Submerged in a murk of ruminative nostalgia, Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood emerges with a clarity for former masculine ideals and a sense of eras coming to a close. A culture is dying, and its creators’ existential security with it. We follow a fictional dwindling movie star and his stunt man as they hurtle into obsoletion, aware of the tide turning beneath them while they are also too stuck in their ways to adapt instead. We also follow the emerging star Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) as she wanders casually toward history, an event that marks both a beginning and an end.
As Tarantino crafts this tale, his most ponderous and slippery creation, it becomes apparent that he’s grappling with the current state of filmmaking affairs, rewriting history to discuss an industry on the precipice of seismic change on multiple fronts. But of the many things that Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is – bruised, affectionately satirical, hesitant – conclusive is possibly not one of them. It’s Tarantino’s least demonstrative film, and ultimately his most open to interpretation.
It’s fading action star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his enigmatic stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) that find themselves losing their place in the 1969 Hollywood that Tarantino paints. Dalton’s days of headlining genre features have given way to bit roles in schlocky television shows. Meanwhile Cliff’s legend of possible violence overshadows his professional prowess. His complacent malaise eventually brings him to the Manson Family ranch – a former filmmaking safeground that now exists as a counterculture playground of his ideological nightmares. Over two days we see Rick stumble to rise to the demands of a role in an artier western while his thinning shadow leaves Cliff somewhat adrift.
Then next door to the Dalton hideaway home is Tate, optimistically coasting gratefully on her rising star while her partner Roman Polanski represents the coming guard. We see her slip into a theatre to watch one of her films with an audience, proud, joyful, unencumbered. If she represents the change to come, Rick and Cliff’s displacement makes their old-guard inertia all the more pronounced.
Of course, the chance arrival of Charles Manson to the Polanski home on Cielo Dr. promises that the film will be reconciling with the fateful night in August that changed Hollywood and turned Tate into a tragic legend. And naturally it’s unsurprising that Tarantino approaches it with an eye on historical revisionism.
But this time it feels significantly less gleeful, instead ultimately emphasizing grace and the film’s central concerns of dwindling male power and sense of self. Do Rick and Cliff leave the film with greater position of power than they began it? To this viewer, no. Instead, it appears that Tarantino wishes to bring the pasé and the future as one, an idealistic vision of coexistence. This invites consideration for the current state of filmmaking (both as a business and shifting ideological institution) bound to frustrate or pacify, depending on your vantage. Whether Robbie’s Sharon Tate (an equally soulful, if less centered cipher) is sublimated or deified also relies on your perspective. He’s playing with a loaded event, but proceeds somewhat cautiously.
If anything, the tonal downshift from his previous work (or at least his two most recent films) feels like an intentional definitive attribute for the film. He’s not exactly listening to the voices leading the changing world around him, but he is thinking about it deeply. But while that tricky coyness he employs might make the film play a bit nebulous and elusive, but it doesn’t diminish the precision of his observational wit or sense of cinematic joy.
To go with the film’s laidback tone, DiCaprio delivers his most casually composed performance in quite some time, effortlessly funny where Dalton’s every action comes from great consternation. Cliff is his opposite, allowing Pitt to marinate in his soul for a richly alive and absorbing performance. It’s delightful to see them playing floundering men while the duo is alternately at the top of their game. With Tarantino at his most Beckett-inflected here, their duet rings with deceptive precision. It’s the auteur at his least verbose, but his wit remains uncompromised.
After the punishment of his most recent work, it is somewhat a relief that Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood searches for a target rather than pummeling one. That doesn’t mean that Tarantino doesn’t ultimately punt, littering the film with some inessential asides. But if that characteristic searching quality makes Tarantino loosen his compositional grip to make one of his most atypical films as he had begun to trip into rigidity, then the film’s minor stumbles feel like the filmmaker learning from the pitfalls of his protagonist. His risk is, above all, rather lovely – he’s never felt more vulnerable and it oddly suits him.