starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Al Pacino
written and directed by Quentin Tarantino
by Walter Chaw It was a late summer night, humid and low, in the "hill" area of downtown Seattle, outside a coffee shop called "Coffee Messiah" festooned wall-to-wall with tacky tchotchkes featuring our Lord and saviour. I spent a couple of college summers there and in the San Juans with my friend, Keith. I'd met him at a Primus concert where an entire gymnasium had been converted into a mosh pit. We locked onto each other and agreed that if one of us went down, the other would pick him up. We've been friends now for almost thirty years. So we were standing outside Coffee Jesus sometime in the early Nineties with two other friends I'd made through Keith: Sam and Dan. Dan, tall, white, and awkward, was playing around with being a DJ; Sam was a squat Jewish kid with a chip on his shoulder and a lot of hours spent in a gym. A guy walked up to us swinging nunchucks, shirtless and raving. Sam smiled, put his hand out and talked to him until he put his sticks away. The guy clapped us on the shoulder as though we were old chums he'd run into on the street, and left. Sam was our peacemaker and our enforcer. I noticed after it all went down that we'd automatically moved a step behind Sam when trouble came. Sam would go on to law enforcement and a sad, sickening stint as a 9-1-1 operator that haunted him for years after. A groomsman at my wedding and one of the best friends I'll ever have in this life, Sam killed himself last week, and I'll never be alright again. I'll never feel as safe. Not in the same way.
Quentin Tarantino's ninth film, Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood, is about male friendships as they evolve or don't, fall apart or stay the same. It's his kindest film, the one freest of his ego and the defensiveness of showy camerawork and clever editing. It's unpretentious in a wholly surprising way, and vulnerable, too, in revealing fears of growing older and, as a consequence, becoming obsolete, soft, a joke. At the movie's midpoint, one of Tarantino's avatars, aging cowboy star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), says that men begin to feel, day by day, increasingly useless. He expresses this fear to a little girl (Julia Butters) with whom he's guest-starring in the pilot for a TV western. She thinks he's talking about the book he's reading; he tells her she'll be experiencing it herself in a few short years. The book Rick's reading is about an old bronco rider who gets injured and finds that his days are full of pain and limitations. He's only halfway through it. We're only halfway through this film. It's a wall-breaking moment Tarantino rhymes with scenes from the show's shoot; once we become involved in the show-within-a-show's drama, he breaks the spell with Rick asking for the lines his alcohol- and self-pity-soaked brain can't conjure up. In a fit of self-loathing, Rick destroys his trailer between takes and makes a vow of sobriety he honours for all of ten seconds. Later, he wraps his day sitting on an ersatz "throne," ad-libbing a couple of bad-men lines in the imitation of "evil Hamlet," another character at a crossroads in another play that features a play within itself. The little girl tells him it's the best acting she's ever seen. Rick is low enough that the opinion of a precocious eight-year-old means everything. It does mean everything.
Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood is a film lover's paradise, of course, but it also plays with knowledge of the Summer of Love and how when people refer to "the '60s," they're really talking about the decade's last couple of years. Vietnam was in a death spiral, assassinations had robbed the Left of its heroes and its hope and idealism (never to be recovered), and Woodstock and its dark shadow Altamont had announced the end of the era as surely as the Manson Family murders late in the summer of '69 announced the end of any vestige of innocence still attached to the American Dream. Tarantino sets his film in the months leading up to the murders of Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch), Abby Folger (Samantha Robinson), and Wojciech Frykowski (Costa Ronin) in much the same vein as Fred Zinnemann sets From Here to Eternity in the weeks presaging Pearl Harbor: the looming of the Event of is so oppressive and doom-laden it casts a pall on those incredible glimpses of L.A. in the era of Musso & Franks and the Taft Building and the Cocoanut Grove. Tarantino counts down the days and then the hours and our dread grows, becoming overwhelming in a virtuoso sequence where Rick's best friend and stunt double, Cliff (Brad Pitt), pays a visit to the Spahn Ranch, then overrun by The Family. It's as terrifying as anything I've seen, almost unbearably protracted, and informed inextricably by our knowledge, and elevation, of the Manson mystique. He's among our collective bogeys, a modern archetype, one of Roland Barthes's social mythologies--a shorthand for madness and murder and, more to the marrow, for how no one is safe and never will be again and actually never were. Manson is the icon for our loss of security in a way that Ed Gein never could be, in the way that only the mushroom cloud has been. When hapless, good-natured Cliff wanders onto the compound, it's as meaningful as Willard entering Kurtz's compound at the end of Apocalypse Now. He is the archetype of American can-do masculinity submerged into the uncanny--Alan Ladd's Shane making a cameo in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
Rick and Cliff are best friends and have been since they started watching each other's back on the set of an old TV show Rick abandoned, unwisely, to pursue a failed big-screen career. As the film opens, Cliff jokingly refers to his role in life as the bearer of Rick's load. And as the film progresses, we learn of all the ways that this is true. When Cliff drops Rick off at the first day of a new gig, he stops his friend, who's self-medicating like a motherfucker, and gives him a pep talk, tells him he's proud of him and that he's going to do good work. Then Cliff goes off to fix Rick's television antenna before returning home to the disgusting trailer he lives in with his pitbull, Brandy, in the abandoned lot behind a drive-in theatre. Make no mistake, though, the L.A. of Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood is Tarantino's dreamland: Sharon is greeted at the Playboy Mansion by Michelle Phillips (Rebecca Rittenhouse), Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis), and Mama Cass (Rachel Redleaf), who escort her to a phantasmagoric bacchanal where it's always late, the pool's always warm, a band's always playing, and McQueen has a tale to tell about the one who got away. It's a Hollywood of boulevards: those endless sunlit days and bottomless sultry nights. Rick lives on Cielo next to Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and his wife, Sharon. They're mythological creatures. Rick talks about how Roman is the hottest director in Hollywood post-Rosemary's Baby and silently realizes that he'll never be so relevant again, no matter how he raves. But there's always Cliff, ready with a six-pack and an acid-laced cigarette to watch Rick in another guest-star role as a heavy, this time on "The F.B.I.". Cliff carries Rick's load, and he carries it without complaint.
So Cliff is at the compound, led there by young hitchhiking wild child Pussycat (Margaret Qualley), and he insists on seeing his old buddy George (Bruce Dern), whom The Family claims doesn't mind them staying on his ranch. We meet Tex (Austin Butler) and Squeaky (Dakota Fanning) there (and there's a joke about the pronunciation of "Dakota's" name on the set of Rick's western show), and because the Manson mythos is so deeply ingrained in my imagination, they have grown in my mind into stone golems. The fear you feel for Cliff would be there regardless your knowledge of lore, I suspect, because Tarantino is amazingly good at establishing tension through wide shots and thoughtful, menacing blocking--but the more you've grown up with that night on Cielo imprinted on your subconscious, the more unbearable this sequence becomes. Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood is a consideration of how archetypes are created in the modern conversation, and it does what it can to repair eternity. Tarantino demystifies the Manson Family by showing them as they were: dirty hippies brainwashed by a narcissist into committing unspeakable acts in the name of starting a race war. The immediate connection to our current state is obvious...and alarming. Show them as they are and you'll find a rat on a glue trap. When Cliff meets Tex for a second time, Tex announces that he's the devil and Cliff says, "No, that's not it, it was something dumber than that... Rex?" These guys were drugged-out idiots, sheep in thrall to an obvious madman and white supremacists whose bigotry was the least of their crimes against critical thought and breeding. Popular culture has raised them to the status of epic fiends. They weren't that. They should've been relegated to the dustbin of deviant history and not elevated into these things that made me shiver at their mention in this film.
Out and about one day, Sharon discovers that her film The Wrecking Crew is playing at a local theatre. She passes it on her way to buy a copy of Tess of the D'urbervilles for her husband (who would later adapt it into a film starring Nastassja Kinski) and then, shyly, asks what it would cost to watch the movie if she happened to be in it. The ticket girl asks for a picture, "maybe by the poster, so people know who you are." And then Sharon's in the dark with her movie, smiling a secret smile when people laugh at her slapstick with Dean Martin, quietly acting out the moves Bruce Lee taught her one day on set so she could look, for a moment, like she could hold her own. Earlier, Cliff has had his own sparring session with Lee (Mike Moh), earning something like a draw after stoking Lee's famously hot temper. Cliff, by the way, can also climb onto a roof by leaping onto a fence; he's a stunt person as, again, mythic figure. He can do anything. Rick says as much when he lobbies to get him a job on his television series. It's a tough sell, because Cliff's allegedly killed his wife and gotten away with it. We don't know if that's true or not. But I digress: Sharon in the theatre, listening as the crowd loves her, having a wonderful time. Even as he demythologizes The Family, Tarantino effectively humanizes Tate. She is lovely and effervescent. She picks up a female hitchhiker, and following their short ride together she gives her a parting hug like they're old friends. Though coveted as an object, she's a normal woman who does her own shopping and goes to the movies. Yet it's clear in this moment that she's special. Later, she has a conversation through her call box with Rick, and hearing her voice, ghostly and electric, coming through the space of all these years and that atrocity, is the first time I cried like my heart would never stop breaking.
DiCaprio and Pitt are effortlessly compelling. They aren't action buddies, they're members of the dreamlife raging against our waking. Rick and Cliff are acknowledgements that we are, to paraphrase a different Shakespeare play, temporary heroes on this stage, strutting and fretting, and the curtain is always coming down. Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood is so generous, so very kind, so astoundingly empathetic. This is Tarantino giving a different kind of eternity to Sharon Tate and The Family, where the one becomes a loss that is more than just symbolic, and the other is reduced to a mundane sort of evil. It's the story of someone you know and love being swallowed alive by the banality of ignorance and fear. In feel, it's like Jackie Brown or the last few minutes of Kill Bill, Vol. 2, which give shape and redemption to everything that came before. He's shown this tender side of himself in the past, in other words, but here he sustains it for almost three ephemeral hours. Gone are the long, attention-grabbing monologues and serpentine camera moves and smash cuts. In their place, two actors entering their third acts, exposing their flanks and allowing themselves to be pathetic and afraid. Aren't we all? At least they have each other. On the evening of the murders, they spend a long dinner together, followed by a marathon drinking session that turns into a nightcap because, as the Narrator (Kurt Russell) tells us, that's how all great friendships end...isn't it? No. Sometimes they end when a friend calls to tell you another has shot himself because he lost the thread somewhere, the one that binds a life to another--when you wonder if you've become the wrong kind of burden to your loved ones. The last text Sam responded to from me was me telling him I missed him and loved him. He wrote back the same and said there wasn't a thing he wouldn't do for my family and me. It's not true: he wouldn't let me help. In the back of my mind, I believed that Sam would always be there to protect me. I wish I was there to protect him. There isn't a lot of conversation about male friendships, but Tarantino has presented a lovely one. Depression is a terrible liar, and sometimes it speaks so loud it drowns out everything else. Towards the end of Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood, Rick tells Cliff that he's a good friend and Cliff smiles his giant smile, gives a little salute, and tells him, "I try." Don't we all? Don't we fucking all.