When news came out that Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood would feature Sharon Tate and the Manson family, the reactions ranged from mostly intrigue to some outrage, mostly from Sharon’s Tate’s family. Like Spike Lee’s anger over Tarantino’s use of slavery for his pulp film purposes in Django Unchained, the Tates decried their personal tragedy being used for the famously lurid auteur’s next film. I, myself, wondered at how this horrific event might be treated by the man whose characters slice off ears, shoot off dicks, and use the n-word liberally, a little worried that he might indeed sensationalize a very real and not-too-long-ago massacre for his own morbid delight. But at a certain point while watching the film, I also remembered that Tarantino is the guy that took down the Third Reich and shot Hitler’s face to bits in Inglorious Basterds. When it comes to history, Tarantino prefers his own version.
In this alternative timeline, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) are next door neighbors to Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a previously famous TV “Cowboy Man” for the NBC series Bounty Law (think Gunsmoke and The Rifleman, but self aware), whose break from TV to pursue film acting has failed and left him a washed-up alcoholic playing bit villain parts here and there on newer shows. Having lost his driver’s license, Dalton spends most of his days being chauffeured by his former stuntman and personal assistant Cliff Boothe (Brad Pitt), who lives in a trailer far from Rick’s stylish Hollywood ranch house.
A good 75% or so of the film deals mostly with their feeble attempts at catching fame again, with Dalton signing under boisterous and smooth-talking agent Marvin Schwarzs (Al Pacino) to consider a turn into Spaghetti Westerns and playing the bad-guy of the week alongside the stars of Lancer on CBS, James Stacy and Wayne Maunder (Timothy Olyphant and Luke Perry). Boothe, meanwhile, squanders his only break back into stunting when he bests Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) in a friendly competition and damages the car of his stunt producer’s wife (Kurt Russell and Zoë Bell). A stain on Boothe’s reputation, too, prevents him from working, which we only get a glimpse at; the digressive and unresolved nature of these backstories often contributes to the film’s unevenness.
Meanwhile, various women from the Manson Family make fleeting appearances on the streets of L.A., hitching rides or dumpster diving, moving in like an ominous storm cloud and eventually crossing paths with Boothe, who finds himself cast aside as Dalton’s roles require less action. A brief string of films in Italy revives their partnership, but only briefly. Cliff can only make himself useful by running errands across Tinseltown in Rick’s yellow Coupe de Ville, where he comes across the hippie Mansonite, “Pussy”, and pays a visit to his former boss George Spahn (Bruce Dern),who is renting out his former western backlot to the infamous commune, where cameos from Dakota Fanning and Lena Dunham spring up. This sequence, portraying the family as The Hills Have Eyes knockoffs living in filth and decrepitude, both solidly and admirably paints the Manson family in a wholly unsympathetic, unglamourous light, and also cements their association with Cliff and, later, Rick, who all but bites their heads off when he finds them prowling around the neighborhood. Although given an emphatic shot in the trailer, Charles Manson (Damon Herriman) makes only one, blink-if-you-miss-it appearance—a tasteful choice, as this film isn’t for or about the Manson cult or their crimes, which Tarantino refuses to dramatize.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a fantasy of justice and wish fulfillment preceded by two hours of a 60s Hollywood variety show. Too long, meandering, and lacking in the energy and conviction Tarantino normally has in spades, the film also contains some of his most moving sequences—scenes of Rick’s despair and existential crises (a scene where he trashes a trailer after flubbing some lines on set stands as an unforgettable performance by DiCaprio, who acts as the pulse of the film) and Sharon’s sweet and charming personality brought to life by Margot Robbie, which creates a final and lasting note of sadness.
Far from his best, Tarantino nevertheless accomplishes great world-building and affectionate attention to period detail in his rumored penultimate work. And of course, he does not hold back on the explosion of violence for his climax, which might make up for the sometimes tediously long lead-up if you found it uninteresting. Shocking, brutal, and irreverently funny Once Upon a Time in Hollywood both provokes and, without giving anything away, strikes me as heartachingly sweet. You might walk out thinking, “if only Rick and Cliff were real. Wouldn’t that be a miracle?”. But remember, this story begins with “Once upon a time”. For all its disenchantment, its rambling vision of the late 60s and of cinema as both vivid and tumultuous, and its speculative scenario, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is mainly a fairy tale. | Nic Champion