The iconic director juxtaposes a washed-up actor with a star on the rise in this mature and masterful take on the changing fates of Hollywood figures
Sun-kissed boulevards, winding roads that snake up through the Hollywood hills, tan leather jackets, tanned complexions, double denim, and ‘60s pop – it’s all here. Certainly, the first half of the Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood seems more preoccupied with the aesthetics, the time and the place than ratcheting up the story’s ante with any great sense of urgency. But it’s worth hanging in there.
The context for Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood is based on fact. The murder that took place of actress Sharon Tate on a balmy August night in 1969 has long been acknowledged as the act of evil that finally put the pin in the hippie dream. Members of the Manson Family, the cult devised by the notorious Charles Manson, a failed singer-songwriter and one-time friend of Beach Boy Dennis Wilson, killed the heavily pregnant Tate after breaking into the home she shared with Roman Polanski. Tarantino considers this as a backdrop but also looks elsewhere.
Cliff Booth, played by Brad Pitt, is stunt double and all-round lackey to fading matinee idol Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), former star of the Bounty Law TV series and an alcoholic struggling to resurrect his declining fortunes. Tate (Margot Robbie), meanwhile, is a star on the rise, seen basking in the early flushes of success, sashaying at parties and strutting confidently on promenades with a big toothy smile usually planted upon her face. The film charts these parallel states of affairs with interest.
Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood retains elements of Tarantino’s trademark virtuosity, but passes it through a filter of hitherto unseen maturity: certainly a step up from the likes of the inconsistent Django Unchained and flawed The Hateful Eight. The patter is less contrived (although admittedly, therefore, less quotable) and there is a sincerity that promotes a less self-satisfied mood all around. There is room for emotional investment and the chemistry between Pitt and DiCaprio is a charm. This is the most fun Pitt has been in yonks.
There have been times when Tarantino’s bold bravura has threatened to sabotage his work – countermanding his unquestionable brilliance through self-indulgent digressions suitable for curtailment (if not censure). But he has also always had a symphonic sensibility with regards to filmmaking, guiding his pieces like an accomplished conductor towards exhilarating crescendos. His masterly way with a set piece remains his strongest suit – bringing bloody ballets to life with chutzpah. And that might have reached its zenith here.
It would be wrong to declare OUAT…IH to be quite so perfectly formed as Pulp Fiction, but there is no doubt that this is his most well-rounded and satisfying work since. The adrenaline rush of the final third resembles all that is special about Tarantino – audacious, brazen and impossibly thrilling.
In fact, it is the sort of conclusion designed to energise even the most fatigued, jaded and weary of watchers and leave them in a giddy heap. If this truly is his penultimate film before his mooted retirement then the signs are that he intends to go out with a thunderous bang.