Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood review: Quentin Tarantino unleashes his nostalgic fetishes

Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt play a fading star and his stunt double whose rambling exploits in late-60s Hollywood run into a real-life tragedy in Tarantino’s luminous meta-western.

Adam Nayman
Updated:

 from our September 2019 issue

Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Since Quentin Tarantino can, at this point, make movies about whatever he wants, it’s interesting to consider why each of his past three efforts has been, on some level, a meditation on the western. In Django Unchained (2012) and The Hateful Eight (2015), the genre proved conducive to the director’s recently minted interest in real-world – as opposed to simply cinematic – history, while also letting him get his metatextual rocks off. No less in-joky than his 1970s exploitation riffs Kill Bill (2003, 2004) and Death Proof (2007), and no less knowingly anachronistic than his 2009 Nazi-combat pastiche Inglourious Basterds, these films nevertheless came with gravitas baked into their 20th-century settings.

Once upon a Time… in Hollywood is not a western so much as a movie largely – though not wholly – about westerns and their hold on the American popular imagination. Its main character, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), is an ersatz gunslinger whose well-honed small-screen persona as a squinty bounty hunter is reaching its expiry date in the summer of 1969. As the film opens, he’s being propositioned by an agent (Al Pacino) to consider decamping to Italy to work with “the world’s second-best director of spaghetti westerns” (that’d be Sergio Corbucci, for those keeping score). Rick’s tenacious clinging to his primetime celebrity makes him richly symbolic, both of an entertainment-industrial complex that cycles through its heroes as fast as it can build them up, and also of a foundational genre’s encroaching obsolescence.

This idea of transition, both on the back lot and beyond the frame, is what gives Tarantino’s ninth feature its narrative and conceptual heft. Rick and his best friend/stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) are relics – Cliff even more than Rick, though as his job description suggests, he’s by far the tougher and more resilient man. Lurching together through a hard-drinking personal-professional double act, they’re fated to watch haplessly as the Hollywood Hills fill up with new-style interlopers: on the set of a Green Hornet episode, Cliff impulsively starts a fight with a hotheaded Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) and is fired from his gig; next door to Rick’s bungalow on Cielo Drive, Polish import Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) has moved in with Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie).

Brad Pitt as Cliff Booth

Brad Pitt as Cliff Booth

The times they are a-changin’, and the barely constrained subtext is that the movie business has become no country for old men. And that’s without even mentioning the dead-eyed Mansonites holed up at the defunct Spahn movie ranch, the former site of so many make-believe standoffs, now transformed into a different kind of ghost town.

The western is, fundamentally, about the battle to create and control civilisation, a trope that Tarantino understands and exploits smartly. For the first two hours of Once upon a Time… in Hollywood, he sets up a playful, purposeful dichotomy between his mock-heroes, both of whom are humorously played by irresistible alpha-male movie stars, and the interchangeably skinny, leggy, generally female countercultural usurpers massing threateningly at the edge of the story. In the last half-hour, he provides the payoff, which has been designed so that the fate of one of this scrupulously allusive film’s only authentic characters – ie, a real person with a tragic legacy – hangs in the balance.

Whether appending an umpteenth variation on the sort of belaboured, cartoonish, cathartic carnage that Tarantino has made his stock-in-trade to a movie defined until that point by a kind of relaxed mastery – a slow, indulgent ramble through a gloriously recreated past, placidly hypnotised by its own stately paced and luminous nostalgia – is strictly necessary or annoyingly excessive is a question worth asking. It’s probably more easily answered by the director’s detractors than by his fans – ditto the distinctly misogynistic cast of said violence, which is linked (viscerally and intellectually) to the project’s true-crime underpinnings but also scans as something genuinely ugly that this filmmaker, ever true to himself and his impulses, simply cannot stifle.

Leonard DiCaprio as Rick Dalton

Leonard DiCaprio as Rick Dalton

Not that Tarantino (or any artist) should aspire to self-censorship: in his lack of embarrassment about his fetishes – cinematic and physical, with the latter as always focused on what lies beneath his female cast members’ ankles – he displays an undeniable sense of principle. His confidence has yielded an always watchable, at times intensely enjoyable auteurist excursion, with all the longueurs and flaws we’ve come to expect.

However, perhaps in keeping with its once-removed nature – its beautifully tailored motifs of role play and fakery, its wild and privileged liberties with history – Once upon a Time… in Hollywood leaves less of a residue than its predecessors. The Hateful Eight was a hot mess, but its free-floating nastiness and cynical sociology were correctly keyed to a pre-Trump zeitgeist. In an awful way, it’s aged quite well very quickly. Once upon a Time… in Hollywood flirts with present-tense resonance (impose whatever contemporary demographic you want on its demonic cultists) and yet its pleasures are ultimately reactionary.

 

 

In the September 2019 issue of Sight & Sound

To live and die in LA

Quentin Tarantino’s Once upon a Time… in Hollywood offers a dazzling portrait of Los Angeles in the 1960s, in the tale of a fading actor and his stunt double in the days leading up to the Manson murders. Here the director describes the genesis of the film, his childhood in the city and why Burt Reynolds was quite possibly the most charming man in the world. By Kim Morgan.

 

The beautiful and the damned

Media ubiquity helped to establish Sharon Tate as a countercultural muse in the 1960s – but her substantial acting talents were largely overlooked in her lifetime, and then eclipsed altogether by the violent death that came to define her legacy. By Erik Morse.

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