Director: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Emile Hirsch, Margaret Qualley, Timothy Olyphant, Austin Butler, Dakota Fanning, Bruce Dern, Al Pacino, Kurt Russell, Julia Butters, Mike Moh, Damon Herriman
Running Time: 161 min.
★★★★ (out of ★★★★)
Very rarely has a single question swirled around a movie as prominently as the one hanging over Quentin Tarantino's ninth film, Once Upon a Time In Hollywood. Will he go through with it? The "it" is of course the August, 1969 Manson murders that the director has sworn his picture wouldn't be about. And he's right. It's not. And yet, while not being about that at all, it still simultaneously manages to be completely all about it in ways that are sad, funny and unpredictable. There was great interest in whether he'd take us to one of the last taboo places left in mainstream American movies, and with good reason. The logic is that if anyone would do it, it's Tarantino, who's made a career out of over-the-top revenge fantasies. If there was ever an event ripe for his button-pushing brand of cinematic controversy and primed to offend, it's this. But the reality is that the director has always been at his worst when trying to do that, or rather when he repeatedly continues to, more often than not encouraging inferior imitations from others lacking his vision.
Of all Tarantino's films, this seems like the biggest outlier, almost as if it was made by someone else (maybe older), while carrying enough recognizable trademarks to still unmistakably be his. Yes, there are long dialogue stretches, but this time the material relies much more heavily on mood, atmosphere and performances to tell its story than the writing, which kind of rides in the backseat for a change. Part fairy tale, part bromance, he transports us to this year through the music, production design, and the tiny details you suspect only he would care enough to get right. You know it's accurate simply because it "feels" like it, regardless of its historical truth.
We already know Tarantino's cares about facts only so far as it reflects the period's authenticity, and as far as eras or settings go, this one ranks pretty high on the list of the coolest to hang in for over two and a half hours.While it's one thing to drop fictional characters into actual events, it's another entirely to place them squarely in the center, the axis around which this pivotal year revolves. You leave considering that even their situations were only small part of a much larger picture, the scope and breadth of which Tarantino captures like no one else could have.
It's Los Angeles, 1969, and actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), former star of the 1950's TV series, Bounty Law, is complaining to his best friend and former stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), that he's now a washed-up has been relgated to guest starring villain roles. After an ugly personal incident left him blackballed from the industry, Booth spends his days working as Rick's driver and assistant, taking him to and from set while running any errands that need to be done. Having just landed another villainous role in the successful TV series, Lancer, Rick's may have to start seriously considering his agent Marvin Schwarz's (Al Pacino) advice to go make Spaghetti Westerns in Italy.
A glimmer of hope appears for Rick with the arrival of his new neighbor on Cielo Drive, acclaimed director Roman Polanski, and his new wife, actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), who's riding high on the postive notices she's receiving for her recent big screen comedic turn in The Wrecking Crew opposite Dean Martin. Meanwhile, an aspiring musician named Charles Manson (Damon Herriman) is making waves of his own, establishing a hippie commune of sorts at the now semi-deserted Spahn Ranch, where Rick used to shoot Bounty Law. But when some of his female followers start bleeding over into town, hitchhiking and roaming the L.A. streets, one of them, named Pussycat, (Margaret Qualley) attracts the attention of a curious Cliff. Soon, all of their lives will intersect in ways both surprising and tragic.
The film works as a series of character sketches, alternating between the stories of Rick and Cliff, the Manson girls and Sharon Tate. Sandwiched in between and embedded in those are smaller moments with a wide variety of recognizable celebrity faces of the era portrayed by a myriad of different actors, some more recognizable than others. Most of the fun comes from being a fly on the wall and trying to spot everything and everyone, a game sure to be more rewarding with each new viewing, but holding enough curiosity for the uninitiated wanting to learn more about the real context behind these people. Whether it's dropping in to a party at the Playboy Mansion with Steve McQueen (Damien Lewis), Michelle Phillips (Rebecca Rittenhouse) and Mama Cass (Rachel Redleaf), taking in Sunset Boulevard or getting a look inside the infamous El Coyote Mexican cafe where Tate, Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch), Abigail Folger (Samantha Robinson) and Wojciech Frykowski (Costa Ronin) dined the night of August 8th.
All of 60's L.A. is vividly and painstakingly recreated by Tarantino and cinematographer Robert Richardson and set to a seemingly non-stop soundtrack of deep, sometimes obscure or overlooked songs unearthed by the director. Music is such an important component in these characters' lives that there's rarely a minute where there isn't a song playing or the sounds of KHJ radio ads blasting in one of the many driving scenes that further establish the characters in moments with minimal to no dialogue. It also marks a period in our culture where everyone was consuming the same output of music and movies simultaneously, lulling the public into a communal sense of security, however true or false that may have been. It's rare we're shown any part of the past in film we've never been fully exposed to before, and while all of those details would make a compelling enough picture on its own, it mostly serves as the compelling backdrop to Tarantino's actual entry point into the story: Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth.
With Dalton, we finally see what happens when Tarantino builds an entire character around one of those cult, veteran actors whose careers he's long specialized in resuscitating. But the catch is that this time in DiCaprio he's cast one of the world's biggest (and last?) contemporary movie stars as a performer whose big break already passed him by. Pigeonholed as a villainous heavy and still living off his one success eight years earlier, a creatively stifled and frustrated Dalton is afforded what could be his last chance at respectibility opposite a James Garner-like TV star in James Stacy (Timothy Olyphant). Of course, Rick doesn't see the potential in this, or really anything else in his life and career. By now, his life is his career and this has become just another job.
The irony is that by any standard other than a notoriously fickle industry, Dalton would be considered a giant success for his run on Bounty Law, and we're frequently told of its devoted following. But the fact he doesn't even feel comfortable talking to his new, substantially more famous neighbors isn't just a reflection of Hollywood's unspoken pecking order, but a testament to his deepening insecurity. The gate in front of the Polanski residence may as well be metaphorical for Rick, who deep down believes he should be the one behind it.
Rick's emotional and physical collapse on the set of Lancer comprises maybe the largest of the two or three extended chapters that comprise the story. Here, Tarantino stops just short of recreating an entire episode of the TV Western, with Rick struggling to keep himself together, forgetting his lines, drinking and basically self-sabatoging every scene in which he appears. But it's Rick's encounter with precocious child actor Trudi Fraser (Julia Butters) that snaps him into a different reality, forcing him to come face-to-face with his own faults as he's inspired by a new generation of actor. At first, we're not sure what to make of this wise beyond her years 8-year-old, until the cameras start to roll and we realize their long off screen conversation has carried on screen, where they've both made the other substantially better.
While Trudi and the pilot's director, Sam Wanamaker (Nicholas Hammond) gush over Rick's breakthrough, it's actually DiCaprio who gives one of his most movingly authentic performances as this semi-forgotten TV actor discovering he still has more in the tank. In Tarantino's world, no one's "washed up" and great work can pop up anywhere, even in a guest spot on a seemingly cheesy, forgotten 60's Western series. DiCaprio does so many little, nearly invisible things with the role and his role within the role that it's easy to overlook just how difficult it is. Take the stuttering. He slides this stuttering impediment into Rick's speech whenever he's worked up over something, subtly clueing us in that it's something he's needed to overcome to get to where he is. And it not only shows how much harder he's had to work, but the sacrifices we can envision he made to get there. And it's in Rick's tearful description to Trudi about that book he's reading about a brokedown broncobuster, that the emotional enormity of all those sacrifices and failures finally catch up to him.
If Rick biggest fear is becoming a "has been," then his stunt double and best friend Cliff has always operated on the fringes, partially due to his own sordid history involving an alleged murder and the fact he can't help but run his mouth off at the worst possible times. Relegated to driving Rick to and from sets, he looking for a way back in and one of the best things about Pitt's cooler than cool depiction of Cliff is that he isn't afraid to show just how badly he's screwed things up for himself, or how little he seems to care. Cliff is who he is. So it's somewhat jarring to see him return home to a run down trailer on the outskirts of Hollywood and spend the night watching TV on the couch and preparing a meal for his beloved pit bull, Brandy. Tarantino spends a lot of time on this, as transfixed by this daily ritual as we are. It may be where Cliff's most comfortable, and watching him alone gives us what might be the largest possible window into his personality.
This guy shouldn't be likable with all the baggage he brings, but with Brad Pitt playing him, Cliff can't help but come off as the coolest guy in the room, no matter what he's doing. And a few sequences really push the boundaries on this, providing laughs while also hinting at the World War II vet's capacity for violence simmering just below the surface, ready to emerge when necessary. The most tension-filled comes when he drops hitchhiker Pussycat back home at the Spahn Ranch movie set, where he's primed for a confrontation with the Manson Family. And that doesn't seem to bother him one bit. He's there to see George Spahn (Bruce Dern, taking over for the late Burt Reynolds), the ranch's owner and former Bounty Law co-worker, whom he suspects the brainwashed hippies are taking advantage of. We're not sure what will happen, and the moments leading up to, in front of, and inside the old man's shack are excrutiatingly suspenseful as he comes face-to-face with a scary "Squeaky" Fromme (an unrecognizable Dakota Fanning) and the rest of the infamous Mansonites. Forget about our uncertainty of whether he'll make it out alive, we're not entirely sure they will.
Conspicuous by his absence is Manson himself, who other than a brief, fleeting appearance in the film reeanacting a moment often referenced but rarely seen, hovers around the periphery like a spectre. He's played by Damon Herriman, who pulled double duty as Manson on Netflix's Mindhunter, where he was brilliant. But that was actually about him. This isn't, and if that character showed up here he would take over the proceedings, and the film would be all about Charlie Manson and nothing else. And trading everything else we do get to again put the power back in his hands would only further encourage his celebrity idolization, even in death. It's odd that for all the restraint we've seen in film and TV in terms of showing the actual killings, the myth of Manson (as well as the pull he had over his followers) still seems strangely overexposed and disgustingly glorified. Tarantino shows great instincts in attempting to correct that here, hardly giving him the time of day. And in this particular instance, it's completely called for, as he tightly clings to his vision of the story.
Bruce Lee's inclusion in this said "vision" has drawn controversy, as he's shown in a capacity that's very far removed from the reverential treatment everyone expected. If ever there seemed to be a safe bet for a heroic portrayal, it was him, as Tarantino's worship of the legendary martial artist and Green Hornet star is widely known. While expertly played by Mike Moh in capturing the late actors voice, body language and mannerisms, Tarantino turns his attitude up to eleven, offering an unflattering depiction that would sooner compete with Mohammad Ali in terms of arrogance and bravado than in an actual fight. Yes, it's bad, but the point most seem to be missing is that it's heavily implied to have only happened in Cliff's mind. And as much as we like the guy, he's a blowhard, and the very definition of an unreliable narrator, especially when it comes to details of his own life, which he isn't quick to dwell on. Why Tarantino chose to commit this image of Lee to film, even within a glorified fantasy sequence, we may never know, but the end result says more about the character of Cliff and his troubles than the already secured legacy of a pop culture hero.
For a truly bad cameo, witness Damien Lewis' brief, altogether pointless appearance as Steve McQueen, exposition machine, as "The King of Cool" gets reimagined as the tinsletown gossip, relaying the sordid details of the Polanski-Tate-Sebring triangle at the Playboy Mansion. Poorly conceived as the scene is, it's also a rough few minutes for Lewis, who seems all wrong for the role in every possible way. It's kind of shocking that Tarantino didn't cast Andre Brooks, who inhabited the icon inside and out in last year's underrated indie, Chasing Bullitt. Of all the things we thought we'd witness in this film, among the last had to be McQueen sulking about striking out with women.
Sharon Tate's legacy has been as a murder victim, her name synonamous with Manson's and the horror that unfolded on Cielo Drive. If we got even the tiniest glimpse of who she was as a person outside of that, it would more than what's been forced on us for the past fifty years. Despite somewhat ridiculous complaints that she isn't given enough dialogue, Margot Robbie and Tarantino's script spend the running length chipping away at the victim narrative that at this point has already been ingrained into our culture. That they succeed in getting us to think about her existing in any other way before that night in August is an accomplishment in itself, but that she provides such a stark contrast to the Old Hollywood of Rick and Cliff is what makes the character so intriguing. If there's a true hippie in the movie, it's her. Unlike them, she hasn't been around long enough to become jaded or cynical but, like Trudi on Lancer, she represents a changing of the guard, with a new kind of star is coming in to shake things up and eventually push the older generation aside.
Tate doesn't have much dialogue mainly because it just isn't necessary. Tarantino opts instead to show us who she is through her actions, whether she's befriending a hitchhiker while driving to Westwood Village as Buffy Sainte-Marie's "The Circle Game" plays over the soundtrack, or kicking her feet up in a theater to watch herself in The Wrecking Crew after sheepishly explaining to the staff who she is. In less capable hands, that latter scene could have gone wrong in so many ways, making Tate look like a vain, self-absorbed airhead. But Robbie plays it with total sincerity and wide-eyed amazement, leaving little doubt she's appreciative of the good fortune that's come her way, and basking in a moment she respects as being larger than most could hope to earn or deserve.
We can read all of this on Robbie's face by just watching her watch herself on screen. Only it isn't Robbie on screen playing the actress but, in a touching moment, actual footage of the real Tate in the movie, where she's really quite good. Anyone going into this thinking the actress or person may be shortchanged are in for the exact opposite, as Tarantino wisely doesn't put words in her mouth to explain who she is, letting Robbie fill in all the blanks and breathe life into someone only ever known for being at the wrong place at the wrong time. So even as the murder still hover uncomfortably over all these scenes, Tarantino is careful enough to know it, and insure it doesn't define her.
Much has been made about the dream team of DiCaprio and Pitt, and while their first on screen pairing exceeds every possible expectation, the biggest surprise is in how. Most of their scenes together could easily double for the kind of great comic interplay Crowe and Gosling shared in The Nice Guys, but Tarantino goes even further, having them tap into their characters' insecurities as aging, not entirely likable movie stars that couldn't be further removed from the images of the two big name actors playing them. And even as good as they are together, moist of their best work comes separately in those two huge aforementioned set pieces where each is given the space to really display what makes their characters tick.
It's easy to forget there's voice-over narration in the film (provided by Kurt Russell, who also appears briefly as a stunt coordinator), mainly because it's barely present early before returning in the third act. When it returns and why is important, preparing us for what we fully expect will be the absolute worst. Reaching a title card that reads "SIX MONTHS LATER," induces the sinking feeling that, yes, Tarantino's really doing this, and all the fun and games people rightly or wrongly perceived the 60's were are coming to an end. We know Tex Watson (Austin Butler), Susan Atkins (Mikey Madison), Linda Kasabian (Maya Hawke) and Patricia Krenwinkel's (Madison Beaty) arrival on Cielo Drive will be brutal in some form or another, regardless of the outcome. This is Tarantino after all. And it's a good bet Dalton and Booth will somehow find themselves in the middle of it.
It's easy to start thinking that maybe this wasn't such a great idea after all. Manson's victims were murdered once the night of the crime, another when their personal lives were dragged through the media during the trial, and now a third time for a big screen dramatization? But we also realize the possibility that Tarantino could have something else up his sleeve, perhaps planning to play historical disturber and rewrite history as he did in the interchangeable Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Deciding on what happens couldn't have been an easy decision, but does he ever commit to it once it's made. And in doing so adjusts our perceptions of how this period and its coinciding events have framed in our culture, both for better and worse. But there's even more going on here than that, all of which becomes clear in a tremendous final scene that in hindsight seems completely right, landing us exactly where it feels like we've been heading all long. It's suprisingly perfect, as if the literal culmination of its fairy tale title, providing the lost chapter we didn't know we needed until now.