Though not wanting for the anticipated grisly violence or digressions into pop pastiche, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood might be Quentin Tarantino’s sweetest, most thoughtful, and most tender film in a couple of decades — at least since Jackie Brown. While Tarantino himself has criticized his third feature as “too much of a 34-year-old man’s attempt to imagine the life of a fortysomething black woman,” this new work finds the director in his mid-50s, and thus has his characters dealing much more closely with the idea that the world can move on without them. It’s 1969, and Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is teetering on the precipice of being a completely washed-up actor, having squandered the fame he accumulated on a long-ago-cancelled TV series, Bounty Law. He’s an insecure drunk, contemplating heading to Rome for a string of cheap Spaghetti Westerns and maybe a career bump. His only friend is his faithful long-time stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), who also lost a career to ego (and possibly more, but we’ll get to that). Cliff’s content to run errands for Rick — not merely his benefactor but his best buddy — and give him the occasional pep talk, but Rick can’t quite stomach that his best days are maybe behind him. It only adds insult to injury that the hottest director in town, Roman Polanski, has moved in next door along with his wife, the up-and-coming star Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie).
The meticulous and gorgeous recreation of 1969 Los Angeles and its outskirts isn’t just a nostalgia trip for the director, it’s a genre in and of itself of film history ephemera, representative of both a lifestyle and a map of storytelling that’s about to start its fade into obscurity.
You might think you know where this is all headed, and knowing Tarantino’s penchant for dabbling in revisionist movie history, you’re probably right, but the meticulous and gorgeous recreation of 1969 Los Angeles and its outskirts isn’t just a nostalgia trip for the director, it’s a genre in and of itself of film history ephemera, representative of both a lifestyle and a map of storytelling that’s about to start its fade into obscurity. Clean-cut leading men like Dalton, and the masculinity they project (with the help of guys like Cliff), are on the way out, and a burgeoning counterculture is already seeping in to replace them. These are men very keenly aware that they’ve probably missed their shot. Meanwhile, we’re given a rare glimpse into the calm sweetness of Tate’s enthusiasm for a career that’s just about to rocket off, and our knowledge of her fate allows her to haunt the entire film. Rick and Cliff’s time may be over, but she’ll never even get the chance to have hers. It’s genuinely touching. So when the brutality that Tarantino supposedly made his reputation on finally emerges, it’s as simultaneously hilarious and upsetting as we expect (mileages will vary as to how much tonal whiplash it creates), but also another chance for his movie violence to make a stand against the implacable violence of history, and by extension, real life. Not for nothing is the contradiction that Cliff may have murdered his wife and gotten away with it completely uninterrogated. That deliberate narrowing of the gap between reality and fantasy makes this distinct from the wish fulfillment of Inglourious Basterds, and more like a fairy tale, once upon a time precisely, happy ending and all.