Quentin Tarantino’s career has been a more than 20 year-long love affair with the sensibilities of hard-boiled genre filmmaking from decades past, spanning World War II Nazi-killing flicks, Spaghetti Western and Japanese martial arts movies. More than any other film in Tarantino’s career, “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood,” released July 26, shows why audiences are lucky he’s making movies now instead of 40 years ago.
It’s 1969 and Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is facing the downward shift of his acting career with the help of stunt double/best friend/babysitter Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). As Rick navigates the silver screen as a series of one-off villains, Booth handles day-to-day chores and provides as-needed emotional support.
For the majority of the film Rick seems oblivious to the fact the decline of his career spells the death-knell of Cliff’s as well. Still, the duo have a sweet, supportive friendship that rings true of an almost-successful industry stalwart and his loyal stunt double.
DiCaprio and Pitt are an obvious match on paper and their on-screen chemistry is delightful, but Pitt is doing the heavy lifting in the film. His charm and confidence permeate every scene he’s in, and the menacing undertones of Cliff’s character give Pitt a lot to chew on.
Cliff is a controversial figure among other crew members on his films due to a checkered past and generally unruly attitude. The movie doesn’t acquit Cliff from these past misdeeds — though it does make a sick joke of them in one of the worst scenes of the movie — as these traits pit Cliff against co-workers, strangers and almost anyone that isn’t Rick. The duo have each other’s backs — no matter what. Pitt’s ability to balance Cliff’s tragedy, terror and compassion for Rick make him the clear standout performance of the movie.
This movie is Rick and Cliff’s story, but it’s no secret that their story frames an infamous real-life event. Much has been made of the movie’s depiction of the Sharon Tate’s (Margot Robbie) story and the infamous night of August 8, 1969, when four members of the Manson Family murdered Sharon Tate, her unborn child and four house guests in Tate’s Los Angeles residence. Tarantino approaches this night with melancholy and dread, but also ascribes great symbolic significance to the entire conflict.
The Manson Family loom large throughout the film — Tex Watson (Austin Butler), Squeaky Fromme (Dakota Fanning) and Charles Manson himself (Damon Herriman) are all characters here — but they aren’t the main focus. Beyond a couple brief intersections into Rick and Cliff’s story, they’re content to linger mostly-ignored on Spahn Ranch until that fateful night.
Sharon Tate lingers on the edge of the movie too, but her lack of screen time isn’t an accident. While she doesn’t factor into much of the story’s progression, Tarantino revels in the intricacies of her life — picking up an order from a bookstore, watching her own performance in “The Wrecking Crew,” dancing to period-appropriate pop music. This loving focus borders on — and occasionally becomes — creepy, but it also illuminates Tate as Tarantino’s symbol for old Hollywood.
Robbie portrays Tate as endlessly joyful, caring and optimistic for the future. Tarantino equates her murder to the death of his most-loved generation of filmmaking, and the way the story’s threads intertwine makes his feelings on both events abundantly clear.
The entire star-studded cast lives up to expectations. Whether it’s Al Pacino as Marvin Schwarzs to Mike Moh as Bruce Lee or Dakota Fanning as Squeaky Fromme, the ensemble makes 1969 Hollywood breathe, injecting life into the borders of the main story without subtracting from the focus.
The story unfolds like a legend told over dinner among friends, slightly disjointed and heavy on side-plots, but full of intimate details that show genuine excitement about the material. This can come off as rambling, especially considering the film’s 161 minute run-time, but ultimately brings an endearing quality to the material.
Tarantino’s Hollywood fairytale is simultaneously in line with his entire career and a fresh look for the director. It’s missing the snappy, monologue-heavy dialogue of his earlier work, but brings a heartfelt, optimistic tone and the meandering pace allows the film to feel relaxed without eliminating the urgency of the climax.
As Tarantino’s career comes to a close — the director has said he plans to retire after his 10th movie and this is his ninth — he reflects on the movies that influenced his vision and on the people the industry left behind. Rick and Cliff are tragic figures who refuse to be tragic. They’re fading out of the spotlight, but not without a fight. Plenty of real people in the industry can relate to their paths. In one of his best career efforts, Tarantino gives the pair one last chance to share a thrilling, larger-than-life Hollywood story, one more night in the spotlight.
“Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood,” rated R, is playing in theaters nationwide.