Director: Quentin Tarantino
Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margaret Qualley
Quentin Tarantino is a fan of stories. Tall ones. Stories with a shade of truth but… embellished, stretched out, shaggy ’round the edges. Anyone who’s seen his Inglorious Basterds can attest to that. He prefers a romanticised version of history; one he can reshape. In that spirit, let me tell you a story.
Once upon a time… there was a director, and he loved movies. He loved how cool movies were and, particularly, he loved how cool movies were in the 60’s and 70’s. He wanted to bring that cool back. So, in the 90’s, he made three movies and they were all great. People loved them. And part of what made people love them was this director’s evident enthusiasm, and how he brought back elements that made those older pictures great, the ones he loved so much. He even brought back some of the actors. He had a kind of Midas touch. Everything was great. And when everything’s great, as we all know, you just don’t want it to end…
So, he dug deeper into those older pictures he loved. And for the next 20 years, he made more movies, only these movies leaned on the past even harder. He made genre pictures. A martial arts action flick. An exploitation picture. A war movie. Westerns. And the people liked these movies, too, and would debate over which were good and which weren’t. But the movies themselves existed in a kind of hyper-reality. They had become self-aware and cartoonish. They hinted at a man trying to reject his own mortality; each seemingly more detached from the world than the last. If he could, this director would jump through the screen and live inside his movies, escaping death forever. He even cast himself in them, even though he wasn’t good at acting at all…
But everyone’s gotta grow-up sometime.
Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood has been called Tarantino’s most mature film since Jackie Brown, and that seems quite accurate. For the first time since that picture there’s a sense of the real world about it. A lived-in, almost weary sensation. An element of melancholy.
That sense is fitting, as this movie is a lament for the halcyon days of Hollywood; a golden age that QT seems to feel was extinguished around the time of the Manson Family murders in ’69. His fourth period piece in a row, the story takes place in the months leading up to those violent nights. It’s a long and rambling journey (most QT joints are), but its also a particularly charming way to spend 2 hours and 41 minutes.
Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Rick Dalton, a fictional composite of a number of classic Hollywood actors of the era. A drunk who hides a stammer, is prone to crying jags and is facing the winding down of his career, Dalton keeps the company of his stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). In truth, Booth is his employee, more a driver and a handyman than a stuntman these days, but the two stay together thanks to a bond that transcends that of mere work colleagues.
A lion’s share of OUATIH takes place over the course of one day, charting their separate misadventures; Dalton’s on the set of a TV western, and Booth’s on an eerie trip out to the Spahn ranch, recently occupied by the followers of a man named… Charlie. These strands serve varying degrees of purpose in the film’s third act, but in the moment play as little arenas for Tarantino to quietly reconfigure himself. He allows his actors the same flexibility.
DiCaprio brings surprising sentiment to Dalton, who acts proud of his bit-parts in public, but in private chews on them with the bitter face of a man given one too many handfuls of shit to eat. Past privilege has made him blind to present fortunes. Still, his extreme awareness of his own flaws make him hangdog and sympathetic. Pitt, meanwhile, quietly turns in one of his best ever performances. There’s a specificity to Booth. A surface level of ease that belies danger beneath (he has a violent history). He and Dalton share that awareness of their own expiry dates fast approaching. Booth seems readier to adapt to circumstances. Simply, neuroses are for other people. He’s not built that way.
Walking like an angel between these two faltering men is Margot Robbie as the doomed Sharon Tate. She has few scenes and very rarely speaks, and in terms of screen time is as marginalised as come-and-go faces in the crowd like Emile Hirsch and Timothy Olyphant. Yet her very presence in the peripheries of OUATIH adds a further sense of impending disaster and fatalism. If this movie were a recipe, she’d be the seasoning.
It’s tempting to look upon OUATIH as a break away from its director’s recent string of self-conscious genre pictures, but it isn’t anything of the sort, not really. When he isn’t dusting the narrative with homages (in a style reminiscent of the Coens with Hail, Caesar!), you’ll find him aspiring to a very particular and lofty subgenre; the LA movie. From Sunset Blvd to Body Double, Chinatown to Mulholland Drive… you can sense QT setting his eyes on this great history of movies about Los Angeles and its relentless improbability. A city of dreams built on a desert – a place of vanity, exploitation, intoxication and fantasy. OUATIH is a love letter to these inherent vices. And if you love something you’ve got to be afraid of its passing.
Does this sadness extend to Tarantino’s own career as a filmmaker? For those keeping count (and QT does like to check that you are) this is his ninth picture, and he has recently reiterated a long-maintained intention to call it quits at ten. That would make this his penultimate offering. These feels like a ‘late’ picture, too. There’s (marginally) less ego to encounter. It’s calmer (again, for the most part…).
I doubt very much that a man with his ego and flare for verbosity will stick to such a rigid level of self-censorship, but who knows. The end of things is staring all of us in the face. Ours might even be the last generation to comfortably enjoy life on this burning ball of earth without extreme conflict. That’s a sobering thought in sobering times. OUATIH is a rose-tinted requiem for simpler times that now feel long extinguished. A time when you could take your dog for a walk and leave the door unlocked. A time when fame really did seem to mean living forever. If only getting so down on everything could always be this much fun.