‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’: Tarantino Delivers a Cinematic Rush of Nostalgia Under the Shadow of Manson

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” recalls the Los Angeles of 1969 in waves of cinematic reverie. This passionate work by Quentin Tarantino is the influential director’s most personally intense. More than any of his other movies, what he seeks to do is evoke the very texture of his memories. Because it is Tarantino he does it with his trademark ear for zesty dialogue, gleams of satire, cultish adoration of pop culture and splashes of brutal violence. L.A. has always been the mecca of our cinematic fantasies, and that’s how Tarantino goes back in time. Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate speed down a road listening to Deep Purple, and the Manson Family hover like the dark side of flower power.

Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) made his name starring in TV westerns but feels he’s now a has-been. He drinks too much and has hired his former stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) as a semi-assistant, which actually means his driver and house sitter. Cliff is suspected of having killed his pestering wife, but who knows? Rick’s agent Marvin Schwarzs (Al Pacino) announces that he’s close to getting the actor work doing Italian spaghetti westerns, which simply sounds like a death knell. While sulking in his woes with Cliff, Rick discovers he has new neighbors on Cielo Drive. World famous director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) has moved in with wife and actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). Rick agrees to act in a new western next to James Stacy (Timothy Olyphant), which proves to be a real test on whether he still has what it takes. Meanwhile Tate spends her days wandering around the city as Polanski goes oversees to shoot a movie, watching her latest work at spots like the Bruin in Westwood. Cliff goes for drives during which he comes upon a strange group of young girls who live out in Spahn Ranch under the spell of a guy they call Charlie.

Tarantino, undoubtedly one of the most influential filmmakers of the last two decades, has made it a habit of claiming he is close to retirement. If such is the case then it helps explain why “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” has the feverish urgency of memories going at full speed. There is a cinematic rush to his approach in this film, beginning with its astounding texture. The best way to see this movie is in 35mm to appreciate the sensuous cinematography by longtime Tarantino collaborator Robert Richardson, which gives the uncanny feel of seeing a movie recovered from the 60s or 70s. A film geek could go mad trying to keep note of every frame that could be inspired by Robert Altman or Sam Peckinpah, Sidney Lumet or Polanski himself. Much of Tarantino’s previous work, from the culturally impactful “Pulp Fiction” to the revenge sagas “Kill Bill Vol. 1 and 2” and “Django Unchained,” burst with the joy of making a movie for its own sake. Intoxicated by cinema, Tarantino always felt like a filmmaker truly enjoying the very craft itself. Even the more self-indulgent “The Hateful Eight” feels like a director in awe with the process. 

Yet something changes in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” It’s almost fair to make a comparison with Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma,” which is a completely different film but is similar in the urgency to evoke the very feeling, and even sounds, of a particular time and place. Tarantino tones down the wild violence and long monologues which become stories onto themselves, preferring to follow Cliff as he drives through 1969 Los Angeles. We bask in the sights, advertisements, announcements on the radio or the hits of the time.  Cliff lives in a rundown trailer home near the Van Nuys Drive-In (captured with an exhilarating overhead pan), the kind of which is extinct nowadays. Other moments find us almost literally watching television with the characters, to know what it felt like in a pre-internet, pre-cell phone era to be entertained by a show like “The F.B.I.” 

Much of the film is a valentine to the film industry of that moment. An energetic scene where Polanski and Tate drive out to the sounds of “Hush” for a Playboy Mansion party is more about rendering tribute to the culture of 60s Hollywood than advancing the plot. Tate parties while a slick Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis as a near carbon copy) gossips about her dumping hair stylist Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch) for the more respected director Polanski. Gossipy and dark, it’s the L.A. Joan Didion wrote about in “The White Album,” or Eve Babitz in her own sultry dispatches. Tarantino also loves to meander in scenes where Rick shoots his new western, trying to learn his lines, not drink and prove himself even to his eight-year-old co-star, wonderfully played by Julia Butters. Cliff himself even gets to brawl a little with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) on the set of “The Green Hornet,” it’s a hilarious scene verging on wicked satire. But the most loving tribute to cinema itself may be a moment where Tate walks into the still standing Bruin theater in the Westwood Village (after picking up a particular novel for Polanski cinephiles will appreciate) to watch herself in “The Wrecking Crew,” waiting for audience reactions. Tate rarely speaks, which is one of the script’s minor flaws, and is more of a wistful presence. 

But memories, like history itself, have their darker shades. Tarantino’s nostalgia includes as its villains the Manson Family. The girls who followed Charles Manson (briefly played by Damon Herriman) linger throughout the narrative like a slowly creeping specter. They eat out of trash dumpsters, thumb for rides, and eventually one of them, Pussycat (Margaret Qualley) gets into Cliff’s car and takes him to Spahn Ranch. His encounter with the Manson clan has an eeriness worthy of early Wes Craven. The night of the Manson murders, August 9, 1969, is considered by some the death of the 60s, as Manson embodied the killer hippie conservatives always feared. Tarantino however, pulls a fast one not worth spoiling. This is a man who rewrote World War II in “Inglorious Basterds” with Nazi-killing partisans, and thus he also has fun messing with history here in various ways. DiCaprio even gets inserted at one point into a “what if” scenario involving the McQueen classic “The Great Escape.” But fear not if you are a fan of QT’s bloodletting, because the last few minutes of this epic get bloodied and charred, with crushed bones included.

At 2 hours and 41 minutes “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” never drags, even when it goes for immersion over suspense. Tarantino has written great scripts before, but this is the one that feels like a labor of love, culled from a desire to share what he carries inside from growing up in an L.A. now gone in the winds of pop history. The cast is itself a gallery of legends, from Kurt Russell as a producer on set who has to kick Cliff out to Bruce Dern, in a poignant role, as the blind old landowner manipulated by Manson’s acolytes to use his property. There is of course the pair of DiCaprio and Pitt, who are aging impressively well and still bring the weight and grit of experience to their roles. DiCpario goes from despair to high octane, while Pitt breezes through L.A. like a quietly ticking bomb. Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate evokes the very walking daydream of Hollywood. The daydream soon cracks in the night Manson’s followers march towards her place, knives in hand. 

The mark of many great filmmakers is growth and Tarantino shows it here, not repeating himself or recycling the formulas of his best-known films. His sense of humor is intact, as well as his eye for violence, but this is a film about more than surfaces, even with its lush style. Still playful, he directs like an artist lost in his recollections, crafting a bloody tribute out of nostalgia. It’s about once upon a time in another Los Angeles, wondering about what was and what could have been.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” opens July 26 in theaters nationwide.