Quentin Tarantino’s latest is a dark fairy tale about a town that produces fictional happy endings by the hundreds while providing too few real ones.
Two parts show business slice-of-life, one part revisionist re-telling of the Manson murders, Once Upon A Time in Hollywood is classic Tarantino, fusing gritty realism with an almost surreal postmodern sensibility. His script seamlessly weaves humour and drama with metaphysical musings about life and death and art, and disparate plots intersect in shocking spasms of violence. Vintage logos flash across the screen, forgotten rock-n-roll tunes blare from the speakers of classic cars, and shots of bare feet abound.
Tarantino’s always had an obsession with movies (one could spend hours dissecting the cinematic homages that litter his filmography, from the Shaw Brothers logo at the start of Kill Bill to the inspired stunt casting in films like Pulp Fiction) and you can tell he’s having a grand time pulling back the curtain on his industry. But there’s a palpable sadness here, too – nostalgia for a Hollywood that once was, and grief for a Hollywood that could have been.
Rick is a fading western star who’s been reduced to bit parts as TV villains (where, as his agent observes, he gets his ass kicked by a different hero each week). When director Roman Polanski moves in next door, he hopes that a social connection will save him from a future of low budget Spaghetti Westerns.
A genuinely talented actor prone to alcoholism and bouts of depression, he’s less a joke than a tragic figure, and Leonardo DiCaprio’s sensitive portrayal transcends has-been movie star clichés. Scenes in which Rick drunkenly berates his reflection after a few botched lines, or bursts into tears chatting with an ambitious child actor, are both bleakly funny and profoundly sad.
His best friend Cliff is a stuntman-turned-errand boy who probably killed his wife. Pitt imbues Cliff with an easygoing charm that’s infectious despite the inherent ickiness of the character; he may be a moocher and a layabout, but he seems like a really good guy…except for the whole wife-killing thing.
The cognitive dissonance here is intentional. Cliff’s past isn’t the only suggestion that there’s something unsettling going on beneath the glitz and glamour. Take, for instance, a chance encounter with a free-spirited hippie chick that leads Cliff straight into Charles Manson’s commune. (I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to mention that Rick’s enviable property next to the Tate-Polanksi residence will not bode well for him).
The camera also depicts a few days in the life of actress (and real-life Manson Family victim) Sharon Tate, following her as she parties at the Playboy Mansion, browses rare bookstores, and goes to see one of her own movies.
Prior to the film’s release, Tarantino was grilled by a journalist who took issue with the limited dialogue allotted to Tate. I thought this objection was unreasonable at the time (the film is not about Tate, per se, and not every side character can be a chatterbox), and after watching the movie, I’m convinced that Tarantino acted with admirable restraint. The man excels at dialogue and thrives on controversy, but even he must have known that putting his freewheeling ramblings into the mouth of a murdered woman would have been irredeemably crass.
Even so, Tarantino still manages to paint a nuanced, vivid picture of his subject. And actress Margot Robbie (a rising star who’s played everyone from Tonya Harding to Queen Elizabeth I) does more with body language than lesser performers could do with a ten-minute soliloquy.
There’s a great sequence where Tate goes to see one of her own movies, basking in the reactions from the audience and silently miming along with her on-screen-self. What I loved about this scene is that it doesn’t make Tate the butt of a joke: the young actress isn’t being accused of vanity or painted as a narcissist. She’s a young woman living her dream and milking the maximum quantity of joy she can from it. But, at the same time, you can tell she’s studying her audience, taking note of what works and what doesn’t. It’s a respectful – even reverent – depiction of a young professional with her whole life ahead of her, who was ultimately taken before her time.
Without giving away too much, the film also de-mystifies the Manson Family, portraying the killers not as a mystical cult but as a group of low-functioning losers. (It reminded me of 2017’s very good documentary Manson: Voice of Madness, which similarly dispelled the Manson allure). I especially appreciated how thoroughly Tex Watson’s infamous “devil’s business” line was butchered, both in delivery and in re-telling. “He said he was the devil and he was here to do…some devil shit,” Cliff recounts after their confrontation, precluding any sort of iconic status.
In many ways, this is a film about Hollywood fighting back.
In the car outside the cul-de-sac shared by both Rick and Sharon Tate, Manson girl Sadie expounds on a theory: her generation grew up watching Rick and his ilk killing people on TV. Wouldn’t it therefore be right and just, she suggests, to kill the ones who taught them to kill in the first place?
It’s a not-so-subtle poke at the media narrative that’s been the thorn in Tarantino’s side for some time: the idea that fictional violence inspires real-life violence. This scene quietly underscores the ridiculousness of that premise; the idea that sad-sack Rick and his hokey westerns could have inspired Manson-style savagery is patently absurd. Rick and Cliff’s final confrontation with these monsters is not only a victory against evil, but symbolic vengeance against every prude or censor who’s attempted to blame artists for the sins of society.
Part of the legend of the Manson murders is that they were the moment the peace-and-love sixties generation lost its innocence, and Tarantino seems to feel they stole some of the wonder from Hollywood, too. The film’s final moments suggest the dawn of a more idyllic era – or at least the preservation of less haunted status quo.
Of course, Hollywood was never the pinnacle of virtue. Tarantino knows this: Cliff’s violent past is an acknowledgement of the industry’s sinister underbelly.
In a sense, Once Upon A Time in Hollywood is Tarantino’s most ideological film, but also his most personal, distinguishing itself from other show business satires with a sincere empathy for its characters and an earnest love of its subject. Like all of the director’s films, it crackles with a palpable joy even at its darkest moments – a joy that comes from creation, that same passion for the craft that his Tate must have felt watching herself onscreen.
Title: Once Upon A Time In Hollywood
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Screenwriter: Quentin Tarantino