Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

In the early part of his career, Quentin Tarantino was obsessed with Los Angeles. The Knoxville, Tennessee born filmmaker set Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown in the city. Despite this clear love for southern California, he hadn’t set a movie there for going on two decades now. But that’s all about to change. For his ninth (well, tenth considering Kill Bill was released in two volumes, but don’t tell him that) and, if you believe him, penultimate feature, Tarantino returns to Los Angeles at the end of the the Old Hollywood era in 1969 for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. He’s gleefully played with history real and imagined in Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight, so when the rumor mill began to turn that he was going to take on the Manson Family Murders, it would be safe to assume he wouldn’t be approaching it from a straightforward angle.

That’s certainly the case here, as Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is just as much (more, really) about the death throes of a star on the decline. That star is rough and tumble Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), the former lead of “Bounty Law,” a 1950s Western TV show. “Bounty Law” has been off the air for some time, and Dalton is spending the twilight years of his career increasingly typecast as the guest star bad guy of any show that will have him. Flanked by his stunt double turned personal driver, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), Dalton is convinced he can turn things around despite the declining popularity of Westerns in the States and his disinterest in joining the burgeoning industry in Italy. It just happens that famed director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and his wife Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) have moved into the mansion next door. Maybe he can get one more big chance to regain his fame and fortune, maybe even from the hot stuff director of Rosemary’s Baby. But anyone who knows their history is aware of the tragedy on the horizon, and the increased transient hippie activity points to the end we all know is coming.

That sense of impending doom permeates much of the slow burn that is Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. But to be clear, this is not a movie about Manson or his family or their murders. On balance, this is very much a movie about Rick and Cliff, two men struggling with a loss of power and fame and identity and what to do about it in their own ways. Rick’s still getting work, sure, but no one would consider him a star. He lives in his house in the hills because that’s what movie stars do, even if he may not have the ongoing income to afford it. But things are even less certain for Cliff. Stunt men are often unsung outside of Hollywood, and the personal stunt man of a fading star whose sketchy past has gotten him blackballed and lives in a trailer by a drive-in movie theater on the outskirts of Hollywood isn’t exactly brimming over with career prospects. His relationship with Rick is needfully parasitic, giving each of them the purpose they can’t find on their own. But they’re true blue friends; you see that when they sit in Rick’s house, drinking beers and critiquing his stunt work in his latest TV role.

Pitt and DiCaprio are quite possibly doing some of the best work of their careers here; DiCaprio has rarely been as good as he is under the tutelage of Tarantino, and here he displays the wounded pride just out of sight below his leading man veneer that slowly deteriorates alongside his star power. Pitt is positioned as a near polar opposite, stoic and confident if a little withdrawn. It makes him the perfect sort of stunt man, standing beside the more famous of the duo and doing all the heavy lifting. He hides more than his fair share of secrets, though Tarantino purposefully barely scratches the surface of what actually went down. He hasn’t felt this dialed in since Moneyball, and it’s a welcome return to the sort of screen-owning swagger of yesteryear. These two, some of the most famous people on Earth, have such a crackling and easy chemistry with each other that they effortlessly carry the bulk of the story.

But whenever the narrative shifts to Tate, whether it’s the ominous establishing shot of the Cielo Drive sign or the juxtaposition of her bubbly personality against the knowledge of her future, the plight of Rick and Cliff seems almost quaint. We know the timeline. We know that the majority of the film takes place in February of 1969, some six months before Tate would lose her life in such a high profile manner, and that Sword of Damocles hangs over her no matter how oblivious she may be. But for Tarantino, Tate is far more of a symbol of the time than a real character, and Robbie has precious little to do despite being third billed. It’s perhaps a weakness that she is so ancillary despite her murder being the event everything seems to be building toward, but Manson (Damon Herriman, also set to play Manson in the second season of “Mindhunter”) is equally deemphasized, seen more through the zeal of his followers than himself.

And that’s treatment is really the divided like for how effective Once Upon a Time in Hollywood will be. Using the Manson Family and the Tate murders as a prop to tell a completely different story (and a wistful, nostalgic one, at that) could be perceived as rather exploitative, but that word is not exactly alien to the works of Quentin Tarantino. This is, after all, the guy who burned Hitler alive in a movie house in the middle of his World War II epic. His penchant for revisionist history may play a role here as well, but those interested will have to see it to find out.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is pure Tarantino in the end, long and referential and violent and utterly convinced of its own sense of cool. There’s more than a few shots framed around the feet of his female stars. Some habits are truly hard to break. He continues to be a master of moments, be it Pitt’s thrilling exploration of the Manson Family compound at Spahn Ranch or high-speed joyrides through the hills and valleys of Los Angeles, the camera bolted rigid to the backseat of the car as it careens through winding roads. This will not bring new followers into his family. But those already under his cult-like thrall will find plenty to love about his newest effort as I did, a fascinating portrayal of a man coming to grips with the sunset of his career by an auteur who certainly feels the same way. An ode to the silver age of the City of Angels, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood proves that even as he approaches the end of his time as a director, Tarantino still has plenty to say.