It’s been almost 30 years since Quentin Tarantino first hit the indie scene like a neutron bomb with his debut feature Reservoir Dogs (1992) and since then he’s made many names for himself. To some he’s a genius and enfant terrible, to others he’s a misogynist pervert and cinematic counterfeiter. But the sheer cultural impact of his career has been undeniable as he’s bounced from genre to genre, bringing his obscure knowledge of cinematic ephemera into public consciousness with a style and panache one could argue either saved or ruined American filmmaking for a generation. His filmography has been an extended love letter to the films of his youth, from the French noir films of Melville to the Spaghetti Westerns of Leone, from Japanese chanbara to China wuxia, from blaxploitation to Nazisploitation and every kind of -sploitation in-between. His work revealed a nervous restlessness, as if he feared staying in one genre or time period too long would cause him to go stale. It’s only now, after eight feature films—depending on how you count the Kill Bill diptych—that he’s traded in his passport and returned home. The place: Los Angeles. The time: the late Sixties.
It’s here in his ninth film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood that we finally get a glimpse of Tarantino the person, not Tarantino the persona: here are his memories as a young boy growing up in South Bay with his divorced mother. Here are the streets he walked as he scurried off to double and triple features of foreign gore films and shoot-em-ups while still in grade school. Here are the young hippies rooting for food in garbage bins, and here the Vietnam vets self-medicating with weed and booze. There are the radio commercials for Ray Bradbury books, the theater marquees for Dean Martin movies and the late-night searchlights for dirty movie premiers. The glare of the sun on Burbank, the solitary roadside Mexican restaurants, the skyline untouched by the Aon Center or Two California Plaza. This is the Los Angeles of Tarantino’s youth, but not as it was. Instead, we see here Los Angeles as Tarantino the adult wishes it could’ve been.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is the third of Tarantino’s “historical corrective” films, an impromptu trilogy set in the past where his eccentric characters confront and correct historical injustices. His first, the World War Two men-on-a-mission thriller Inglourious Basterds (2009), saw a ragtag group of American GIs and French Resistance fighters rewrite history by murdering Adolf Hitler and ending World War II several years early. His second, the cathartic Spaghetti Western love letter Django Unchained (2012), saw the beginning of a slave insurrection led by a slave-turned-bounty hunter. If Basterds confronted a global scourge and Django a national one, then Hollywood turns its gaze towards a distinctly Angeleno one: the August 8-9, 1969 Tate murders. An abominable crime where five people—most notably the eight and a half months pregnant Sharon Tate, actress and wife of director Roman Polanski—were brutally murdered in their home by members of the Manson Family intent on sparking a race war, the killings have ingrained themselves in our national zeitgeist as shorthand for all things blasphemous and evil. One can imagine a six-year old Quentin realizing for the first time that the carnage on the TV and movie screens could happen in real life – that evil was truly real.
Perhaps Tarantino’s memory of this affront is what informs Hollywood and makes it, if not his most embittered revenge fantasy, then easily his most personal. Though the film features one of Tarantino’s trademark sprawling casts filled to the brim with random cameos—Is that really Lena Dunham as a cultist? Michael Madsen as a TV sheriff?—it centers on three main personalities. The first is Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), an embittered 50s television Western star in the midst of a midlife crisis as his attempts to transition to film get him nothing but bit parts as heavies and offers from low-budget studios in Italy. The second is Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), Rick’s reticent long-time stunt double, valet, personal gofer. Based on the real-life relationship between Hollywood star Burt Reynolds and his stunt double Hal Needham, the two are a cross-section of Vietnam-era masculinity, the one neurotic and impassioned and the other laid back and mellow. Though neither man would admit it, they need each other more than they do family, spouses, or lovers: Cliff is the one person Rick can count on to support him 100% while Rick is the one person Cliff can depend on to get him work after maybe not-so-accidentally killing his wife in an, ahem, freak harpooning accident. Both men know their respective suns are setting, and both will be damned to go into that night alone.
The same can’t be said for the third protagonist, the infamous model-turned-actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). Fresh from a string of bit parts in successful movies, Tate glows as brightly as a Ventura sunrise as she bounces from party to party, occasionally sneaking into a theater to watch her films almost as if to reassure herself that they’re real. She also happens to live with her big-shot director husband and small-fry hairstylist lover in a house previously owned by a record executive on Cielo Drive in Benedict Canyon. A record executive who spurned a struggling singer-songwriter with a shaggy head of hair, a murderous pair of eyes, and a truly cult-like following back at his ranch. And did we mention that said house was also next door to Rick’s villa?
This then is the crux of Hollywood: it’s a brazen what-if story about what might have happened the night of the Tate murders if the additional X-factors of a burnt out Western star and his seemingly invincible stunt man were thrown into the mix. The final twenty minutes of the film which reconstruct the events leading up to the murders before throwing everything out the window for Tarantino’s “revised” ending is everything film buffs have come to anticipate from him. It’s shockingly unexpected, absurd and buried in the thrills, perhaps a touch misogynistic, sitting proudly among the goriest moments of Tarantino’s pantheon of ultra-violence.
And yet, the final 20 minutes feel ultimately hollow compared with the first two hours which play as a languid hang-out piece as the main characters shuffle about, drive from place to place, and muck around film sets. Tarantino’s films have long been accused of being over-long and baggy, and while Hollywood is no exception this is perhaps the first time where the insouciant languid pacing is a deliberate feature instead of a bug. Perhaps Tarantino is growing melancholy as he arrives in his late fifties; this is a film infused with regret and sorrow.
In his review of Inglourious Basterds Roger Ebert wrote that Tarantino has a knack for taking characters and making them Characters with a capital “C.” This might be the first time he’s created actual Humans with a capital “H.” Consider one scene between Rick and his co-star on a new TV pilot, an eight-year old girl named Trudy Fraser (Julia Butters), an obvious riff on a young Meryl Streep. They strike up a conversation about the books they’re currently reading as their makeup dries and Rick has a minor breakdown as he summarizes the plot of his novel, a Western about an old bronco buster fighting feelings of irrelevance as he ages. It’s overlong and indulgent and doesn’t add much to the plot, but it’s one of the more penetrative character moments in any of Tarantino’s films. In that moment Tarantino is Rick as much as Rick is that unwanted bronco buster. There’s a nuance here that’s more compelling and powerful than any third act barnburner climax, even one shot by Tarantino.