiction, it does emerge as a more subtle writing accomplishment. Instead of giving Robbie a juicy monologue, there’s a fascinatingly self-reflexive moment where she goes to a screening of Tate’s 1968 film The Wrecking Crew and reacts along with the crowd. Watching Robbie as Tate watching the real Tate onscreen is some kind of strange magic trick; suggesting decades of celebrity culture through the prism of voyeurism. For all of Tarantino’s strengths, his characters rarely feel like real people, but here, there’s a mixture of genuine emotional investment and artificial movieness. It’s the last film since Jackie Brown in which the characters feel like they have their own voices rather than just being mouthpieces for Tarantino’s arch sermonizing.
Of course, the two storylines here must converge, and the film’s final 45 minutes will be divisive in how it handles real-life tragedies and over the top violence, but had the previous two hours not been as thematically rich, the historical revisionist finale may simply have played as yet another cheap Tarantino shock tactic. However, there’s an attempt at auto-critique here, as evidenced by a scene of the Manson clan arguing inside a car where one member exclaims “If you grew up watching TV, you grew up watching murder. My idea is to kill the people who taught us to kill!” Touché, Mr. Tarantino.
The violence in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood ends up being physical, sure, but the film is ultimately more interested in a spiritual violence that permeates when one generation is pushed out to make way for a new one. Dalton and Booth’s touching bond (exemplified by DiCaprio and Pitt’s self-aware, brilliant performances) strains against the tides of the changing times but persists nonetheless through a haze of hippie smoke, dashed dreams, and alcoholism. Tarantino may be lamenting the sociocultural shift from Old Hollywood into the psychedelic era of drugs, activism, and political upheaval, but he’s not necessarily saying the previous generation was operating in reality either. One could accuse Tarantino of nostalgia pandering, but what he’s really after is this idea of how pop culture has been filtered down by the counterculture. It’s all a dream if it never happened, with Dalton and Booth limping off into the sunset, kind of like a midlife crisis.