‘Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood’ is a desperate bid for transcendence from a filmmaker on his way out

August 23, 2019

Is there any American director with a brand-name that can rival Quentin Tarantino? For the last 25 years, this uncompromising auteur (or: stubborn misogynist) has been the loudest voice in violent, independent cinema. But not for much longer. “I think when it comes to theatrical movies, I’ve come to the end of the road,” he told GQ Australia in July, reiterating plans to retire from filmmaking after completing his next feature. But why? Why would such a successful storyteller walk away from his oh-so beloved medium?

The answers lie in his most recent motion picture, the chunkily-titled “Once Upon a Time … In Hollywood.” We follow Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), an aging actor. Dalton’s had an all right career playing TV cowboys, carving out a mid-level celebrity status to finance his nasty drinking problem. Still, things aren’t all bad, as Dalton cruises around Tinsel-Town with his sometimes stunt man and constant best bud, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt).

It’s a life Dalton would be happy to keep on living, but change is on the horizon—or perhaps it’s already here. The year is 1969, and American culture is in the midst of a major seismic shift. The young people have arrived, be they Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), or Charles Manson (Damon Herriman) and his gaggle of zoned-out “hippies.”

But early reports that the movie would center around the tragic Manson Murders were thoroughly misinformed. Instead, Tarantino has used the period to put his anxieties on screen, painting a picture of a world in-flux not so different from our own. It is, in effect, his most mature movie since “Jackie Brown,” an examination of what happens when we get too old even to make silly art.

After all, Hollywood was not immune to the massive changes of the late 60s, with cardboard, old-school actors being pushed aside for the method “serious” screen presences that would dominate 70s cinema (think Dustin Hoffman, Marlon Brando, etc). Where does a guy like Rick Dalton fit into this brave new world?

It’s a question Tarantino is really asking about himself: “Rick Dalton” is nothing more and nothing less than an obvious representation of the director. For change has come again, with our modern Hollywood presently in-flux as well. Whether you believe apocalyptic New York Times articles proclaiming the imminent death of the theatrical viewing experience, with streaming services on the rise and fewer “original” movies releasing every year, the industry is definitely changing.

It’s already changed for Tarantino, a man who spent more than two decades working closely with a sexual predator and a monster (his name is Harvey Weinstein, maybe you’ve heard of him). Tarantino himself is no longer the biggest name in cinematic cool the way he was in 1992, and his last movie, “The Hateful 8” released to a particularly tepid response from audiences. Pointless conversations about whether or not Tarantino should be “canceled” will continue ad nauseam. Regardless, the man knows he is not the filmmaker he was 20 years ago, just as Rick Dalton knows his days as a leading man are dead and gone.

But Tarantino’s view of that which will replace him is surprisingly well-balanced. On the one hand, there’s the evil Mansons, and the chaotic meaninglessness they generate. Then there’s Sharon Tate, here framed as a beautiful, vibrant burst of youthful energy. She’s just happy to be here, and Robbie simply shines in the role, making a strong impression, as we watch her go about her life. Criticism that Tarantino has sidelined the character and the actress is entirely misguided: this is a thoughtful and optimistic look at a person who should have her whole life ahead of her.

In fact, the whole cast turns in quality work. DiCaprio proves he’s got some real comedic chops and successfully channels Dalton—and Tarantino’s—insecurity, in a performance far better than his work on “The Revenant.” Brad Pitt dissolves into the contented Booth, although there’s a detail regarding the character’s past that really tripped me up on first watch. It’s also weird when Tarantino depicts Bruce Lee as a punchline and wholly indulges his … interest in filming bare feet.

But on re-watch, I found myself really enamored with “Once Upon a Time.” With a runtime of over two-and-a-half hours, this is an uncompromising and generally quiet, if consistently entertaining, exploration of the era. Tarantino’s trademark ultra-violence doesn’t burst onto the frame until the last half-hour. But if you have any interest in this filmmaker—and whether or not he can still make something that lives up to “Pulp Fiction” or “Inglourious Basterds”—I can’t recommend this movie enough. Tarantino won’t be making movies for much longer, and he just wants us young people let him stick around for a few more years. Looking at “Once Upon a Time,” I’m inclined to let him.

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