Quentin Tarantino is an American treasure. With Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, he has finally made a film that is an ode to the city that made him. The less you know about it walking in the better. I won’t give away anything you don’t already know, but in case you were wondering, this is a wild ride worthy of another famous blonde who went down the rabbit hole.
Into the drug-infused culture of American life of 1969, through the neon-lit streets of Hollywood, up the winding roads of the Hollywood Hills, and into the unsuspecting mountain enclaves of Chatsworth, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood unfolds. Nixon had just barely won the presidency and had just begun a secret bombing of Cambodia that would not stay secret for long. There was chaos in the streets, and there was a zoned out, tuned out hippie culture the curtain was just about to go down on.
This world, as we once knew it, came to a screeching end one hot and sticky August night in Bel Air on Cielo Drive, when four members of the Manson family crept into a house at the top of the dead-end drive where Roman Polanski was living with ingenue actress Sharon Tate. Polanski was away on location. Three friends, including Folger coffee heiress Abigail Folger, were visiting that evening. The Mansons brutally murdered all of them.
It took a while in the wake of the massacre for the truth to come out about who or what could have done something so gruesome. Some even suspected Polanski himself of murdering his own pregnant wife. When the facts came to light, they were too bizarre to believe. It was like nothing anyone could have imagined, though the isolated depravity at the hands of people who looked no different than any other free-love hippies was horrific enough for the whole anti-establishment movement to eventually take a dive.
Meanwhile, there was another story unfolding in Hollywood: the end of an era for a certain breezy style of TV heroes. The 1970s would call for more serious realism. The television landscape would suddenly become darker, as cavalier attitudes were forgotten and America evolved beyond the carefree ’60s under Kennedy and become tangled in the paranoid ’70s under Nixon.
Tarantino’s Los Angeles is a mix of vivid nostalgia, sardonic lore, and his own unique brand of fandom that we’ve seen pulsing through his work since his career began. We’ve come to know and love the world of Tarantino pop culture — of Kung Fu movies and Blaxploitation flicks, of film nerds who worked in video stores, dreaming of girls who looked like Patricia Arquette, Uma Thurman, and Pam Grier who might cross their path for a spontaneous adventure. Girls who liked to watch rowdy, risqué movies just as much as the guys, when everyone was up for anything.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood feels like Tarantino’s most accomplished film because it is easily his most personal. While all his movies reflect tangents of his own genre obsessions, only in this film do we get a glimpse into Tarantino himself: his own vulnerability, his memories of who he once was, his dreams of what he wanted to be, and the maps that led him to the artist he has become.
It is a film about friendship, a film about mercurial television stardom, a film about a world that was vibrantly alive right up until the instant its candles were snuffed out. It’s a film about the Manson family’s influence on the collective psyche of California, and how the morbid tale and the characters who populate it have themselves been knitted into the funky macramé fabric of that culture, because how could they not be? How can you talk about Warren Beatty and Hollywood parties and eventually not take the winding road to Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate? And how can you get there and not face the implications of that horrible night when the unimaginable became a grim reality that we’re all stuck with?
The climax of Sharon Tate’s life was not destined to be the birth of Polanski’s baby on schedule. No, that unborn joy would be stabbed before it drew its first breath, along with his gorgeously captivating mother. Slaughtered at the hands of one Susan Atkins — aka “Sexy Sadie” — who heard Tate’s last words as she pleaded for her life before Atkins stabbed her again and again and again, then wrote “Pig” on the door in hers in her baby’s blood. Yes, wild-eyed Sadie, along with Patricia Krenwinkel and Linda Kasabian had been driven by Tex Watson to Cielo Drive at Charlie Manson’s command, given orders to commit a murder as gruesome as possible, to be blamed on unknown black invaders, as nothing but a ploy for Manson to start a race war.
As it transpired, Manson scheme was concocted as revenge against a music exec, Terry Melcher, who had turned him down for a record deal. The house in the hills of Bel Air was the target because they thought Melcher lived there, but he was long gone and new tenants had moved in. But because of Manson’s pathetic ego, his mediocre talent, and his acid-fueled insanity, Sharon Tate, Jay Sebring, Wojciech Frykowski, and Abigail Folger would become the first victims of the Manson family on August 9, 1969. The following night, the same gang, along with Manson himself, murdered Leno and Rosemary LaBianca in equally brutal fashion. The cloistered Hollywood community freaked out. Los Angeles freaked out. America freaked out. Nothing would ever be the same after that.
What remains haunting is how random the murder was, how arbitrary. Why that house? Because of a dumb blunder. Why those victims? Because they just happened to be home. The crimes were the very definition of senseless, committed for no purpose that could be measured by any sane person — just the mayhem of mindless zombies who belonged to a cult whose hypnotic leader told them to go do it.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood takes full advantage of the random nature of the crimes committed by the Manson family. But to explain exactly how and why would be to reveal entirely too much. The film can be seen as the third in a trilogy by Tarantino that deals with monumental crimes against humanity that Tarantino loops away from reality and veers into wishful thinking, to deliver the satisfaction of revenge that history failed to achieve.
Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt are wonderful in their roles as a fading star and his stunt man who have formed a deep friendship over the years. Each of their stories is told with Tarantino’s trademark zest and balls-out brio. This time around, we don’t get as much of the twisted antic monologues he’s known for: instead, he allows the characters to settle into themselves, with much of Pitt’s story playing out without much dialogue at all. Both his and DiCaprio’s stories are deeply rooted in the emotional core of two raucous, hot-blooded men who know their careers are cooling off and about to fade out.
Margot Robbie plays the Sharon Tate of our dreams as we look back on a life that almost was. A beauty whose face made men literally stumble in the streets, she may not be given much to say, but the intimate scenes we share with her in her finals days speak eloquently of a promising life cut short. Tarantino has brought her back to life without taking away anything that belonged to her by pretending he knew more about her than he possibly could. No one but her closest friends could really knew much about her. And now she is forever linked with the nightmare of Manson and the lingering legacy of Roman Polanski.
With glorious tracking shots (shot on real film stock) and breathtaking fast-moving drives down canyon roads, this is a film that makes your mouth water for how close it is to living that fleeting life as it once existed. It’s not a movie that needs visual effects, because it derives its effectiveness from being grounded in L.A.’s inimitable light and landscape. It’s a movie that showcases a filmmaker at the absolute top of his game, in complete command, with perfect melding of story and image, character and meaning. It walks a fine line between absurdist comedy and disturbing tragedy, and it 100% sticks its stunning landing.
It’s a movie whose details are best kept under wraps until everyone has a chance to see it. But know this: you’re not likely to encounter a more entertaining film this year. Throughout his career, Tarantino has given Americans a whole world that is his and his alone. That world is made up of collectible treasures, carefully curated and elegantly displayed. He’s picked them up from every corner of this city, from every film or television show he’s ever watched — a whole lifetime of observations culled by a curious mind and refined with a talented eye, by a filmmaker who has only ever wanted to make movies that might match the best of cinema he ever loved and discovered. With Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Tarantino has made his most accomplished film to date, and created what will easily go down as one of the best films of the year.