California dreamin’: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood review

This being belated, I wasn’t planning to add much to the reams already written about “The 9th Film from Quentin Tarantino” (how long till the first monograph about the ninth movie?). But it’s easily his best work since Pulp Fiction, and probably his best since he came out of the video store.

Most of his output has, of course, been about films in one way or another and Once Upon a Time… is no exception; but here the references are straightforward and cheerful, not smug and aren’t-I-clever, and they form only the backdrop to a story that is more focused on people than anything he has made before.

By now you know the set-up and also the ending: it’s 1969 (50 years ago, the year Apollo 11 is set); Leo DiCaprio is Rick Dalton, a moderately successful Hollywood action star in decline; Brad Pitt is his loyal stuntman and closest pal; and the Manson Family is edging toward the dreadful night of 8th August. What you may not expect, though, is how middle-aged the central pair are (the director, too, is 56 now), how emotionally invested the film is in them as characters and not merely ciphers, and how unimportant the Family are alongside the two leads — this despite Tarantino having been so anxious, pre-release, to keep the ending undisclosed.

It is not a film about Charles Manson at all (in fact he barely appears). The point of the Family’s presence is that by defeating Manson’s acolytes — and, implicitly, relegating them to historical irrelevance — DiCaprio and Pitt save their own world from ending. If the Tate-LaBianca murders represent a glimpse of hideous nihilism lurking beneath the Californian Sixties, Tarantino is turning a flamethrower on this reality and saying let’s pretend they didn’t happen, that the good times continued, indeed perhaps that the national pain of the Seventies never had to be endured either; that people like DiCaprio’s verging-on-superannuated Rick remained relevant after all.

The very conclusion of the film, where the gates of the Polanski mansion swing open to admit him (and presumably usher him into some much-needed roles in Roman’s movies), makes that clear.

But while this is in a sense necessary for the film to end happily, it’s not the point of the whole exercise (and the unicorns on the wall of the Tate nursery may be admissions that rewriting history is impossible). Much more of the movie is engaged simply in celebrating Rick’s world and the characters within it.

Once Upon a Time… is not heavy on subtext; but much of the time, like Tarantino’s other work, it does relish small things for their own sake. He takes a real delight in everything of the era: not just the obvious comics and signage and streetscapes (one of the film’s most purely cinematic highlights is an ecstatic hymn to LA neon accompanied by the Rolling Stones’ Out of Time) but also dog food, Carnation Milk, packet mac’n’cheese. The people themselves look back with fondness on the good old days: outside DiCaprio/Rick’s house stands part of a billboard for his movie Avalanche. It’s in-universe nostalgia.

In amid all this cultural smorgasbord, though, there are also genuine emotional strands of the kind usually missing from Tarantino movies, with some fine performances and surprisingly delicate scenes.

DiCaprio and Pitt are the core of the film, of course, and one or both are on-screen most of the time. Superficially their relationship is master-servant — Pitt’s stunt work has been drying up, and he’s now essentially Rick’s driver and factotum — but its dynamic is more complex than that, and their performances add subtle detail to the script’s outlines. They’re a classic odd couple, needing each other but each also slightly resenting the other for having something they don’t (Pitt lacks Rick’s money and door-opening fame, Rick lacks Pitt’s easy assurance and his credibility as a macho man).

But their relationship itself is not Once Upon a Time’s main concern, and remains a relatively unthreatened constant. It is, instead, a backdrop to studies of them as individuals.

They are brilliantly cast in every respect, and not only because they so well-suited to inhabiting the roles today; it’s also because we can’t watch them without being nudged by our own memories of their youthful, pretty-face stardom, now as firmly in the past as the heyday of the two characters.

Both have been doing increasingly mature parts in recent years, of course, and Pitt perhaps doing them better (currently in the otherwise pedestrian Ad Astra, for example). But this is perhaps the first time for both — certainly for DiCaprio — that they have done full-blown, feeling-the-slowdown, in-denial middle age, and they are completely convincing. DiCaprio is, in fact, virtually unrecognisable at times.

They are not the only characters to come alive. Also noteworthy in a large and consistently excellent cast are Al Pacino — giving one of his best performances in quite a while — as Rick’s agent; and Nicholas Hammond, nervy and zeitgeist-munching as the director Sam Wanamaker.

Margot Robbie is touching as Sharon Tate, still impressed to see her own image on a cinema poster, and all the more poignantly vulnerable because we know (or think we know) what is coming; Bruce Dern is memorable as George Spahn, the decrepit owner of the ranch where the Manson Family have set themselves up, his single scene mixing pathos, humour and horror. The zombie-like youngsters of the Family are eerily effective, too, though no individual has a role of any size. Damon Herriman plays Manson (also a minor part) very straight, without that pent-up cold fire that he gave the character in Mindhunter, but it works.

Tarantino presents some of these as larger than life. Manson, interestingly, is smaller, although of course in this alternative universe where the murders never happened, he might always have been metaphorically as well as literally small. Bruce Lee (played by Mike Moh) is both larger and smaller than life, in a hilarious episode — the most completely comic passage in Once Upon a Time — where Pitt challenges his extravagant claims.

Pitt and DiCaprio, however, never waver from exactly life-size, even in the not-quite-credible climactic fight scene; while we are encouraged to smile at many of the others, to see them as representative of period Hollywood types rather than true-to-life individuals, there is never any doubt in Once Upon a Time… that the central duo are to be taken genuinely, in a way that Tarantino’s characters rarely are.

They have the most emotionally intimate and significant scenes, including a moment where Rick breaks down in tears and confides in Pitt, but two of the most important passages of the movie feature them individually rather than together. And if the title of Once Upon a Time… alludes to both fairy tales and westerns (vide Sergio Leone), it’s clear from these two sections which actor belongs in which: Rick is a former handsome prince coming to terms with being turned into a frog, Pitt’s character remains a man of action.

First, there’s the sequence where Rick encounters a smart-talking child actress (played by Julia Butters) who seems unawed by his faded splendour, and more than assured in her own philosophy of movie-making. At first, he’s taken aback, unused to not being treated like the big star; but soon we can see him relax into the realisation that there will be new bright lights like this one coming along to outshine him. It’s not the end of middle-aged angst for Rick, but it’s a step on the way to being comfortable with who he is now.

There’s something not quite real, almost dreamed, about their on-set meeting, its backdrop a fake Old West town — just as there is with Pitt’s big scene at the Spahn Ranch, although there the ambience is more nightmare than reverie. In a movie with so many references to westerns (and from a director so interested in them), this is the sequence which most obviously resembles the genre: the scrubby brown Californian landscape, the characters on horseback, the wooden ranch buildings, the Manson Family standing around like townsfolk at a gunfight.

But it does so in a disturbing, almost perverted way, from Pitt’s uneasy conversation with Spahn himself (he isn’t sure whether the old man is being held prisoner by the Family, and nor are we), right up to the knife in his car tyre that prefigures the bigger role planned for knives later. It is unquestionably the most dramatic sequence in Once Upon a Time… and also the only one where we really sense the Family as threatening; that perhaps turns out to be Tarantino having fun with audience expectations, but it’s powerful all the same.

These are serious, if not exactly sombre, moments. Of course, as you’d expect from this director, Once Upon a Time… is not devoid of tongue-in-cheek idiosyncrasies either — the curious attention paid to snoring women, for example. But they don’t stick out in the way they have in so many Tarantino movies. Character and performance are to the fore here, supported by narrative and fine, imaginative technique that doesn’t hit you over the head with its creativity.

Consider the way that the filling of Rick’s glass is intercut with Tate and Polanski speeding along in their convertible; there’s identical energy in each of the paired shots, the movement of the liquid seeming to match that of the car. Then there’s the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, but neat, little commentary on television versus film (still a painful subject in 1969) when we cut from the boxy square image of Rick’s Bounty Law TV series to the broad expansive windshield of the car where he’s riding with Pitt, feeling for all the world like widescreen.

And there may even be — I’m not sure whether this was in the movie or my ageing eyes — the faintest distortion of Manson when he visits the Tate/Polanski home, and again of members of the Family in that pivotal scene at the ranch, just enough to signal something’s not quite right.

It would be a pity if Once Upon a Time… does turn out to be Tarantino’s penultimate film, as he has claimed (just a few months ago I would have said “promised”). Ironically for a movie which is — on the surface — much more overtly about the artifice of cinema than the rest of his work, it is also much more honest than his first eight.

Once Upon a Time… doesn’t hide its characters behind self-conscious gimmickry; certainly the director’s love of vintage Hollywood practice shines through, but even if it is something of a wild comedy-western-horror-(b)romance mash-up, it’s not only playing cute games with genre conventions the way that, say, Kill Bill was. (It also never feels long, despite running over 160 minutes.)

Above all, at heart — and it is the first Tarantino movie to really have one — it is about two guys growing grey, half-submitting to the way the world is being reordered around them, and half-fighting against it. That they are at least partly victorious perhaps means Once Upon a Time in Hollywood should be classed as a fantasy too, but it’s a sweet and human one.

This article was originally published in The View From 8D, a Quora space.

Barnaby is a journalist based in Suffolk, UK. By day he covers science and public policy; by night, film and classical music. He has also been a cinema manager.