An elegant, elegiac love letter to a time and place that may only exist in its director’s mind, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood represents Quentin Tarantino at his very best – an insightful fly-on-the-wall portrait of a specific moment in Hollywood history and its cast of both real-life and fictional characters. At least, that is, until a revisionist bloodbath finale that transports the viewer back to a more familiar Tarantino-land.
Set in 1969, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood focuses on two Hollywood old-timers: actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a one-time leading man and cowboy hero now reduced to playing villains-of-the-week on rotating TV shows, and Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), his longtime friend, stunt double, and – after losing his license following a DUI – personal chauffeur.
The first two hours of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood charts what might otherwise seem an uneventful two days in February ‘69 as Dalton shoots a new TV show and Booth mulls around Hollywood locales in Dalton’s Cadillac Coupe de Ville.
In one of the movie’s most affecting sequences, Dalton struggles to dig into his performance as the villain in the pilot for a new TV western starring James Stacy (Timothy Olyphant) and directed by Sam Wanamaker (Nicholas Hammond), real-life Hollywood figures precious few viewers will remember who are nevertheless lovingly recreated by Tarantino and his actors. But it’s Dalton’s scenes on and off camera with a young co-star (Julia Butters) that give Once Upon a Time in Hollywood some of its most insightful moments.
Pitt’s Booth, meanwhile, gives a lift to a teenage hippie (Margaret Qualley) back to Spahn’s Movie Ranch, his old stomping ground while filming Bounty Law with Dalton. But Spahn’s ranch is now overrun with creepy Manson Family acolytes, and in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’s most intense scenes, Booth pushes his way past them to check in on old friend George Spahn (played by Bruce Dern).
Key moments in the pair’s past are recreated via Family Guy-esque flashback, and include Dalton roasting Nazis with a flamethrower in a WWII B-movie and Booth sparring with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) on the back stage of The Green Hornet. It’s strongly implied, by the way, that Pitt’s character murdered his wife at sea (a la Natalie Wood) and got away with it, a bizarre but fascinating throwaway character detail that, strangely, seems to have little impact on our appreciation for the character.
Both Pitt and DiCaprio are wonderful here in roles of equal weight, with DiCaprio delivering some real emotional depth beneath his facetious has-been playboy actor veneer and Pitt upping the ante with his Steve McQueen-esque cool-guy never-was.
McQueen, by the way, shows up in a brief party scene played by Damian Lewis in a bit of canny casting; other real-life figures that show up here – and it feels like everyone besides the two main characters in the film has been ripped out of reality – include Al Pacino as producer Marvin Schwarz and Luke Perry as journeyman actor Wayne Maunder.
And in the background throughout the film are Dalton’s Cielo Drive neighbors: Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and husband Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and friend Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch). Charles Manson, played by Damon Herriman, even briefly shows up looking for his ‘friends’ that previously lived at the residence.
While the audience implicitly knows what happens to these characters, Tarantino has different plans for them, especially Robbie’s Tate, a ghost of Hollywood past that preternaturally drifts through the film in his revisionist rewriting of history a la Inglourious Basterds. But Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’s final moments reveal a profound empathy for these characters both real and fictional, and are surprisingly poignant considering the scenes that have directly preceded it.
That’s after, of course, the Tarantino bloodbath that’s played for comedy and thrills and delivers on both counts. While it’s certainly a departure for the film, you have to admire the director’s sheer audacity in taking things in such an extreme direction.
Still, it’s certainly a departure for the film. Lop off the August epilogue, which is also overstuffed with Kurt Russell’s name-dropping narration (Russell also shows up earlier in the movie as a stunt coordinator) and you have a tighter, more disciplined movie that genuinely evokes the time and place it so beautifully recreates – – albeit one that might confuse some of the director’s fans.
The first two hours of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which focus entirely on two rather uneventful days in February ‘69, represent some of the best work that Tarantino has produced to date. While the plotless nature of the narrative won’t appeal to all viewers, this is a wonderfully evocative piece of filmmaking driven by a love for a time and place that may exist only in its director’s mind.
In an era where mainstream pop culture nostalgia dominates cinema and TV screens, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which evokes a much different and specific form of nostalgia, is more than a breath of fresh air. Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film is his most mature to date – – and it may be his best.