Get your popcorn: there’s a brand new Tarantino flick back in town. Cinema’s beloved bad boy has returned with a whole fresh round of blood, choice language and film references, and if the director is to be believed, it’s your second-to-last chance to see his work on the big screen before the venerated filmmaker retires. After a two-feature detour to the Old West, Tarantino’s latest romp, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a textured and heartfelt tribute to a transitional era in the American film industry, with some good-old-fashioned Tarantino fantasy sprinkled in for good measure.
A cult favorite among cinephiles everywhere, Quentin Tarantino first commanded attention at Sundance in 1992 with his innovative and brutal heist film Reservoir Dogs, which first showcased the man’s lack of regard for convention or traditional sensibility. The director took much of the general approach of his first film and brought it to an entirely new level with 1994’s Pulp Fiction. With pulsating intensity, gritty poetry, and seamless nonlinear exposition, the film stands today as one of cinema’s greatest masterpieces, and it currently reigns as Tarantino’s best work.
Since then, the filmmaker has provided six more features ranging from relentlessly-entertaining excursions to certifiable classics, including 1997’s Pam Grier-led blaxploitation flick Jackie Brown, the two-part Samurai-influenced Uma Thurman vehicle Kill Bill volumes 1 and 2 in 2003 and 2004, as well as the alternative World War II history lesson Inglourious Basterds in 2009. Having drawn much of his style from Sergio Leone and spaghetti westerns, Tarantino spent his last two films exploring the Wild West in 2012’s Django Unchained, and then in 2015’s The Hateful Eight.
Now in 2019, Tarantino makes a return to sunny Los Angeles. A resident himself, it’s a locale he clearly has much affection for, as it has served as the backdrop for several of his films. In contrast to his previous works, however, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is his first to focus on the film industry. It is also a period piece, lovingly recreating the world of 1960s-era show business and its excess. The cultural shifts of the time are very apparent, as are their effects on celebrity life, and those in its periphery. But like Inglourious Basterds, this isn’t quite a historical document.
Once Upon a Time… introduces us to Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio, following up his collaboration with the director in Django Unchained) an aging Western star who headlined TV’s Bounty Law, who retired from the series to transition to a career in motion pictures, but is currently a depressed alcoholic and struggling to separate himself from his days on the small screen. He’s forever backed-up by his loyal stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt, re-teaming with Tarantino after Inglourious Basterds), a war veteran who may or may not have killed his wife.
At his upscale Benedict Canyon address, Rick is next-door neighbors with actress Sharan Tate (Margot Robbie) and her recent husband, film director Roman Polanski (Rafał Zawierucha), living in the home where Tate was famously murdered by members of the Manson Family in 1969. As he strives to break out of his slump, Rick lands a role in a new Western series, Lancer. Meanwhile, Cliff picks up a young hippie named “Pussycat” (Margaret Qualley), and transports her home to the infamous Spahn Movie Ranch, where Charles Manson lived with his followers.
In his latest film, Tarantino takes a leisurely pace, confidently allowing room for his rendering of indulgent late-1960s Hollywood to bloom, and for his delicately-inspired characters to breathe. The simultaneously comical and sympathetic Rick Dalton symbolizes the winding-down of the Western era that dominated early American television, loosely based on Burt Reynolds, and Cliff after his long-time stunt double Hal Needham. And Dalton’s eventual comeback in Spaghetti Westerns exudes Tarantino’s well-known reverence for Leone and the movement he initiated.
Parallel to this, Tarantino presents to us Sharan Tate, an adored figure spurned by this era living an honest and humble life despite her celebrity. This is established in a memorable scene in which the actress visits a small local theater screening her film The Wrecking Crew, and she modestly describes her involvement in the film to the staff, taking no offense to their total unawareness of who she is. Looming over this is the ominous knowledge of the horrific killing she was victim to in one of the most well-known criminal conspiracies in American history.
And it’s tough to describe this without giving away any spoilers, but the attention that is given to this grotesque moment that still haunts our American consciousness by no means results in a distressing film. In fact, Tarantino’s latest passion project is a surprise in that it culminates as a tender and sincere love letter to what is obviously the director’s favorite moment in motion picture history and its surrounding culture, inviting us to share in his warm nostalgia for a Hollywood gone-bye. This is a Tarantino at his most mature, and his most endearing.
The film is by far his strongest work of world-building, as his vision of a post-idyllic 1960s America and its pastimes is replete with cultural commentary, and is rampant with scrupulous detail. Whereas works of Tarantino’s past were propped up more by volatility and provocative mischief, Once Upon a Time is much more concerned with its storytelling, and its observations on the American experience. It also offers one of the best performances of Leonardo DiCaprio’s career, among a great number of superb portrayals. This is one of the best films of the year.
ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD
Sony Pictures Releasing, Columbia Pictures, Bona Film Group, Heyday Films, Visiona Romantica.
Directed by Quentin Tarantino.
Written by Quentin Tarantino.
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie
Emile Hirsch, Margaret Qualley, Timothy Olyphant, Austin Butler, Dakota Fanning, Bruce Dern, and Al Pacino.
Released July 26, 2019.