Pulp Fiction is vital and iconic, but I don’t care what happens to any of its characters; after a near-perfect setup, Inglourious Basterds mostly forgets its title characters, and can’t stop introducing new ones instead. Tarantino veers wildly between great taste and poor taste. One can praise the number of strong, dynamic females he’s brought to the screen, while acknowledging a problematic streak in his cumulative approach toward women. It’s hard to complain about a filmmaker with too many brilliant ideas, but sometimes, these cancel each other out. Would Pulp Fiction be more fun if we just spent more time with Vincent and Mia? Would Inglourious Basterds have a more satisfying emotional payoff if it were completely Shoshanna’s story? Tarantino’s quirks and asides can be fun, but for me, they tend to take away from the story. Tarantino can’t help himself from flashing back, jumping forward, following a random side character for a while, letting a wiseass narrator take a turn at the storytelling for a while.
Of course, these are the very reasons Tarantino fans love Tarantino, and the source of his everlasting stamp on cinematic storytelling. I’m partial to his more contained tales, like Jackie Brown and Reservoir Dogs, though I have reservations with certain moments here, too. And I completely hated The Hateful Eight, which was like watching a one-trick pony show during which the pony forgets its one trick. I needed these past four years to have any desire to see another film from a director who, it seemed, had exhausted his ingenuity and decided to write, shoot, and edit all films from within the comfort of his own ass.Enter Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. It is very much a Tarantino film, but also something different — a refreshing turn from a filmmaker whose body of work repeats itself more often than it feels truly novel. First and foremost, it’s a straight-up comedy. Leonardo DiCaprio plays the tragicomic Rick Dalton, a TV gunslinger on the outs in Hollywood, who cares very much about his stalling career. Brad Pitt is Cliff Booth, a fully comedic character, a stuntman who is also past his prime and gives zero fucks about that. We’re invited to laugh at Dalton’s vanity and insecurity; we’re invited to laugh with Booth’s suave hotshot, who effortlessly dominates even the most dire situation he finds himself in.
Despite a starry, sprawling cast, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is almost entirely a two-hander — unlike most Tarantino films, which tend to be ensembles and take long detours away from their supposed protagonists. (He couldn’t even stick to eight characters in The Hateful Eight.) A third character, Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate, is the only other character who takes center stage. Nearly every scene in the film centers on these three characters. Once Upon A Time In Hollywood occasionally meanders and digresses like Tarantino’s other movies do, but less so. The bulk of it takes place over a couple of days in 1969 — one in February, and one fateful one in August — with fewer flashbacks than we’ve come to expect from his movies. All in all, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is his most straightforward film.There’s a maturity to Once Upon A Time In Hollywood you’ll catch only fleeting glimpses of elsewhere in his work. It even approaches something like subtlety at times. The central story is Dalton’s — a Hollywood B-lister past his prime. Dalton works hard, recording other actors’ lines in his scripts and playing them back so he can run his own lines. But he also goes on benders, and then rages when he messes up on set. The centerpiece of the film is a day in February during which Dalton is shooting a TV series called Lancer, now reduced to being “the heavy” rather than the star. We see several scenes from the show, but we don’t see them as they really are — simply and cheaply shot, as TV was in those days. They look like a Quentin Tarantino movie, because that’s how it feels to Dalton — how any performance feels to an actor in the moment. Dalton is giving us Shakespeare, even if viewers at home will never see it that way. (“Evil, sexy Hamlet” is the motivation he’s given by the director.)
Between takes, he chats with a precocious 8-year-old actor (she finds “actress” reductive) played by Julia Butters, who represents the idealism of a burgeoning star, and the approaching self-seriousness of method acting that would become popular over the next decade. Dalton is a falling star in a dying genre (the TV Western), soon to be eclipsed by Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in the coming wave of nervy auteur cinema of the 70s. Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is chockfull of pretty boys and leading men past their prime — not just DiCaprio and Pitt, but Kurt Russell, Luke Perry, and Timothy Olyphant, all of whom look more worn and craggy than we’re used to. Meanwhile, the free-spirited Manson family looks fresh as a daisy. They’re the revolution, aiming to teach stale old Hollywood a lesson.Dalton’s day on set is intercut with a sequence in which Sharon Tate drops by a movie theater in Westwood to check out her own performance in The Wrecking Crew. Elsewhere, Tarantino recreates old movies but inserts modern day actors, like Rick Dalton’s would-be performance in The Great Escape, but here, Tarantino foregoes the pastiche and leaves footage of the real Tate intact. It’s a surprisingly compassionate tribute to an actress whose career was cut tragically short — to a woman who is only known for how she died, not what she contributed to the screen. Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is a love letter to a previous age in Hollywood, the way that so many Tarantino movies are, but this one isn’t in such a hurry to make sure you notice that. Once Upon A Time In Hollywood lets us sit with these stars, and these performances, for a while, showing both the work and care that actors put into their performances, and the joy they feel after a great take, or when their film hits the big screen. It’s a thoughtful tribute to the craft, one we rarely get even when actors take center stage as characters in movies. And it’s fitting — you can’t imagine Tarantino’s movies without the skillful performances that made them sing. No other Tarantino movie lets something so small take up so much time. I don’t think I’d describe any sequence in any other Tarantino movie as “lovely,” but this is.
Of course, he doesn’t just leave it at that. This is all building up to one of last century’s most notorious murders, and one way or another, Tarantino does insist on getting his blood-soaked, skull-bashing ya-yas out. (And here’s where this review is diving into spoiler territory.) Tarantino once again flips an unthinkable tragedy on its head, mining comedy from inflicting violence on the perpetrators rather than the victims. Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is another revision of history, seeing three Manson murderers brutalized beyond reason — in, arguably, Tarantino’s most viciously violent sequence to date. In the space of just a few minutes, these three teenagers are shot, stabbed, bludgeoned, ripped to shreds by a pitbull, and/or torched via flamethrower. It’s over the top — but so were the real crimes they committed. While watching, I wondered if Tarantino was being too harsh on these twisted flower children; afterward, I reread descriptions of the craven Tate murders, and decided they had it coming after all.Tarantino has done this before, of course — the bloody revenge against Nazis in Inglourious Basterds, culminating in Hitler’s death by machine gun, and the slave uprising in Django Unchained. But slavery and the Holocaust are more remote for modern-day audiences. They are systematic injustices, carried out by countless perpetrators. The Manson family murders are more immediate, more recent, more visceral. We know the names of everyone who committed those crimes; some are still alive. Once Upon A Time In Hollywood puts a face on its evil, and it’s not even Charles Manson who gets an ultraviolent comeuppance. It’s the impressionable hippie youths who followed his insane teachings and carried out his horrific orders in hopes of starting a race war. One can easily imagine a filmmaker more thoughtfully examining how these young people were seduced and exploited, and reckons with the fact that they, too, were human. Once Upon A Time In Hollywood certainly isn’t that movie. Tarantino is interested in what some would call justice, what others would call revenge. And he is interested in seeing Leonardo DiCaprio torch a young woman to death.
It’s beginning to feel like an easy out for Tarantino, a way of not dealing with the very real consequences of the violent stories he’s telling. But unlike the smug “ta-da!” aspect of his history rewriting in Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, the reversal of fortune in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood has a tangible consequence. Sharon Tate gets to live. She’ll have a career, and her child. It’s hinted that Rick Dalton may get another shot at stardom, too, when a friendship with Sharon blossoms. Maybe even Roman Polanski is redeemed. (If not for the traumatic loss of his wife and child in 1969, would Polanski have committed statutory rape in 1977?) Tarantino, a filmmaker known best for reveling in violence, here stops one of the 20th century’s most grisly murders from happening. He undoes a notorious crime.Yes, he replaces it with something equally bloody. But the tragedy is erased. Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained don’t undo evil — they merely make Nazis and slave owners pay for their crimes against humanity, long after most of the damage is done. But here, as far as we know, the Manson murders never occur in the first place. (There were other victims, aside from Tate and her friends, in real life; the movie leaves Manson and his other acolytes on the loose, so who knows what might happen.) It’s a far more ambiguous rewriting of history. Sharon Tate’s murder had an enormous cultural impact, both in and out of Hollywood. If it didn’t cause a shift toward more serious and severe cinema in the 1970s, it certainly symbolized it. With Tarantino’s wishful thinking, the cheesy TV cowboys of yesteryear get another day in the sun. And so does Sharon Tate.
Tarantino is still Tarantino, which means his less savory instincts are again on full display. The most prominent female characters are all very conspicuously, distractingly barefoot. Rebecca Gayheart briefly portrays Cliff Booth’s shrill, unpleasant wife, who, it is implied, was accidentally or intentionally harpooned to death. Mercifully, Tarantino cuts away before any blood is shed, but the damage is done — we’ve already imagined this character’s ill fate. (It recalls the abrupt, sadistic dispatching of women in other Tarantino movies.) This flashback-within-a-flashback is paired with Once Upon A Time In Hollywood‘s other primary problematic element — a less-than-flattering depiction of Bruce Lee that has drawn plenty of criticism. Brad Pitt is fantastic as Cliff Booth, and the character is a lot of fun — but he’s also an embodiment of pure white male ego, kicking ass and taking names (and killing wives?) without consequence.Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is, in so many ways, a celebration of a time when privileged white men ruled the roost. The hippie movement threatened that establishment — and though Manson himself was a vile racist, it’s fair to read the Manson murderers as representative of changing tides in Hollywood. (Both Cliff and Rick express plenty of disdain for hippies.) Tarantino was once the disruptor, shaking the Hollywood establishment in the early 90s with his daring, unconventional films; now, he’s squarely on the side of the grumpy old men, demanding that the kids get off his lawn. (To be fair, the kids have knives and came to kill everybody.)
Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is Tarantino’s most grounded story by far, slavishly recreating certain true-to-life details and carefully fabricating others in a way that still feels like they could or did really happen… until that climax, anyway. No other Tarantino film feels even remotely like a true story.) You could even call this one introspective, to a point… but then, he’s not a restrained enough filmmaker to not have some very gruesome killing at the end. And hey — why not give those Manson devils the hell they deserve?
In many ways, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood fits right in with what Tarantino’s been doing all along. In others, it is his biggest departure yet. For die hard Tarantino fans, that may be bad news. For me, it’s a signal that Tarantino still has the ability to rattle and surprise us after all these years. After nine movies that more or less did the same thing, the pony finally learned a new trick.
All Tarantino movies are about movies, but Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is the first to make that literal. It’s as reverent toward old Hollywood as the rest of his oeuvre, while showing off thrilling cinematography and awards-caliber performances that are as modern as can be. (DiCaprio and Pitt are shoo-ins for Oscar nods… right?) It’s almost sacrilege to declare Once Upon A Time In Hollywood superior to Tarantino’s most esteemed films, which have had such an influence on the medium. But I’ve also been waiting for a Tarantino film that cut a little deeper — one that actually made me think.
So as far as I’m concerned? This might just be his masterpiece.