1. For all the criticism that Wes Anderson is a dollhouse filmmaker—an artist who creates special, delicate little worlds that exist solely for themselves to roam in—Quentin Tarantino has always struck me as the most self-contained American director. His movies are uniquely his in a way that sometimes does them a disservice. His indulgence, and our encouragement of that indulgence, can occasionally feel like we have given a child so many toys that he can not play with anyone but himself. The Tarantino of Jackie Brown, the one who could warmly merge someone else’s sensibility with his own, has been gone for more than a decade now; this playground is his and his only. This isn’t always a bad thing: Inglourious Basterds might be his masterpiece because Tarantino is allowed to be so gloriously unrestrained. But since that film, and since the tragic death of his editor Sally Menke, he has been spinning in circles, making movies to scratch only his own itches. We’ve been watching him making movies more than we’ve been, you know, watching movies.
2. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is as much a run through Tarantino’s obsessions as any of his other movies—Spaghetti Westerns, bad ’60s television, Los Angeles subculture, so, so many women’s feet—but there is an odd, almost casual generosity that I’d argue is entirely new to him. Is it possible Tarantino, at 56, has finally decided to share? This is a film that luxuriates in its indulgence, but it opens the door for us, at last lets us in. It’s an elegy for a long-dead Los Angeles that Tarantino both wants to sell us on and vigorously stir back to life, an era that, because it ended in violence, can only be resuscitated through that same violence. But more than anything, this is the most Hang Out Film of any of Tarantino’s films, a world that he wants to live in and roll around in and maybe just spend forever in. The difference is that this time he wants you to live there with him.
3. We follow three characters with three stories, though it takes a while for two of the stories to separate and they all end up in the same place. There’s Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), an old-time television star with talent but an alcohol problem whose time seems to be passing him by, symbolized by a series of villainous guest spots on TV shows with diminishing returns. There’s Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), Dalton’s old stunt man and full-time assistant/gofer, a man with a dark past but the sunny, sun-splashed disposition of a guy who’s always going to get away with it. And then there’s Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), the Sharon Tate, an up-and-coming movie star who lives just down the road from Dalton with her husband Roman Polanski, with the whole world ahead of her but with … occasional strange characters showing up outside her house. The movie leisurely weaves in their stories, sometimes down narrative cul-de-sacs, sometimes their goings-on simply an excuse to dance through Tarantino’s meticulous, almost sensuous recreation of 1969 Hollywood. But it’s all leading up to the moment when they all cross paths, and history both gets in the way and is shoved aside.
4. The greatest achievement Tarantino pulls off here is, by pure force, to yank this era back to life, to recreate it and revive it as if driven by some sort of religious mania. In a way that’s not dissimilar from Basterds, and similarly pleasant, Tarantino is attempting to correct the historical record, to recreate history the way it should have been rather than the way it was. It doesn’t have quite the cathartic kick that Basterds did—the stakes were higher in that film, which made the fantastical historical reboot all the more satisfying—but it fits these shifting, compelling characters who find themselves passing each other in the Hollywood food chain. Dalton might be on his way down and Tate on her way up, but they’re a part of the same world nonetheless, and when their paths cross, it feels like divine justice: It feels like Tarantino at last making history lock up the way it was supposed to. It elevates the material while consciously never wanting to rise up from the muck. This is as close as Tarantino will ever come to showing his full heart, what there is of it.
5. As always, the cast goes a long way. Tarantino has been accused of not giving Robbie much to say, but that has it all wrong: In the film’s best scene, she tells the story of Tate and thousands of other California dreamers without needing to say a word. Pitt has the lived-in self-regard of every LA old-timer, but, honestly, the movie belongs to DiCaprio. I’m not sure I’ve ever found him so charmingly vulnerable and affably pathetic in a movie before? His Dalton is vain and deluded and a boor, but it’s obvious Tarantino and DiCaprio absolutely love him, and that love is infectious. He’s what the movie is really about, the connection between the past and the present, the guy who is watching helplessly as the world passes him by and has no idea how it’s happening, or why. But goddammit if he doesn’t still keep trying. He may be the creation closest to Tarantino himself, a relic who sees himself as timeless, a guy who screws up but still has something to offer this place. There’s nothing heroic about him. But for the first time in a long time in a Tarantino movie, in spite of himself, he’s someone truly worth cheering for. The movie has every Tarantino problem and blind spot associated with the director. But this time he’s wearing them for us all to see, and asking us to come with him anyway. This is a movie I suspect you’ll someday want to put on like an old pair of slippers. It’s his warmest movie since Jackie Brown. It is imperfect and erratic and sometimes infuriating. But it is nearly impossible not to love.
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Writer: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Dakota Fanning, Al Pacino, Kurt Russell, Emile Hirsch, Timothy Olyphant, Lena Dunham, Bruce Dern
Release Date: July 26, 2019
Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.