It starts with the title — and let’s face it, Quentin Tarantino has always had a knack for great movie titles. How a joke about a Louis Malle movie gave birth to the cryptic phrase Reservoir Dogs is as much a part of his origin story as working at a video store. The man singlehandedly reintroduced the word pulp back into the pop vernacular. Inglourious Basterds wasn’t an original handle, but thematically, it was a beautifully borrowed, misspelled “bingo!” for his World War II story. You did not need to know who Bill was to understand he had to be killed. You did not need to know the long history of adding the name of the gunfighter character Django to sell random spaghetti Westerns to be assured that, in Tarantino’s melding of horse opera and slave parable, he had to be unchained.
His new film, however, comes blessed with a simple, mythic moniker. You slap this preamble in front of any location — the West, the U.K. midlands, Nazi-occupied France, Mexico, China, Anatolia, America — and boom, you get an instant sense of gravitas and grandeur. No in-jokes or mangled pronunciations here. It’s the way that epics and fairy tales begin. And for Tarantino, calling his ninth movie Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is a clear signal that you should settle in for something big, sprawling, majestic. For an artist whose work has been fueled by such an all-consuming obsession with movies, it’s surprising that it has taken him this long to write and direct something about the movies. You wouldn’t say this was the film he was born to make. But the alpha king of the cinenerds has been leading up to this sort of meta industry-town ballad for a while.
The Tinseltown Tarantino drops us into isn’t the bustling Dream Factory ’39 but Death Valley ’69, a moment when a social upheaval is already in progress. The youthquake is still producing aftershocks; Easy Rider will play Cannes in May that year, several months after the first two of Hollywood‘s three main sections take place, and pound one more countercultural nail into the studio-system coffin come July. Television has already hijacked a chunk out of the silver screen’s audience, even as the two mediums occasionally trade or upgrade players. (See: McQueen, Steve.) And Rick Dalton, star of the TV show Bounty Law, is one of those guys whose time may be passing. He has a handful of violent shoot-’em-ups to his name — who could forget The 14 Fists of McClusky? But he missed out on getting The Great Escape, his days of hit singles and Hullabaloo appearances are long gone, and he’s never really been able to transcend boob-tube big-shot status. The preference for a new breed of hippie-ish leading men has left him behind. The best Dalton can hope for are regular guest-spot roles as series heavies.
So this pompadoured dinosaur from another era takes a bad-guy gig while his best friend/former stunt double Cliff Booth hanging around for comfort and caretaking, a sort of buddy-comedy duo negotiating being strangers in a strange new peace-love-and-LSD land. Any resemblance to McQueen and James “Bud” Ekins, or Burt Reynolds and stuntman-turned-director Hal Needham, is not coincidental. The fact that Dalton and Booth are played Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, stars who successfully matured out of pretty-boy phases into “serious” actors without sacrificing their A-list status, adds one more layer. Both past Tarantino MVPs, they’ve proven that they know how to sell his signature patter and play into the filmmaker’s constant genre subversions. They are card-carrying members of the Tarantinoverse, a world of smooth criminals and smoother talkers, one-woman killing machines and hit-men double acts, post-Civil War avenging angels and WWII howling commandos. These two know how to inhabit a movie world that takes place within the orbits of other movie worlds, in which endless halls of mirrors reflect one man’s tastes, sensibilities, top 10 lists. They know how to harmonize with a distinct voice derived from countless hours spent in the dark.
Because that’s the rap on Tarantino, right? That he’s a master pastiche artist, the Grand Allusionist, the cinematic mixologist who knows why you have to borrow from this French gangster movie and that Hong Kong action flick and these Poverty Row gems and poliziotteschi in order to make something unique. Occasionally, the maximalist approach meant the ingredients are simply piled one on top of the other, but still, isn’t it all just one big tasty burger?
The way that he pulled that trick off with such panache — how he made the art of geeking out about movies cool — was what turned him from a struggling indie filmmaker to Sundance breakout to auteur superstar. Tarantino could write dialogue, frame a hell of a close-up, name-drop a forgotten director or disreputable genre, and suddenly people wanted to go dumpster-diving too. He had a backstory: raised by a single mother, left high school early, video-store clerk, voracious reader, fest-circuit acclaim, extended European stay and then zero-to-80 mph celebrity. He was the first-rate curator of “trash” cinema that transformed himself into a makeshift film historian. His ego was kaiju-size. But who was he?
“My movies are painfully personal,” he told critic Ella Taylor in 2009, “but I’m never trying to let you know how personal they are. Kill Bill is a very personal movie.” On the surface, a film in which Uma Thurman dresses like Bruce Lee and a fight scene replicates a Lady Snowblood showdown and Daryl Hannah channels a Seventies Swedish revengesploitation heroine and Bernard Hermann deep cuts snuggle up next to the Ironside theme doesn’t exactly scream roman à clef. It suggests someone went on a late-night Amazon buying binge. Then you look at the father issues being hashed out, and remember a few things Tarantino has said about his dad, and suddenly the movie feels like more than just a Dagwood-style homage sandwich. During that same press tour, a journalist friend expressed his love of Jackie Brown and, per the possibly apocryphal anecdote, Tarantino mentioned that it was too much of a 34-year-old man’s attempt to imagine the life of a fortysomething black woman. But there’s a quiet dignity and grace to how Brown carries herself, and it’s hard not to think that there’s a tribute to the resilience of the single mother who raised him embedded in the movie’s take-no-shit hero. Just because it’s not in plain sight does not mean it’s not there.
The writer-director has often rhapsodized about how much he genuinely loves his characters, and it’s Jackie Brown‘s chatathons between Pam Grier’s rock-and-a-hard-place stewardess and Robert Forster’s Delfonics-digging bail bondsman that act as an Exhibit A for the defense. (The “best” Tarantino movie and/or scene is a subjective notion to be debated between every viewer and their respective deity, but I’d take Grier and Forster shooting the shit with each other over a million “Royale with Cheese”-style showstoppers.) There is something so remarkably human, and personal, and indelibly intimate that Tarantino is drawing out of this Elmore Leonard adaptation that proves he’s not just the quotation jukebox his detractors often say he is.
And it’s that same affection for his characters that makes Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood a close second in terms of showcasing his ability to let actors forge a connection onscreen. It’s a big canvas with a lot of moving parts, real-life figures hovering on the periphery — not just Sharon Tate and Bruce Lee, but also McQueen, Michelle Phillips, and the Manson Family, oh my! — a scrupulously re-created L.A. circa ’69 and more mondo grooviness then you can shake a rack of miniskirts at. Tarantino has, naturally, thrown a lot of specific references in here, from explicit shout-outs to the barely mentioned B-movie actors that served as Dalton’s inspiration. (For a mostly detailed account of the who, what, and why behind a lot of this, listen to this rollicking discussion on the New Beverly Cinema’s podcast.) You want a too-cool-for-film-school soundtrack and fake movie posters that look like the real thing and faux-filmographies with in-the-know titles like Kill Me Quick, Ringo, Said the Gringo? It’s only a ticket price away.
But the big sleight-of-hand trick at the heart of Hollywood is that, in so many ways, none of that matters. Or rather, it matters because all of it serves a larger point than hey-guys-check-me-out. It serves the simple pleasure of watching two actors invest everything in two meaty parts, with DiCaprio in prime strutting and fretting mode and Pitt sliding into Booth’s musky ruggedness like it was a snugly tailored denim jacket. It serves the way these guys need each other and how they both feel lost in an industry that’s making them anachronisms. It serves the act of reclamation Tarantino wants to perform for Sharon Tate, the Sixties It girl who’s now only remembered as a famous victim and who Margot Robbie turns into a walking, talking sunbeam here. More important, it serves a personal perspective that Tarantino himself has smuggled into the story.
You get this around the halfway point, when Dalton is on the set of a Western TV series and prepping for his Zapata mustache-twirling role. His co-star, an eight-year-old Method actor played by Julia Butters — where the hell did he find this pint-size dynamo? — is going off on professionalism and why you need to take the business of show seriously. It’s the closest thing to Tarantino-esque verbosity the movie has. The kid nails it wonderfully. Then she notices Dalton is reading a paperback oater. She asks him what it’s about. It’s about a cowboy, he tells her, who won’t be riding the range much longer. He is “coming to terms with what it’s like to be more useless every day.” Rick weeps. She comforts him. There will always be room for artists who do what they can, the girl tells him. They just have to do it in the time they have to do it.
There’s a lot of Tarantino’s love for the guys who didn’t get the careers they wanted or deserved in that scene, and in the movie at large — the almost-but-not-quite-Steve McQueens of Hollywoodland, the Edd Byrnes and Vince Edwards and Ty Hardins of the world. And in that exchange, there’s a sense that his own anxiety about where his place is in today’s world of intellectual property uber alles and digital streaming-a-go-go and an atrophying film culture. He could have just turned the subtext into text and named the girl “Netflix.” Tarantino is too famous not to get carte blanche for whatever project he wants; the question is whether he still wants to engage in the seventh art’s equivalent of the shaker-ritual dance. The age of movies Dalton and Booth made their bones in, along with the Hollywood-Hills-to-San-Fernando-Valley class system, have passed. Maybe his age has passed too. He keeps talking 10 movies and a retirement plan. We’re currently at Revolution No. 9.
But fuck it. For two and a quarter hours, he’s going to pay tribute to these guys and their vintage Musso & Frank chic, aided and abetted by two of the last standing movie stars who don’t need Marvel’s name to help sell their movies. (It should be noted that, while Pitt has the Ocean’s 11 series under his belt, DiCaprio has not done time in franchises. Neither have done superhero movies unless you count a certain cheeky Deadpool cameo, and we don’t.) And for two and a quarter hours, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is arguably the best thing Tarantino has ever done.
You might notice that the running time runs a little longer than that, clocking in around 2 hours and 41 minutes . . . which brings us to the ending. We’ve been watching the freaks and hairies edge into the picture at every opportunity. One of them keeps flirting with Pitt’s he-man until he gives her a ride to her communal pad. It’s the Spahn Ranch. Charlie Manson himself has stopped by Tate’s Cielo Drive mansion, coincidentally located next to Dalton’s house, looking for Terry Melcher. When the film’s last segment fast-forwards from early February to August 9th, we know what comes next. Fans of Inglourious Basterds’ climax probably won’t take issue with the resulting third act. Folks who felt a little uncomfortable with the ending of The Hateful Eight are going to want to crawl out of their skin. You are reminded what the definition of Tarantino-esque is, for better or worse. You may also want to scream at the screen, or feel that the swerve, while executed with the man’s signature verve, undermines a lot of what has come before it.
What you won’t do is accuse Tarantino of not knowing what he’s doing, because he accomplishes exactly what he sets out to accomplish. The question is whether you dig it, baby. It may be the most divisive move in a career full of them, but the movies allow those behind the camera to play God. Sometimes that means vengeance and furious anger, and sometimes that means a cinematic corrective. The world according to Tarantino can be harsh and unfair and homicidal. It can send you into downward spirals that no amount of hotshot actors giving you a late-career second or third chance can fix. But the world of Hollywood, according to Tarantino, can allow people to bestow benevolence when they want to. Once upon a time in Hollywood, a young man grew up in love with the movies. He got the chance to make them, and got the chance to do whatever he wanted with the worlds he created inside them. And then he, and some of his creations, lived happily ever after. The end.
A correction: The original article said that neither DiCaprio nor Pitt had acted in franchise movies. It’s been updated to note that Pitt did the Ocean’s 11 movies.