Unlike other filmmakers I admire, I’ve approached each of Quentin Tarantino’s films since Kill Bill with trepidation. His last few movies have seemed to jettison the influences that animated Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown, and instead he turned into an uncritical defender of any obscure genre film. His talent for snappy and mellifluous dialogue calcified, and was replaced by an even great reliance on violence and shock value. But with his ninth feature, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Tarantino has revitalized the filmmaker of yore. It’s his best-written and most enjoyable film since Kill Bill (maybe even Jackie Brown), and his most unabashedly emotional movie ever.
The film opens in Los Angeles in early 1969. Hollywood is in a state of transition as the studio system begins to crumble. Roman Polanski and his new wife, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), are emissaries of the New Hollywood, while Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), an actor who has descended from films to leading TV roles to villains of the week, is tied to the sinking ship of Old Hollywood. Accompanied by his stunt double and best friend, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), Rick accepts almost any part that will keep him afloat in his Hollywood Hills home, even if they typecast him and shrink whatever future career he might have left. His drinking — eight whiskey sours a night — isn’t helping things.
Though he considers Cliff a friend, he treats him more as a handyman and chauffeur (especially after he loses his license thanks to too many DUIs). Yet the stunt specialist, a man of few words, doesn’t seem to mind much. Though he seems almost Zen at times, he has a reputation for making film shoots difficult, so his steady work with Rick is appreciated. The early sections of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood resemble the early moments of Pulp Fiction when it’s a hangout movie about two men drawn together through circumstance. DiCaprio and Pitt don’t have that many lines together, even though they’re often with each other through the film, yet Tarantino makes every bit of dialogue count. He largely eschews the long speeches he cut his teeth on in his first few films, which is for the best — as fun as they were to hear, it often seemed as if Tarantino was more interested in showing off than in crafting dialogue that suited the film he was making.
While Rick and Cliff are trying to rejuvenate their careers, the future seems almost limitless for Tate. She and Polanski have moved in next door to Rick, who hopes the Polish director might notice him and cast him in a Rosemary’s Baby follow-up. But Polanski is out of town or out of the picture most of the time, leaving a lonely Sharon to wander Hollywood. In one of the more touching scenes in the film (not something you’d normally say about a Tarantino picture), Sharon uses her newfound celebrity for the first time to skip the fifty-cent admission price at a movie theater to see herself perform opposite Dean Martin in The Wrecking Crew. Robbie plays Tate as a bit of a ditzy innocent, but the wonder and pride she displays as she watches herself on the big screen are contagious. It’s also doubly poignant because we’re not watching Margot Robbie digitally inserted in the film, as most contemporary directors would have done. Instead, we see the real Sharon Tate, who was brutally murdered later that year by followers of Charles Manson. Her promising life and career were snuffed out in the worst way imaginable, but for a brief moment, it seemed the sky was the limit. Robbie’s part is considerably smaller than DiCaprio and Pitt’s, but she signals a time of optimism and artistic growth for the art form.
Robbie’s role is charming and light, but DiCaprio and Pitt both have enough screen time to give some of their best performances ever. Rick is a man full of insecurities who’s also drunk at least half the time, and DiCaprio allows himself to be more vulnerable than he’s been in a long time. He can’t seem to get out a single sentence without being consumed by stammering self-doubt. Cliff, meanwhile, is a man of few words who exudes power, yet distances himself from the world. A lesser writer than Tarantino would have included a scene where the stuntman blows up at his boss/friend for not respecting him enough, but there’s no such confrontation for Cliff. He understands that he wasn’t meant to be a leading man — just the guy who takes the punches, and he’s learned to handle them well enough after all these years.
Being a Tarantino film, there are dozens of major actors willing to take small cameos throughout Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and many of them make the best of their parts. Emile Hirsh, who was convicted of assault after strangling a Paramount Pictures executive to the point of unconsciousness in 2015, plays a naïve friend of Sharon’s who’s infatuated with her and hoping she’ll cling to him once she dumps Polanski in a few years. Al Pacino is the least hammy he’s been in years (decades?) as a producer looking to pull Rick away from villainous TV roles in favor of rejuvenating lead roles in Spaghetti Westerns. Deadwood fans will rejoice at the sight of Timothy Olyphant as real-life actor James Stacy, the lead on a Western series Rick is guesting on.
Though most of the film is a supremely pleasurable trip around Hollywood with the three leads, the sinister presence of the Manson family lurks around the corner. An early scene of a bunch of bare-footed hippie girls dumpster diving is presented as carefree and light-hearted, but it takes on darker undertones since we can guess that they’re tied up in the cult business. It would be a crime to reveal how the Mansons are integrated into the film or its ending, but Tarantino has found a way to wrap things up that avoids many of the obvious pitfalls.
Watching Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, it’s clear that Tarantino isn’t just having a great time — he seems to genuinely love the world he has (re)created. More than any of his other films, he lets the camera wander to glimpse the iconic sights of Hollywood, both those that still exist in some fashion and those that have been recreated. He’s also a master of recreating the look of vintage film and television, which he does copiously, bringing to mind the multiple film stocks used in some of Oliver Stone’s works or Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind. Tarantino is depicting a world and a time he was too late to experience, when many of the films that would shape his worldview were being made. In the movie’s centerpiece, when Sharon watches herself on the big screen, he seems to be living vicariously through her, experiencing his own part in this new world of cinema. He may have missed 1969 by a few decades, but it’s the next best thing.