Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is considered to be director Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film. He has long held that he would only make 10 films in his career, and if you weren’t sure whether he meant it, this newest picture, which pulses with nostalgia, confirms it. It’s a film from a director on the way out about two guys on their way out: fading TV actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his aging stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). It’s also set in an era on the way out: 1969 Los Angeles, where cult leader Charles Manson is about to bring the hippie dream crashing down upon the golden shore.
It’s also Tarantino’s heartfelt elegy for a bygone era of film culture, when movie stars sustained the industry and every city block seemingly had its own movie temple at which to worship. Art Deco palaces with grand marquees flutter past in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, as its lead characters drive through Los Angeles, attending to the hard business of getting by. Rick Dalton is at a crossroads in his career. Having left a hit Western series to unsuccessfully launch a movie career, he is still famous but feels like old news to casting directors. So does his stuntman and best friend, Booth, who is getting too old to work and has been reduced to a glorified personal assistant. Meanwhile, Dalton’s only hope is to get the hot young director who just moved in next door—Roman Polanski—to cast him in his next movie and revitalize his career. With DiCaprio bathed in flop sweat and sporting a nervous stammer, his desperation is palpable.
Polanski’s wife Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), on the other hand, is as fresh as the morning dew. She’s not yet jaded enough to let the marquees go unnoticed. In fact, she stops into a local cinema to get her picture taken in front of her poster and, during the movie, waits nervously to see if the audience will laugh at her punchlines. She could be described as naïve, but she’s irresistibly authentic—there is no hint of falseness in her good cheer.
Given Tate’s fate, the film would seem to be a vehicle for Tarantino to draw out his trademark tension before an inevitable explosion of blood, gore, and tragedy. Yes, there is eventually a violent outburst, perhaps the most gruesome in his career, but it feels like an afterthought. This is closer to a hangout movie than a thriller. Once Upon a Time takes us to an era and place that is about to go very, very badly, but instead of tormenting his audience as he so often does, he embraces his characters and finds salvation in human connection. The friendship between Dalton and Booth, brought to tender life by DiCaprio and Pitt, is easily Tarantino’s most well realized love story since Jackie Brown.
It’s the masterful work of a mature artist looking back on his life in film through glasses that were once blood-soaked but are now just rose-tinted. While Tarantino’s grief for a time when film actually mattered is the clear starting point, there is no bitterness in his approach. From the sunlight-dripping cinematography to his heroes’ unfailing attempts at redemption, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood pulses with the earned optimism of a true believer in the power of the movies. Blending fantasy, history, and autobiography, Tarantino has written an adoring ode to an industry that forces you to risk everything to sustain its fantasies.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood opens Friday in theaters everywhere.