For the first time in his career, Quentin Tarantino feels old.
The beloved and controversial auteur became a living legend as Hollywood’s resident problem child, a no holds barred visionary whose persona as a prickly nerd is often accepted as part of the Tarantino package. Whether it’s over his fondness for cultural grab-bagging or his gleeful depictions of violence, all the heated debate his work evokes is a symptom of his undeniable obsession with film history. Tarantino is almost more of a radical historian than a filmmaker; his films are so rooted in decades of cinematic history that he deeply believes his work is near impervious to criticism. For every jab you throw at him, he can counter-punch with a cinematic citation that he believes rejects your hypothesis.
His latest film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, is perhaps a sign that he’s growing tired of the back-and-forth discourse that once fueled his directorial fire. It’s a languidly paced, wistful nostalgia trip through 1969 Los Angeles that plays like a plea to recognize his love for movies, desperate to prove that his career is as authentic as the innumerable artists he cribs from. This is a movie dripping with a yearning for the so-called good ole days of cinema, embarking you on a journey through the year that Tarantino clearly believes changed culture forever. It seems that he hopes the ride will finally convince you he’s not a thieving provocateur but a starry-eyed, well-meaning fanatic.
Tarantino employs two washed-up men as his tour guides, one a former TV star in the throes of a quickly fading career and the other his loyal but aimless driver and stunt double. The actor, Rick Dalton (Leonardo Dicaprio), is a bitter, emotional alcoholic whose once-promising career as a cowboy leading man was sidelined by his failed attempts to break into movies. The stunt man, Cliff (Brad Pitt), is a charming and handsome drifter who seemingly forgot how to drift, his cool guy demeanor undercut by a blind dedication to Dalton and his problematic history of aggressive behavior. Unlike most Tarantino movies, Rick and Cliff don’t have a mystery to solve or bad guys to throttle. They simply float through the seemingly insignificant motions of their day-to-day lives before their creator pulls the rug out from underneath them.
The twist is that Rick just so happens to live on Cielo Drive, next door to doomed actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and her controversial husband Roman Polanski (Rafał Zawierucha). Thus, the shroud of the Manson family hangs over Rick and Cliff’s hangout buddy antics like a dark cloud, waiting to plunge their California dreaming into a tsunami of violence. This premise more or less amounts to Tarantino’s twisted version of Forrest Gump, where his largely oblivious and insignificant protagonists bump into a wide variety of 60s icons before bumbling into playing a role in one of the most infamous events in Hollywood history. The result is an ambitious, melancholy mess that pushes every single one of the storied director’s strengths and weaknesses into the limelight.
The one talent of Tarantino’s that is near impossible to refute is his ability to wring incredible performances out of A-list actors and DiCaprio and Pitt’s are no exception. DiCaprio, in his first role since his Oscar-winning performance in 2015’s The Revenant, is utterly transcendent as Dalton, delivering a career-best performance that serves as an achingly sad ode to the limited shelf life of Hollywood artistry. It’s clear Tarantino sees a little bit of himself in the world-weary anxiety of Dalton, using the character as a mirror for his own worries of being labeled a “has-been”. DiCaprio plays the fragility beautifully, showing Rick to be a talented but tortured artist whose bitterness towards a changing industry is rooted in genuinely hopeless frustration. A sequence where Dalton’s dwindling confidence is boosted by praise from a beyond-her-years child actor is simultaneously one of the funniest and most heartfelt scenes of the year, showing off DiCaprio’s multitudes as an actor and Tarantino’s unparalleled ability to speak his truth through his characters. Less layered but every bit as enjoyable is Pitt’s portrayal of Cliff, who gives the endlessly watchable actor a chance to show off his goofy charm once again. It’s Pitt’s most playful, breezy performance in years, once that exudes the classic movie star energy that propelled him into stardom. Cliff is a tricky, unknowable character that Pitt manages to make deeply likable, which makes his often surprising twists surrounding his backstory and true self all the more impactful.
Behind the camera, Tarantino pulls off some of the most interesting work of his career by trying his best to finally grow out of his bad-boy gimmick. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood represents the director uneasily holding back his impulses, and the film is less accessible but more intelligent as a result. The decidedly lower energy gives a chance for the film’s biggest strengths to shine, with its impeccably realistic production design sitting at the forefront of those successes. Tarantino makes his cinematic take on Los Angeles feel like a living, breathing behemoth, with immaculate attention to detail aiding in making the film truly feel like the 60s Americana he so desperately wants to emulate. As Cliff cruises through Burbank and Dalton walks the sets of forgotten Western TV pilots, the movie transcends nostalgia and turns into a breathtaking slice of history come to life. When the sun sets and L.A.’s sea of neon lights start to hum, Tarantino proves he truly is a historian like no other. If you can push yourself past the film’s perhaps overly deliberate pacing (one nearly five-minute scene depicts Tate walking up the street to buy a book with almost no dialogue), you’re gifted with the experience of steeping yourself in a truly gripping testament to the power of set design.
For all his maturation, however, there’s little chance this film is going to sway Tarantino’s detractors away from pointing out his more troublesome tendencies as a director. What many consider to be his deepest flaws are still on full display, from his tricky relationship with race to his sometimes unbearable fetishization of women. There’s refreshingly nary an n-word to be found here, but a tricky Bruce Lee appearance wanders dangerously close to offensive territory. His treatment of women in the film is likely to garner the heaviest criticisms of his career, as Once Upon a Time in Hollywood contains more shots of feet than actual lines spoken by female actors. Besides one admittedly transcendent scene, Robbie’s Tate feels barely present, treated as more of an idealistic object than a fully-fledged human being. Robbie is marvelous in the role, bringing a wide-eyed joy and sensitivity to a woman usually treated only as a victim, but even her few good scenes feel swept by the film’s long run-time. While it’s clear Tate’s presence is less of a focus than a side effect, it wouldn’t hurt for Tarantino to dig deeper into the actress’s inner self. This is without mentioning that when the blood starts flowing, even the staunchest of Tarantino defenders might have trouble using their “but he writes strong women!” defense as women are literally and metaphorically brutalized in this movie with little chance to defend themselves. The mileage is going to vary on whether or not you feel any of this is justified.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is ultimately Tarantino’s most difficult, inscrutable movie. It’s the result of a usually airtight director throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks, producing a film that seems almost experimental in the wider context of his career. If Tarantino wasn’t threatening retirement after his next film, you’d think this was the beginning of a new era for one of Hollywood’s most prolific directors. But when you’re as difficult a man as Tarantino, it’s easier to turn in your badge than change with the wind.