Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, arrives in the middle of the summer blockbuster season with a snarl. A love letter to 1960s cinema and TV, brilliantly evoking the era of hippie idealism and the murderous spirit that killed it, it’s a Hollywood fairytale replete with the director’s trademark pop culture references and violent outbursts. So far, so QT. But what you might not expect is the fact that this is also one of his more emotional films.
On the one side, it’s a sincere bromance about male friendship between fictional actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stuntman and gofer Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). And on the other? A wistful nod to Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), the real-life actress and late wife to director Roman Polanski, who was, in August 1969, brutally murdered along with several others by acolytes of cult leader Charles Manson.
What emerges is a compelling portrait of the Dream Factory, what it’s like to be in the centre and on the fringes. Dalton, a TV performer known for western show Bounty Law, is on the slide, according to Al Pacino’s showbiz manager. Booth is similarly a has-been, despite still being adept in a fist-fight (the scene where he meets Bruce Lee, on set, and ends up in a scrap is arguably one of the best moments in any Tarantino movie).
Tate, Rick’s immediate neighbour, is blossoming as an actress. In one charming scene, we see her visit a cinema and watch her own performance alongside Dean Martin in The Wrecking Crew. She dances joyfully at a Playboy Mansion party, also attended by Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis), and celebrity hairstylist Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch). Like Robbie, the Oscar-nominated star of I, Tonya, she is a picture of innocence. In the hands of a director who frequently casts his women as killers or drug-taking molls, it’s a refreshing change.
There can be no doubt that the middle section of the film, as Dalton undergoes multiple meltdowns and we see over-extended sequences of his latest western show, is in need of a trim. Numerous driving sequences across Los Angeles could particularly be pruned. But Tarantino has arguably earned the right for this leisurely hang-out with his characters, one that will take them into contact with actors ranging from Bruce Dern to Dakota Fanning.
Even with the film’s indulgent patches, the finale is unforgettable, a sequence that it’s worth seeing for a second time just to watch the shock on the faces of audience members fresh to the experience. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood may not boast the raw intensity of Reservoir Dogs or the ultra-cool of Pulp Fiction, but it’s arguably Tarantino’s best film in years, a sign of a maturing director who no longer just wants to shock.
Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood opens on August 14. For more details, visit Sony Pictures.
1. Stills from Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood.