As absurd as it may seem, ten years ago Quentin Tarantino’s future was in question. A more than lacklustre critical and commercial response to 2007’s Death Proof (part of his Grindhouse collaboration with Robert Rodriguez) saw critics and even some fans begin to reassess the pioneering director’s creativity, originality, and ultimately his longevity. Then Inglourious Basterds (2009) happened, and those who had kept the faith were vindicated. Tarantino had entered a new off-the-wall phase of reimagined period epics shot through the lens of the classic western, and though his follow up Django Unchained (2012) remains arguably his weakest entry, The Hateful Eight (2015) showed there was life in the old reservoir dog yet.
In 2019, Tarantino has come full circle with his ninth feature as writer-director, by finally making his long-established ode to old Hollywood a physical world unto itself. Utilising methods first seen in Basterds, Tarantino populates his universe with the characters and events of the time, specifically the colliding orbits of Charles Manson and Sharon Tate in that fateful year, 1969. Caught in these orbits are washed up silver and small screen star turned day player Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his loyal stunt double and best friend, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), both of whom are in the throes of a mid-life crisis.
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Like all Tarantino’s great works, Once Upon a Time is an exercise in entertaining and fucking with his audience all at once; a trip down memory lane that’s both warmly familiar and outright shocking, spiked with hefty doses of fanboy references, tongue-in-cheek callbacks, and a completely fantastic suggestion that Roman Polanski (Rafał Zawierucha) may not go on to commit statutory rape.
The well-known stories of Tate (Margot Robbie) and Manson (Damon Herriman) set the stage, but Dalton and Booth are the players leading us through a quite splendid meta-driven ramble of fading dreams, painful memories, and backlot bravado, complete with oft-twisted and amusing real life (Bruce Lee; Steve McQueen; the Manson Family) and Tarantino-flavoured (Michael Madsen; Kurt Russell; Zoë Bell) cameos. Even Al Pacino pops in and out just for the hell of it.
Tarantino has always had a flair for biting wit, but as Once Upon a Time settles into its groove it is already clear that this is the first of his pictures to be built on a core comedy foundation. Never one to shy away from scene-defining pitch black humour, Tarantino instead sets a low-stakes, light-hearted tone, allowing for a rich commentary that constantly pokes fun at the delicious dual shallowness and depth of the industry he knows so well and loves so dearly. The consistency of the tone, which penetrates even the inevitable moments of tension and dread (built, as one might expect, around our encounters with the Manson Family) without yanking the audience out of the action, is a testament to Tarantino’s ever-evolving willingness to experiment behind the camera.
In front of the camera, the ensemble cast delivers a collective turn in tune with Tarantino’s at first slow burning, gradually razor sharp script. DiCaprio and Pitt are immense, perfectly embodying the wild mood swings that span the spectrum of white masculinity in one of its most detached settings: 20th century show business. While DiCaprio leans spectacularly into Dalton’s high-strung, overly sensitive, alcohol-laden emotional state, Pitt knocks each of his scenes out of the park (quite literally in some cases) with a raw and worn presence that plays deliberately on the long-standing theory that he is a character player trapped in a leading man’s body. Without doubt, he is the star of the show.
To the majority of those born after her death, Sharon Tate is arguably little more than the headline to a tragic story, but Robbie humanises her with a touching performance that’s as striking as it is innocent. The sequence in which Tate goes to watch herself in 1968’s The Wrecking Crew, donning hefty eyeglasses in the process, is not only one of the picture’s most grounded and self-reflective scenes, but also one of its best.
As is now the standard for a Tarantino production, the world he creates has a distinct look and feel swimming in glorious Technicolor and acute attention to detail, in this case backed by a long-overdue return to the rich in-world soundtrack associated with the likes of Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994). Tarantino’s direction sprawls like the city of Los Angeles; less-stylised and harder to pin down in terms of homage than some of his previous works, which makes for an altogether fresh experience. Despite the plethora of references on screen, this is truly his movie. At this point it is safe to assume that both Tarantino and his long term director of photography Robert Richardson, who brings the intense vividness one would expect to each frame, will pick up multiple nominations during awards season.
One of Tarantino’s finest moments, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is an extended reel of merry self-aware bullshit that romanticises Tinseltown’s fanciful immortality while laying bare its behind-the-scenes mortality. After all, Hollywood wants actors, not TV cowboys.