If Quentin Tarantino keeps his promise to retire after 10 films as a director, then Once upon a time in Hollywood the ninth attempt to fill a whole career with pet themes, pictures and films is obsessions in a broader penultimate project. Even the title reefs of a Sergio Leone spaghetti western – a B-movie genre that is lovingly staged along with many others in the course of this two-hour and forty-minute saga about a group of Tinseltown residents – historically, partially fictional. Once upon a time is nominally structured after the 1969 Manson family killings. The protagonists, longtime TV cowboy Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his trusty stunt double and private driver Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) spend their long, lazy days and often drunken nights at Rick's home on Cielo Drive next door this summer The pregnant Sharon Tate and her four guests were slaughtered by members of the Manson cult.
Knowing that this dire event lies ahead at the end of the six months that the movie covers, gives the whole story a somewhat dismal cast. But as the weeks go by on this fateful August night, Once upon a time is surprisingly lively, as full of color, humor, and idiosyncratic character moments as any Tarantino film since Jackie Brown . For a film that plays in a time of violent and dislocating social change, Once Upon a Time has a strangely erratic, good-natured energy. This is not due to the angry dissatisfaction that fueled dropouts like the Manson crew, but to an elegiac melancholy for the world that wanted to uncover and destroy the Tate LaBianca murders.
For a film that plays in a time of violent and dislocating social change, he has a strangely bubbly, good-natured energy.
This separation between content and sound – between Shambolic A buddy comedy that animates the scenes of Pitt and DiCaprio together, and the suspense that each scene brings with Sharon Tate by Margot Robbie, is what Once upon a time gave it its impetus. But it's also what makes the audience, at least this one, unsure why Tarantino wanted to tell this story and in the largely fictionalized framework he did. (Note that fictionalized there is no dis: there's nothing wrong with embroidering the facts for artistic purposes, and Tarantino makes it clear from the beginning that this is more of a historical fantasy than a true biography.) There are certainly connections between Tate's trajectory as we see it here – a young, idealistic actress just beginning to realize she might be a rising movie star – and the trajectory of Rick and Cliff, two more exhausted characters from Hollywood's recent past who noticed this climaxed the height of their tenancy. But Tarantino rarely seems to be interested in thinking through these ideas. Instead, he cuts between Rick and Cliff's plotline (they spend so much time together that their storylines act as one) and the strange scene where Tate and her houseguests wiggle to pop records or laze by the pool.
Robbie gets a long, wonderful scene in which Tate plays in a movie in which her film is shown. The Wrecking Crew goes in alone and watches himself, quietly pleased with the audience's positive response to their physical comedy. But too often the male protagonists have the chance to be real characters – spiky, self-deceptive, ridiculous, surprising, funny – while acting primarily as a pretty, innocent, immaculate bait. If Robbies Sharon gets little introspection, the pack of the most undifferentiated "Manson Girls," including Margaret Qualley, Dakota Fanning (as Manson Protégée and future assassin of President Lynette "Squeaky" pious) and …, will be even less rewarded unexpected, but somehow exactly right cameo, a scary smiling Lena Dunham. The feeling that this is a movie about and for men is underlined by the fame of one of the most famous Tarantino fetishes on the screen. Sheer, slender women's feet are seen again and again in the foreground of the image, are pressed against the car windows, step on hot LA sidewalks and lean on dashboards or (disgusting) on the backrests of theater seats. The prominence of the feet is so great that it's hard not to believe that Quentin is just bothering us – a "am I not perverted?" – Gag, who might be funnier if we had not heard allegations from Uma Thurman last year, one of Tarantino's early muses and favorite foot models, about abuse and vulnerability on the set of Kill Bill . (Tarantino does not agree with Thurman's version of the events.)
Although there is an extended and virtually unpleasant sequence at Spahn Ranch – the abandoned western film set used by the Manson followers as a link – Manson's character is almost missing from the film itself. He appears only once, played by Damon Herriman (who also played the character from the Netflix series Mindhunter ), and hardly speaks more than one line. (A preliminary scandal, Roman Polanski, Tate's then superstar director, plays even less of a role, and Rafal Zawierucha occasionally appears on Robbie's side in the Fauntleroy-style velvet suits worn by the then-director.) Most of Once Upon a Time spends its generous running time on the dusty, abandoned stages of the Spahn Ranch, but on the busy side-scenes of the various shows and films that DiCaprio's character Rick is working on. We accompany his descent from the comfortable heights of the TV star of the 50s to the late 60s, when he left for Italy as a hero in the synchronized B-movie Western and Cliff was at his side, who was always ready, the tax for a dangerous game to take over Set Piece, fix a broken TV antenna or just pick his boss and seemingly single friend on the make-up trailer.
Too often the male protagonists become real characters, while Tate acts as a beautiful, innocent, impeccable bait.
The temporal structure of the film is loose but dense layers. There are nested flashbacks in flashbacks, extended pastiche of fake films and TV shows (including several full scenes from Bounty Law of the black and white frontier justice series Rick has made famous) and temporary voice-over-voices, including by Kurt Russell as a seemingly omniscient narrator. Bruce Dern appears in a single fun and touching scene as a senile owner of the abandoned movie ranch. Al Pacino happily scurries in and out as a know-it-all; The late Luke Perry, who appears in his final role, plays the stoic cowboy hero for Rick's theatrically growling villain. The entire package is pleasingly heterogeneous, filled with verbal and visual jokes and vibrant, contemporary music, and filmed in Tarantino's ingenious kinetic style. But knowing what matters – on the night of August 1969, a man and three women from the Manson compound appear with the knives in hand on Cielo Drive in front of the home of a Tate, who is now 8½ months pregnant – does it difficult to enjoy the many pleasures of the movie, especially when you know how much Tarantino loves an unrestrained bloody showdown.
A revelation of Pitts character in the middle of the film could change the response to the culminating orgy of violence, which, as is often the case in Tarantino films, immediately appears as a critique of the vision of masculinity imposed gets us on TV and in the cinema and like a celebration of it. (In fact, a character in the film – revealing what one would say too much – eventually reveals a theory about the dependence of our culture on mediated chaos.) With the choice to shoot a movie on Cielo Drive in the summer of 1969 Tarantino took a historic event that not only changed American attitudes to fame, violence, and counterculture, but also ended five innocent lives (seven, counting Tate's neighbors, the LaBiancas, who were killed in a Manson-raised incident) the following night). It's alright to leave this movie, not quite sure what made Tarantino close to his story about this real tragedy. that is part of the ambiguity inherent in making art. But it is daunting to guess that part of the reasons he wanted to stage a Manson-related story was that the outfits – the cars and costumes and neon signs, the sparkling barefoot hippie girls, the acid-cinned cigarettes, and the glowing film tents – just were so cool.