It has been 25 years to the day since Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, crystalizing a cinema revolution, and we have never looked back. Yet here’s one more QT anniversary, a bit less monumental but, in its way, as meaningful: It has been 10 years since the premiere of “Inglourious Basterds,” which also took place at Cannes — and for me, at least, that means it’s been a decade since Quentin Tarantino gave us an unambiguously great Quentin Tarantino movie.
You know the difference as well as I do, because it’s one that you can feel in your heart, gut, nerves, and soul. It’s the difference between a Quentin movie that’s got dazzle and brilliance and a number of hypnotic sequences, and is every inch the work of his fevered movie candy brain, and a Quentin film that enters your bloodstream like a drug and stays there, inviting (compelling!) you to watch it again and again, because it’s a virtuoso piece of the imagination from first shot to last — and every moment is marked by a certain ineffable something, the Tarantino X Factor that made “Pulp Fiction” the indie touchstone of its time.
“Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood,” which premiered today at Cannes, is not that X Factor movie — though for long stretches (a good more than half of it), it feels like it could be. It comes closer than “Django Unchained” or (God knows) “The Hateful Eight.” It’s a heady, engrossing, kaleidoscopic, spectacularly detailed nostalgic splatter collage of a film, an epic tale of backlot Hollywood in 1969, which allows Tarantino to pile on all his obsessions, from drive-ins to donuts, from girls with guns to men with muscle cars and vendettas, from spaghetti Westerns to foot fetishism. In this case, he doesn’t have to work too hard to find spaces for those fixations, since Tarantino, in this 2-hour-and-39-minute tale of a Hollywood caught between eras, is reaching back to the very source of his dreams.
In “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood,” Tarantino tells the dual story of Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), who starred in a black-and-white TV Western series called “Bounty Law” in the late ’50s and early ’60s, but whose career is now hitting the skids; and Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), Rick’s longtime stunt double and best pal, who has basically become his gofer and driver. Both are drawling, easy-going good ol’ boys who are functional drunks (Rick favors whiskey sours; Cliff likes his bloody Marys), and they’ve been kicked around Hollywood, but they’ve got a yin-and-yang thing going.
Rick, who appears to be based at least partly on Burt Reynolds, is an instinctive actor, a gentle charmer, and a secret softie in a brown-leather jacket — the first Tarantino hero to prove that real men do cry. (When the tears come, it’s for how badly Rick has let his career melt down.) Cliff, by contrast, is a war veteran and rough-and-tumble stud bruiser who lives in a cruddy trailer next to the Van Nuys Drive-In but seems happy and satisfied, like most Brad Pitt characters, with himself. When he’s crossed, he will kick the bejesus out of anyone, and he’s got a bad reputation. The rumor is that he killed his wife and got away with it. (A flashback to a scene on a boat with that very wife, who digs at him mercilessly, doesn’t spill the beans, but it’s not exactly evidence that the rumor is false.)
The first half of “Once Upon a Time…,” which is the superior half, is set in February ’69, and Tarantino views these two characters with a straight-up macho humanity that is gratifyingly unironic. DiCaprio and Pitt fill out their roles with such rawhide movie-star conviction that we’re happy to settle back and watch Tarantino unfurl this tale in any direction he wants. And he does digress, in that following-his-free-associational-bliss way. A car-denting, fists-meets-martial-arts duel on the set of “The Green Hornet” between Cliff and Bruce Lee (played to ferocious perfection by Mike Moh)? Why not! A scene with Rick, playing a black-hatted villain on the new series “Lancer,” getting into a philosophical chat about acting with his 8-year-old girl costar, who’s a budding feminist Method Actor? Bring it. And when Cliff, driving Rick’s cream-colored Coupe de Ville, keeps passing an outrageously flirtatious teenage hippie vamp in cut-offs and a halter top, who lives with a guy named Charlie at the Spahn Movie Ranch, the sense of worlds colliding, in ways as sinister as they are vibrant, feels right.
Many have turned the spectacle of Charles Manson and his girls into drama, but Tarantino is onto something by viewing Manson’s followers as ominous harpies who also incarnated a new kind of sexualized feminine consciousness. And Tarantino takes us deeper than we’ve been into the life of Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), who along with her husband, Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), has rented the house next to Rick’s on Cielo Drive. Robbie nails Tate’s wide-eyed slightly aristocratic sensual daze, and has a lot of fun in a scene where Sharon goes to a movie matinee to watch herself in the Matt Helm caper “The Wrecking Crew,” exulting in her performance as she props her dirty bare feet up on the seats, so that Quentin — in an image he uses as a motif more than ever before — can park his camera in front of them, as he does a little later with the Manson girls.
In “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood,” Tarantino re-creates the Hollywood of 50 years ago with a fantastically detailed and almost swoony time-machine precision, and it’s not just about the marquees and the billboards featuring end-of-the-studio-system-era corn like “Three in an Attic,” or all the juicy Top 40 chestnuts on the soundtrack. The movie captures how Hollywood, by 1969, was a head-spinningly layered place.
Here’s the TV-cowboy mystique of the ’60s, which is really a degraded schlock echo of the movie-cowboy culture of the ’50s. Here’s the rock ‘n’ roll of the moment (Paul Revere and the Raiders, “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron”), which popped like crazy yet with a rambunctious easy-listening bounce. And here, beyond the music, is the new noisiness of America: the “hip” commercials blaring from transistor radios, the TV sets that never get turned off (even the Manson girls are TV zombies), the flamboyant hippie garb that’s starting to go mainstream, turning the counterculture into a living fashion boutique.
Here’s a Playboy Mansion party where Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis) is hanging out, as you might expect him to be, but then so is Mama Cass (Rachel Redleaf). McQueen, talking to Rick, fills in the back story of Sharon, Roman, and their friend Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch), the hairdresser who is still in love with Sharon — and, according to McQueen, is hanging around with them because he’s biding his time, waiting for Roman to screw up his marriage. At that point, we’re hooked enough on Tarantino’s heightened version of true-life Hollywood that this love triangle sounds like a little movie of its own.
Rick, on the set of “Lancer,” turns out to be a desperate but terrific actor. There’s a sensational extended sequence of him playing the villain, forgetting his lines, hating himself in the trailer, then revving himself to go back and give a hell of a performance, and it’s all a testament to what an extraordinary actor DiCaprio is. Pitt is just as inspired. The sequence in which that Manson girl, named Pussycat (Margaret Qualley), gets Cliff to drive her back to the Spahn Movie Ranch, where Cliff used to shoot Westerns, and where he meets the Family (though not Charlie, who is only in the film for about 30 stray seconds), is creepy, suspenseful, and vengefully gratifying. All Cliff wants to do is say hello to his old colleague George Spahn (Bruce Dern). But to do that he’s got to threaten his way past Squeaky Fromme (Dakota Fanning), who sleeps with George to secure the place for the Manson cult. In the late ’60s, a lot of people passed through Spahn Ranch, and this encounter — though, of course, pure fiction — plays with an eerie plausibility.
Rick has an offer on the table, from a shrewd if scuzzy agent (Al Pacino), to shoot a Western in Rome. The prospect fills him with despair; he thinks spaghetti Westerns are the bottom rung of the entertainment totem pole. In a sense, he’s right, but he goes and does it, taking Cliff with him, and he spends six months there, making a few more movies; he comes back with an Italian wife. And it’s just at around the point of his return that “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood” begins to move forward with less cocksure bravura, less virtuoso snap. In the movie, Tarantino has already introduced a narrator, who he uses sparingly, but then he starts to use the narrator more often, breaking the show-don’t-tell mystique, and we wonder why. Isn’t he the master of showing?
It’s now August 8, 1969, and the rest of the film is devoted to Quentin Tarantino’s version of how the Manson murders play out, which I will not reveal. I will say that what Tarantino does here rhymes, to a point, with the violent climax of “Inglourious Basterds.” Yet that movie, as much as it toyed with history (which was no more, really, than any of the late-studio-system World War II movies it drew from), was also, in the largest sense, true to history. Hitler got destroyed, and the Americans won. Which is, in fact, what happened. The way Tarantino plays with the Manson murders in “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood” is at once more extreme and more trivial. And frankly, for this Tarantino believer, that made it less satisfying.
You can say, as many will, that it’s only a movie. But for much of “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood,” Tarantino brilliantly uses the presence of the Manson girls to suggest something in the Hollywood cosmos that’s diabolical in its bad vibes. And the way the movie resolves all this feels, frankly, too easy. By the end, Tarantino has done something that’s quintessentially Tarantino, but that no longer feels even vaguely revolutionary. He has reduced the story he’s telling to pulp.