Everyone knows that on the night of August 8, 1969, three brainwashed hippies broke into the house of director Roman Polanski and his pregnant wife, actress Sharon Tate, massacred five people, and in the process drove one final knife through the heart of the Sixties and the utopian idealism it promised but never delivered.
What Quentin Tarantino's new movie presupposes is: What if something different happened?
Apologies if that constitutes a spoiler, but c'mon now. If you thought Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, grandiosely promoted as the director's ninth film, was going to stick to the facts of the most famous mass-murder of the 20th century, then you must've missed the fairy-tale allusions of the title—not to mention the last decade of the dude's career.
After all, this is the guy who "fixed" World War II by machine-gunning Adolf Hitler in the face, then went on to blow up a Confederate plantation owner's mansion while a vengeful slave's horse did the moonwalk. For cinema's truest believer, moviemaking has become, in this latter stage of his auteurship, a means of correcting the narrative of history. And now, taking on the era he draws from more than any other, and the event that in many ways ended it, did you really think he'd have it play out the same way?
So, no, it should not register as any sort of shock that Tarantino's "Manson Family movie" is more fantasia than biopic, nor should it surprise anyone to hear that the movie isn't really about the murders at all, but instead the same thing every Quentin Tarantino movie is ultimately about: the multitudinous fixations, fetishes and fantasies of Quentin Tarantino.
Oh, sure, there's a little more to it than that. The story on the surface is about a pair of show-biz veterans trying to navigate a changing industry that is rendering them "slightly more useless each day," as Leonardo DiCaprio puts it, playing a nearly-washed TV cowboy named Rick Dalton. A declining star of already moderate fame now forced to take bit parts in other people's shows, Rick's an emotional and physical wreck in the midst of a slow-motion breakdown over his impending irrelevance. His longtime stuntman, handyman and designated driver, Cliff, is also watching the world gradually turn away from him, but for his part, he's mostly cool with it. Played with rugged insouciance by Brad Pitt, he's the perpetually unbothered yin to DiCaprio's hacking, stammering, sobbing yang, and their interplay results in career-highlight performances from both.
But this is not their movie, really. More than just about anything else he's done, this is a film that exists to indulge Tarantino's deepest aesthetic obsessions. It's a movie where background radio announcers get more lines than some of the marquee stars, where the camera lingers over period details—vintage neon signs, old issues of TV Guide and Mad Magazine with DiCaprio's face Forrest Gumped onto them—as much as miniskirted starlets at a Playboy party, and where whole scenes are given over to directorial wish fulfillment. (If you've ever wondered who'd win in a fight between Bruce Lee and Tyler Durden, so has Tarantino, apparently.) Plot, acting, and even his precious dialogue takes a backseat to, well, quite a number of shots from the backseat of classic cars. It's Tarantino's idea of a mood piece, one that's still an indulgent spectacle, but where the tension is pushed to the margins, and the center is filled with fake Italian movie posters, drive-in movie theaters with actual crowds, Coupe de Villes zipping through the Hollywood Hills and, of course, bare feet. So much bare feet.
And it works, mostly, to a degree many of his recent efforts haven't. Tarantino has a reputation as a man of many intense passions, but this is the stuff he really cares about—the L.A. of his childhood and the gritty glamour of Old Hollywood, a time when men were manly and women never seemed to wear shoes—and it inspires some of his most quietly effective filmmaking. Well, quiet for him, anyway.
A lot has been made of the fact that Margot Robbie, as Tate, is seen more than she's heard, but the moment when she wanders into a theater to watch herself on screen is as affecting a piece of wordless storytelling he has pulled off. (Not that the movie doesn't have other problems with women—it's implied that Pitt's character killed his wife for being a pill on a boat trip, a not-at-all disguised reference to Natalie Wood's real-life death that's mostly played for laughs.) And a scene at Spahn Ranch, the dilapidated film set now overrun by a cult of feral flower children, evokes the broad-daylight horror of Midsommar and that magnificently tense cold open from Inglourious Basterds, again without saying a whole lot. It ends with a fight, and a few spurts of blood, but that's about as much violence as happens in the first three-quarters of the film. For Tarantino, this counts as meditative.
It's enough of a departure that when the blood really starts to splatter, in a screaming climax that both subverts expectations while simultaneously caving to them, it registers as a disappointment. Sorry if that ruins anything for you, but again, it shouldn't—it's the only ending he knows, save that time he had Samuel L. Jackson talk Tim Roth out of shooting up a diner. For a director whose imagination—and ego, frankly—cannot be contained even by the bounds of history, it's a wonder why he can't dream a bit bigger.
SEE IT: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is now playing at multiple Portland theaters.