Quentin Tarantino has never been known for strictly linear plotting, and his latest film, Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood, to no surprise unfolds in a slow-burning and circuitous manner. No doubt there will be plenty of viewers who grouse that the film is self-indulgent and frustratingly digressive, but I certainly do not count myself part of that camp.
There’s undeniable artistic purpose to the proceedings here. Tarantino takes the time to establish the various characters whose lives are destined to intersect spectacularly. Start with the male leads: a wonderful Leonardo DiCaprio as the flawed, past-his-prime actor Rick Dalton, and Brad Pitt (who oozes charisma, and gives one of the best performances of his career) as his stunt-double/driver/buddy Cliff Booth. Margot Robbie’s starlet-next-door Sharon Tate is developed as a full person (although the camera does tend to linger fetishistically on her legs/feet), not just some cinematic celebrity made more famous by her eventual savage demise. Even seemingly minor figures are woven deftly into the tapestry: the Hollywood hangabouts who prove no mere hippies, but the dangerous constituents of the Manson family.
Outstripping his thorough commitment to character development is Tarantino’s determination to establish the film’s titular setting. The Hollywood scene of the late Sixties is brought to life in stunning detail, from filmings on studio back lots to parties at the Playboy mansion. Clearly this is a loving recreation on the director’s part, a relishing of not just a time and place but a cultural moment just prior to its tarnishing by carnage.
Versed in the bloody details of what transpired on Cielo Drive in early-August 1969, the viewer has to wonder if Tarantino has built up this Hollywood scene merely to burn it back down. Yes, there’s a plethora of era-evoking movie magic on display here, but a palpable sense of dread also hangs over the film. And for all its concern with the Western (which helps further the thematic exploration of the nature of heroism and villainy), the film aligns just as much with the horror genre. The scene in which Cliff visits–and then investigates–the Manson-family-infested Spahn ranch is an interpolated masterpiece of squalor horror. I can’t remember the last time I felt so much sweat-wringing dread, so much fear for a character’s well-being.
Likewise, the film’s extended climax is rife with suspense and deadly menace. Yet it offers a surprising twist in its handling of one of the most shocking, Gothic moments in Hollywood (and American) history. Defying audience expectation and refusing to devolve into an exercise in exploitation, Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood concludes on a more cathartic than horrifying note. While veering from the historical record toward the realm of the fairy tale, the film’s story is gloriously well-told, and in the end, epically satisfying.