Tarantino’s latest transcends revenge-fantasy to become something more deeply affecting

Patrick Preziosi on Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood’ (2019)

Now on his ninth of a promised ten features, Quentin Tarantino’s filmography — in hindsight — can be divided neatly into three different artistic periods with varying preoccupations, each capped with a kiss-off to what had preceded. Jackie Brown (1997) bids adieu to the gangster flick-isms of Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994), while Death Proof (2007) is the end of the road for the genre homage-cum-subversion that was heralded with Kill Bill: Vol 1 (2003) and Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004). In 2015, it seemed that The Hateful Eight — the noxious nadir of a recent run of period pieces that treated history very liberally — was the unfortunate endpoint for an artistic period that seemed to have settled upon a newfound appreciation for evoking emotional resonance.

His newest, Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood, isn’t necessarily a course correction following The Hateful Eight — though a revisionist history is still the name of the game — as it still stings with anger, and occasionally revels in poor taste. However, Tarantino has now found more surprisingly affecting ways to stir up moral ambiguity, outside the use of racial epithets and sexual violence, or whatever else sets off the combustible discourse surrounding the director, which at this point, are what deserve more discussion, no matter what side you fall on.

Even more so than Inglourious Basterds (2009), Hollywood is steeped in the history of its time and place, though our focal points are those who wouldn’t typically relay such histories to us. A handful of ambling, satisfyingly converging storylines follow TV actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), famous for the western television program Bounty Law, but now relegated to guest appearances as “the heavy” on a smattering of similar shows; his stuntman-cum-brotherly confidant and designated driver Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt); and a true-to-life Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), here captured in blissful moments of ease and stability. There’s then the lingering entity of Charles Manson (Damon Herriman), only appearing once, though his makeshift family acts as an executor of his “teachings.”

Though imbued with a fitful anxiety à la the Manson Family, Tarantino is once again fascinated by the complexities of dialogue when housed within a hyper-specific milieu; the events of August 8th, 1969 do act as the film’s endpoint, though the bulk is dominated by two consecutive days and a night days six months prior.

But before Hollywood begins its intoxicatingly unspooling, we’re given something of a crash course in the principal players and their Hollywood era. Quick clips of Bounty Law and interview segments with Rick and Cliff segue into a montage set to Roy Head & The Traits’ “Treat Her Right”, as Tate and her husband, a now hotshot Roman Polanski fly into LA, and Rick and Cliff drive to a boozy lunch meeting. Already, Tarantino has established a tightly constructed aural and visual wallpapering — embodying an era in which the TV and radio were always on — and the almost schizophrenic effect it provides is not unlike another Los Angeles odyssey, Robert Altman’s Short Cuts (1993).

Things then fall into a hazy and contented sprawl; though Tarantino has always been an indulgist to varying results, his preternatural gift for stretching scenes beyond audience expectations, both of their content and just where they end, is in prime effect here. Rick is having a meeting with Marvin Schwarzs (an amusing Al Pacino), a producer trying to convince the actor to leave behind his laundry-list of TV guest appearances and offer his talents to Italy. Upon leaving, Rick tearfully remarks to Cliff that he’s now a “has-been”, though pledges to be in full form for the next day’s shoot of Lancer, in which Cliff is yet another heavy.

And thus the next day begins, in which Rick and Cliff follow diverging paths, with a poignant peppering of Tate throughout–– and a more than ominous run-in with Manson himself in his one true onscreen appearance. Though with even a threat of violence, the history of which occupies a permanent place in the collective consciousness now established, Tarantino continues down his winding path of tender homage and clever detachment from reality. Among the events of the day: Rick flubbing his lines onset before a moment of “inspired” improv (i.e., casual racism); Cliff fixing Rick’s TV antenna; a nested flashback depicting both a behind-the-scenes scuffle between Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) and Cliff, and then the events leading up to what many assume to Cliff’s murdering of his wife (one of the film’s most slippery nuggets of backstory); an effervescent Tate watching herself in The Wrecking Crew (1968) and buying Polanski a first edition of Thomas Hardy’s Tess d’Urbervilles (1891); finally, Cliff having a run-in with the Manson family at Spahn Ranch, where him and Rick used to shoot Bounty Law.

The omission of Manson speaks to a larger truth that — by sheer authorial strength — Tarantino wills into existence. While at Spahn Ranch, Cliff begins to realise that something’s amiss, a realisation buoyed by an incapacitated George Sphan (Bruce Dern) and a sinisterly quick-talking, TV-obsessed ringleader, Squeaky (Dakota Fanning). But without Manson himself doling out the rhetoric, his wide-reaching influence is actually more believable. It’s one of many moments in which Tarantino asks us to not overly-contextualise infamous moments in both the pop culture and more general collective consciousness. So when the violence comes crashing down at the close, the film moves past wish fulfilment to both a potent moment of self-actualisation for the respective careers of Rick and Cliff, defending themselves in a manner that is as brutal as it is funny as it is squeamish as it is satisfying.

However, it’s the presence of Tate which is able to tie these initially disparate threads together; they’re not just unified by the place they live and work in, but for how such a place has defined memories of them. The figures of Rick and Cliff are the kinds who fall into more general obscurity, and Hollywood seems to be arguing for a world in which they are not remembered as entertainment-types now unremembered. With the immersive production design by Barbara Ling, and Robert Richardson’s gorgeously textured camerawork (readers are encouraged to seek out one of the 35 mm screenings), nostalgia is sidestepped for something more inscrutable, though equally poignant (perhaps an anti-nostalgia?). It’s perfectly encapsulated in Tate watching The Wrecking Crew, laughing along with the audience, pantomiming her own onscreen kung-fu moves, which makes us not sad for the fact that she would be murdered, but for the fact that she wasn’t able to live anymore.

Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is showing in cinemas now.

Patrick Preziosi

By Patrick Preziosi

Patrick Preziosi is a freelance critic from Brooklyn, NY. He’s written about film, music and literature for photogénie, Ultra Dogme, Metrograph Edition, Little White Lies, America Magazine, and Screen Slate.