For someone who’s generally considered an “auteur,” it’s rare to leave a Quentin Tarantino movie wondering whether you “got” it. His detractors tend to imply that he’s juvenile, derivative, a hack, even an idiot. To me, he seems more like an idiot savant, and that’s part of the appeal. I love that he’s so transparent, that he’s so patently shooting the movie that he wants to see, that he seems to know exactly what he wants — to see Nazis getting scalped, to hear hitmen argue about Madonna, to shoot a female-led martial arts epic (and yes, perhaps to hear people overuse the N-word like a child who’s just learned a naughty word).
With other filmmakers I love — your Paul Thomas Andersons, your Barry Jenkinses, your Charlie Kaufmans — there’s a sense of exploration, where they have some ideas but aren’t sure where those ideas will take them. Tarantino, almost in an uncanny X-Men kind of way, always seemed to know exactly what he wanted to see. Look at his leaked script for Inglourious Basterds. It’s almost unbelievable that someone who spells so badly could write such a brilliant movie. You get the sense that not only does Quentin Tarantino “speak movie,” he may only speak movie. His blind spots are part of the mystique.
Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood is the first time I’ve left a Tarantino movie wondering if I “got” it. I certainly enjoyed it, but for a director whose interests I once thought I knew by heart — Sonny Chiba, Elvis, Madonna, characters named “Toothpick Vic” — Once Upon A Time left me groping for meaning. I’ve never felt like I needed a theory to explain a Tarantino movie before. Maybe that’s the point?
Leonardo DiCaprio plays Rick Dalton, a temperamental actor who cut his teeth playing cowboys in Westerns and starring as a bounty hunter in an NBC show. Rick drinks too much, and beats himself up for drinking too much, especially now that he seems to be on the downside of his career. Brad Pitt plays Cliff Booth, once Dalton’s stunt double but now mostly his assistant — his driver, gopher, handyman, house sitter, drinking buddy, and shrink. Pitt’s Booth, his still obnoxiously lean body crisscrossed with stunt scars (I actually got angry during a scene in which Pitt whipped his shirt off to reveal his perfectly flat, allegedly 55-year-old washboard stomach) is the perfect complement to a head case like Rick Dalton. Unlike Dalton, Booth is almost pathologically free of introspection. While Dalton frets about his career from his mansion, Booth is like a pig in slop doing odd jobs, eating mac and cheese, and living in a trailer with his pitbull, Brandy (you can see “her” penis in one scene, so maybe Brandy has her own stunt double).
Cliff and Rick live on Cielo Drive next to Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate. We do check in with Tate every so often, but mostly the movie simply consists of Rick and Cliff navigating 1969 Hollywood. There are a lot of movies where I’m just content to be immersed in the time and the place, but I don’t know that there’s ever been another Tarantino movie where I’m mostly just content to be immersed in the time and the place. In fact, save for the occasional flashbacks (inexplicably narrated by Kurt Russell’s otherwise minor character) and clips from Rick Dalton’s shows, Once Upon A Time is even free of Tarantino’s usual fractured timeline tricks.
I didn’t miss them. The clothes, the shows, the films, the art — the free sex, the boozy lunches and constant smoking… I was happy just to live in the world of ’60s Hollywood for a while. Damian Lewis shows up in a brief, perfect cameo as Steve McQueen at the Playboy mansion, there solely to explain the oddly close relationship between Sharon Tate (a luminescent Margot Robbie), her husband Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), and Tate’s ex-boyfriend Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch). I could’ve watched an entire spinoff about just that party. There are a lot of scenes like that in Once Upon A Time, to the point that I almost wish it was an HBO series. People have questioned the absence of female nudity in Tarantino’s otherwise hard-R-rated movies in the past, but it’s more noticeable than ever in a film set in the swingin’ sixties with scenes at the Playboy mansion.
Once Upon A Time isn’t too plot-heavy (and with the inevitable Manson murders always lurking in the background it doesn’t especially need to be), but it’s hard not to read some grievance politics into its general arc. You get the sense that Tarantino loves the whole time period — Steve McQueen, the cowboy movies, the neon, the mid-century modern architecture — and hates hippies. Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth both hate hippies, certainly, and Tarantino’s passion for the time period suffuses every frame. The two worlds, of handsome, hyper-masculine cowboys and hippie drug freaks, collide in the film’s best sequence, a scene in which Booth drops off teenage hitchhiking Manson Family member “Pussycat” (Margaret Qualley) back at the Spahn Ranch where the Family lives.
Qualley is perfectly realized as a Family member, irresistible in a vaguely forbidden kind of way (even aside from her being overtly underage), scantily clad with bare, dirty feet and knees, looking slightly malnourished from living off dumpster food. She’s almost a human Eve’s apple. And yet, Booth can’t shake the feeling that something is not quite right here. The whole scene is so full of potential energy, saturated with sex yet with an ever-present undercurrent of unease, all set during a beautiful sunny day full of beatific flower children. I was reminded of Midsommar. It’s a perfect sequence, where everything is conveyed through visual language and subtle gestures.
Yet if this is Tarantino’s love letter to the sixties and hate screed against the hippies who ruined it, an origin story for the alternate universe he’s always dreamed of, his choice of protagonist is still… odd. Cliff Booth has … let’s just say … dark past. Or may have (sorry to be vague here, but it’s to prevent spoilers). This use of a possibly monstrous hero is theoretically justified by the subplot about Spaghetti Westerns, which introduced the world to the anti-hero — of which you could argue Booth would be of a piece.
But Booth’s flaws are especially thin, to the point that they’re revealed almost solely in flashback, as in a scene opposite Bruce Lee. The “anti” here feels like a veneer, for a character who is otherwise Tarantino’s idea of superman, someone he clearly thinks is just so fucking cool (to paraphrase Alabama Worley in True Romance). Tarantino’s apparent yearning for this hyper-masculine, brutally violent, cool-guy daddy figure, coupled with his seeming inability to shoot female nudity… well, it’s all a bit Freudian, looked at a certin way. You wonder whether he secretly pines for some bow-legged John Wayne reactionary to come to punch out these sissies and make the world right again.
Maybe it’s not that complicated a vision after all. Tarantino’s genius has always been his unguardedness, his willingness to wear his every bias on his sleeve (or inability not to). Once Upon A Time may be a more languid journey than usual, but it gets to a familiar place eventually. In a way Tarantino has turned himself into the kind of Spaghetti Western anti-hero that’s always obsessed him — flawed but ultimately triumphant. I’m still happy to be along for the ride.