Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is unmistakably a Quentin Tarantino film while also something of a conscious step away from the acute genre immersion of the filmmaker’s recent output. As opposed to emulating the styles and genres that QT so loves, the director’s latest centers his story on the industry where those genres once thrived and then, eventually, sputtered, at least in the sparkling grandiosity with which we remember Hollywood’s Golden Age. In stepping away, he also steps forward – this film isn’t merely a riff on classical genre filmmaking, it is simultaneously ode and analysis, looking back on a by-gone era with fondness for its glory but also hostility for its precipitous fade and eventual crash.
By removing himself from the strict framework of a particular genre, Tarantino frees himself to play within a creative environment of his own innate preoccupations, both in terms of aesthetic and theme. As a result, Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is the filmmaker’s most pleasantly and intriguingly earthbound film in years, not a recreation of classical Hollywood filmmaking but a dissection of the industry’s machinery and a portrait of the people who grind through the machinery’s gears. It’s an epic film on a uniquely personal scale, which somehow feels like both a return to Tarantino’s roots and an evolution in his auteurism.
Since its production was announced, Once Upon a Time… has been referenced as “Tarantino’s film about the Manson cult and the Tate murders,” though it demonstrably is not about that. Instead, the specter of those events, the vibe of the cult, and Sharon Tate herself exist above and around the film, hovering on the margins as a haunting gauge of time and place. Margot Robbie plays Tate, and as was pointed out in a now-notorious Cannes press conference, she doesn’t speak many lines in the film. At the time, Tarantino refused to say why, but on the evidence of the film, it’s fairly clear: Tate exists in the film as its thematic angel, an idyllic, bright-eyed performer whose star is on the rise as the golden glow of Hollywood seems to be dimming. She’s the light beaming blissfully unaware of the darkness encroaching on the industry environment.
That darkness is where Tarantino centers his cinematic meditation, elucidated via two fictional characters in this real world pastiche. It’s February of 1969, and Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is in a panic over the realization that his career is in a tailspin. Once a celebrated TV gunslinger at the center of his own show, Rick is now merely a hired gun, a fledgling actor taking bit parts as the “heavy” with single-episode arcs on any show that will hire him. With his star having faded, Rick is in the midst of an existential crisis, wondering if he can ever reclaim the spotlight, or if the industry has morphed into a universe where he no longer fits. The situation is similarly grim for Rick’s stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), whose reputation may be irreversibly sullied – for reasons we’re never quite sure are warranted – and who, devoid of any stunt job offers, now only serves as Rick’s driver and assistant. Rick and Cliff share a bond where the professional lines have long ago evaporated, erased by years of history, shared experience, continued disappointment, and now the creeping fear of irrelevance. At this point they aren’t so much colleagues as they are one another’s sole lifeline in an industry that would otherwise render them obsolete.
Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is permeated with that inevitable sense of obsolescence, the passage of time, the evolution of film as a bottom-line business as its magic luster tarnishes. It’s something that clearly weighs on Tarantino’s mind, as he’s been on the record for the past few years that he’s nearing his own retirement. And in what may be his penultimate film, QT treats every scene of this film as an ongoing exploration, using these two fictional characters as conduits into Hollywood history, tracing the end of the Golden Age through the fraying psychology of these two men, and occasionally syncing up with Sharon Tate as the beacon of what Hollywood once was – and, as Tarantino eventually posits, what it could’ve remained.
Tarantino’s sense of exploration gives each scene its own propulsive urgency, the feeling that we are always on the brink of discovering something, even if we don’t exactly know what it is. There isn’t a “story” here as much as a gradual crystallization of theme and character within this vivid world where real-life collides with clever fiction, a crossroads of history and invention. Tarantino has frequently sought to rewrite history as a way to exorcise the demons in our collective past, and here his anger is directed at the destruction of the myth of Hollywood perfection that formed who he is as a film lover. That anger eventually leads Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood to a place that threatens to derail the sublime distillation of Hollywood ethos it spends so much time creating. But we have to forgive that leap, for it’s part and parcel of the fairy tale Tarantino has created – one that can only be spun and re-spun in Hollywood.