Quentin Tarantino films are always about other films. Sure, they’re also always about other things — the grimly funny existentialist playground of his early work, the imperfect feminist exaggeration of the “Kill Bill” series, or the resolute antifascists histories of his past three films — but they’re also always love letters to cinema. In his latest “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” his adoration of yesteryear’s celluloid, and the exaltation of its redemptive power, reaches its most lurid peak. Spoilers ahead.
“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” closes the loop for Tarantino, uniting his historical epics with the crime thrillers he began with. On its surface, it’s a true crime film — a first for the director — retelling the story of the infamous Charlie Manson murders from the outside perspective of alcoholic cowboy actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double and best friend, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt).
There’s little plot to speak of: Dalton tries to get his career back on track, Booth nearly romances one of Manson’s acolytes, and eventually three of Manson’s followers make the trek to Cielo Drive, where Dalton lives next to actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and director Roman Polanski. Much like “Inglourious Basterds,” Tarantino’s version of events don’t adhere at all to the course of history. With almost gleeful irreverence, Charles Manson only appears for one, brief scene. The second most controversial character in the true story, Roman Polanksi, doesn’t get much screen time either.
Though the film features more scenes than Tarantino’s recent output, which tend to favor elongated single set pieces, it still moves at a novelistic pace —it’s nearly three hours long — and is content to let the three principal characters spend lengths of time apart from one another, revealing the depths of their personality in small interactions with other characters. Robbie in particular excels; her version of Tate is respectful and jubilant, a being somehow carved out of light and music, perpetually in motion, spreading joy wherever she goes, almost too good to exist in this world. Still, the film’s at its best when DiCaprio and Pitt are together at the periphery of the Manson story, playing lovable fools and foils a la “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.”
Tarantino’s career project, so to speak, is the creation of a new film canon, one that rejects the highfalutin art house tradition as well as the Oscar lineage in favor of elevating so-called B, films, from the spaghetti westerns of “Django Unchained” to the Blaxploitation of “Jackie Brown.” The intertextual references here eclipse both films. From multiple extended scenes featuring Bruce Lee (a dead-on impression by Mike Moh) to Robbie watching Tate’s scenes in “The Wrecking Crew,” there’s enough references to other films to boggle even the most cinephillic mind; they are legion.
Far from content to list references, though, Tarantino uses references to other films, and the business of Hollywood itself, to gird its humor, and for movie fans this will probably be remembered as Tarantino’s funniest film, with DiCaprio himself the butt of many jokes, usually by splicing him into scenes of other fictional films as well as “The Great Escape.”
One devastating scene in particular involves an eight year old girl giving DiCaprio’s character, Dalton, a stern talking to about the importance of method acting — DiCaprio is maybe the second most well-known method actor behind Daniel Day Lewis, who wouldn’t be caught dead in a movie whose central plot can be read as a big gag about his long battle to get an Oscar.
It’s also maybe Tarantino’s least-violent film. The Manson Family’s knives don’t come out until the very end. What the carnage lacks in screen time it makes up for in brutality, but unlike many of Tarantino’s other films, there’s no nihilistic glee to the finale. Instead, it’s all in the service of giving the world a few moments more with Sharon Tate, pregnant, alive and unscathed. Maybe, the film posits, there can be worlds wherein tragedy is undone, good triumphs over senseless evil, and the Summer of Love never really ends. That this is Tarantino’s first film without Harvey Weinstein, in a #metoo world, is telling. Quentin Tarantino, once cinema’s great enfant terrible, at last has offered an apologia for the evil done to women in Hollywood — but only in a way that keeps cinema sacred.