This article contains spoilers for ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.’ Proceed with caution if you care about being spoiled.
The advertising for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood proudly announce it as “the ninth film by Quentin Tarantino.” This kind of marketing is the result of a career that has been built as much on cultural relevance as it has on quality cinema. A lot has changed in the film world since Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, benefitting form the independent film boom of the nineties, became a cultural sensation and turned the second-time director into the most talked-about man in Hollywood. The impact was so huge – calling Pulp Fiction the most important film of the nineties is like saying Obama was the first black President. It’s just a fact – that Tarantino has been able to build a unique career out of it. He is one of the very few filmmakers who will get close to a hundred million dollars from a big studio to make whatever movie he wants, on the promise that the Tarantino brand is strong enough to make bank at the box office. But this isn’t just another Tarantino movie. After decades of wild passion projects – kung fu epics, indulgent westerns, Nazi capers – Hollywood sees him do something completely unexpected: Tarantino’s gotten personal.
Running the risk of sounding hyperbolic, I am willing to say Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is the most exciting movie in Tarantino’s career. This might be a weird thing to say about a movie that operates for most of its two-hour-and-forty-minute run time as a comedy about good friends going about their day, but such low-stake vibes come off as refreshingly relaxed when in contrast to the director’s past work. Because Tarantino arrived fully formed, his movies have always seemed like the product of the same, incredibly talented, but inert artist. That is until now. This is the first Tarantino movie that feels like it takes place not in a cinematic real of the director’s design, but in the real world. Where the facts of history don’t only provide the setting for revenge fantasies, but the specifics of the situation. This is the first Tarantino movie to offer a glimpse not just at the director’s obsessions – movies, music, pop culture – but at his inner psyche. Tarantino, who is nearing his sixties, is no longer an enfant terrible. He is an elder statesman, an institution, and it seems that with age, he is starting to interrogate himself and his cinema.
Let’s get specific. The movie takes place in 1969 Los Angeles, the year that saw the horrific murders in which members of the Manson Family killed five people, including actress Sharon Tate and her unborn child. This already differentiates the movie from Tarantino’s other historical epics, in that it is dealing with a specific fact of history rather than a narrative creation. While the “Operation Kino” that is meant to kill Hitler and his cabinet in Inglourious Basterds is a product of Tarantino’s imagination, the murder of Sharon Tate and her friends is pointedly not. Most of the movie, however, takes place six months before the tragedy, and focuses on the comings and goings of people in the film industry. Tarantino, who was six years old in ’69, recreates the Los Angeles of his youth with enormous care and wonderful detail (for this fact, he has called this film “his Roma“). And while two of the main characters are fictional, the third is Sharon Tate herself, making her the first real life protagonist of a Tarantino movie. The degree to which Tarantino is interested in following Tate in the seeming mundanity of her day-to-day life not only situates the movie squarely in our reality, (or closer to it than any other of his films), but provides the most tender reason for the movie’s existence: to focus on the life of a person who is mostly remembered for her death.
While Sharon Tate (played lovingly by Margot Robbie) reflects the movie’s interest in the historical record, the two fictional protagonists of the movie reflect Tarantino’s more personal interests in making this movie. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Rick Dalton, a television star past his prime, while Brad Pitt plays Cliff Booth, Dalton’s stunt double and loyal sidekick. It’s in these two characters that I see Tarantino interrogating himself. He’s created plenty of great characters before, but never have they felt like they were part of his inner psyche in the way these two struck me as two sides of Tarantino’s own self-reflection. Cliff, the tough guy stunt man, seems to me a manifestation of Tarantino’s cinema: impossibly cool (Pitt, at 56, has improbably never looked better), capable of extreme violence, and with a problematic past. It is revealed halfway through the movie that Cliff might have been responsible for his wife’s murder. It’s not hard to make the connection to Tarantino’s past work, which is full of controversy – be it the liberal use of the n-word in his early movies, his decades-long collaboration with Harvey Weinstein, or the reports of endangering Uma Thurman on set while shooting Kill Bill.
Meanwhile, Rick Dalton represents Tarantino as a person. He is an artist who has had great success in the past, but is now growing old in an industry that seems to be leaving him behind. As Rick, DiCaprio provides the best work of his career since he played the haunted conman of Catch Me If You Can. He has always been best at playing people who are out of their element and build a flashy persona to hide their uncontrollable fear of it all crashing down. Rick is a ball of insecurities, an actor obsessed with the idea that he might become yesterday’s news, not unlike the image-obsessed Tarantino, who has claimed he will retire after making only ten movies in order to preserve his legacy. The younger generations that threaten to take Rick’s place come in two groups: the murderous hippies of Manson’s commune, and the up-and-coming Sharon Tate and her group of friends. While the former group is portrayed with intense (perhaps justified?) contempt, Sharon and her friends represent a bright and loving future for Hollywood. Tellingly, Sharon’s friend group is made up of artists and performers, while the Manson zealots complaint about phony actors and violent television.
With all of this going on around him, Rick stands by his buddy Cliff despite his possibly murderous past the way Tarantino can’t help but stand by the potentially problematic thrills of his own cinema. It’s no surprise that Tarantino rejects the moralizing hippies in order to stand with the electrifying experience of cinema, but what does it mean in the context of the last section of the movie? As the brilliant Tim Brayton has pointed out, when the movie’s third act flashes forward to August 1969, Tarantino abandons the more “realistic” hang-outs the movie’s been inhabiting for his usual M.O., starting with a Kurt Russell voice-over recap and ending in an explosively violent climax. As Rick and Cliff band together against the hippies, Tarantino uses the fantasy of cinema to, once again, change history. Sharon Tate gets to live, cinema’s own violent tendencies become a force for good. The implications of such a climax can be deeply problematic, but have we ever seen Tarantino be this introspective before? This movie is the result of a man who is truly considering his relationship to his own art. For the first time, Tarantino isn’t just showing us the things he loves, but reckoning with them. Is such a departure a signal that Tarantino is growing as a person? Who knows. A signal that he is growing as an artist when we least expected it? That’s for damn sure.