The Moon landing and the Manson murders happened within weeks of one another. It is strange to think about: the former represents the peak of American exceptionalism, while the latter represents Americans at their basest and most vile. That tension between the Establishment and the counterculture is at the center of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Set in the summer of 1969, Quentin Tarantino’s latest film does not include any astronauts, but his two leads might as well symbolize all square-jawed men who believe in the status quo because it served them well so far. They stand at a crossroads, with the future represented by hippies and The Manson Family, so the film brims with echoes and parallels about who controls the future.
Even with a different title, you would know this film is set in Los Angeles because of how much time the characters spend driving. When we first meet the actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), they are getting into their car. This gives Tarantino and music supervisor Mary Ramos a chance to play pop tunes over the radio, with each tune blaring over gorgeous analog fuzz.
Rick is bundle of nerves: he chain-smokes and drinks constantly, worrying that his best days are behind him. He only gets guest roles on Western television shows, while Cliff is something between a friend and chauffeur. Rick’s frustration grows when he notices his next-door neighbors are Roman Polanski (Rafał Zawierucha) and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). Since they are on the upswing of their careers, Rick fears he’s long past meeting them in the middle.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is the first Tarantino film that does not fit into any genre. It is closest to a hangout movie, so the film’s most engaging sequences follow Rick, Cliff, and Sharon as they go about their days. In order to avoid the banality of routine, there are flashbacks, films within films, and TV shows within films. Bruce Lee, Steve McQueen, and Mama Cass have short appearances. It would be easy to dismiss this languid, shaggy dog approach as indulgent, except these sequences have deep, character-driven detail.
One highlight is when Rick films his guest spot on Lancer, a real TV show from the late 60s. Tarantino shoots the episode with top-notch production values and gorgeous cinematography, as if he wants to intimate what these corny shows mean to him. The fictional Lancer episode is so immersive that when Rick breaks character, collapsing into his insecurities, his ability to maintain that illusion – up to that point, at least – is all the more impressive. DiCaprio has always been at his best when he’s vulnerable, and this is his best performance in years.
While Rick frets over his performance, Cliff has a parallel sequence where he finds himself at the Spahn Ranch, where the Manson family used to live. Pitt’s performance is a riff on the classic Tarantino archetype: a “never-was” who is constantly underestimated. He is like a modern day cowboy, sizing up his adversary and trusting his private moral code. Unlike the familiar villains in Lancer, the Manson Family is unpredictable and strange. How these worlds clash – with the ebullient Sharon Tate at its center – is how Tarantino frames his unpredictable climax.
Aside from the clash between fictional characters and actual actors from this period, this film is a celebration of all things analog. Tarantino shot Hollywood in 35mm, with abundant crane shots and neon lighting, so the film has the fuzzy haze that digital filmmaking cannot capture. Pop music is key to that effect, and he further embellishes that tactile realism by having multiple characters watch 35mm film prints (another highlight is when Robbie, as Tate, goes to a theater to watch herself in The Wrecking Crew). Tarantino knows that parts of the film are slow, so he lovingly recreates a beautiful, sonically dense milieu that audiences will not want to leave.
All that goodwill, whether it’s formal nostalgia or great actors pushing their charisma to the brink, almost justifies what happens in last thirty minutes. I say “almost” because, like other recent Tarantino films, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood concludes with flourishes of feverish brutality. He pushes what we will tolerate, leaving us unsure whether we should laugh or wince. There is an ugliness to the climax – my suspension of disbelief was lost – and yet Tarantino is not merely getting his usual grindhouse jollies. This is a twisted, revisionist morality play, with enough detail and context so that his fans can endlessly dissect what it all means. If the discussion is the point, then Tarantino’s exaggerated, character-driven violence is a stand-in for the queasy messiness of actual history.
Many Tarantino films – particular his later films – offer catharsis. There is some of that in Once Upon a Time Hollywood, like when Cliff goads Bruce Lee into a sparring match. The purely textual reading of this climax also has catharsis, to the point where I wish Tarantino would move beyond it (The Hateful Eight indulges this impulse to a fault). Looking at the bigger picture, the lack of genre constraints create an opportunity for richer subtext, plus a freedom and looseness that still avoids tedium. Rick’s final moments find him at ease, with him unable to realize what he and Cliff accomplished. This revisionist history embraces our best qualities while rejecting our worst impulses, so maybe underneath all that blood and pain, Tarantino is downright sappy.