Once Upon a Time in Hollywood Review: A Golden, Vicious American Daydream

“We should kill the people who taught us to kill,” says Manson Family member Susan Atkins (Mikey Madison) from the back seat of fellow Family member Charles “Tex” Watson’s (Austin Butler) car. It might be the product of a deeply sick mind, but there’s more than a grain of truth in Krenwinkel’s rant about the bottomless violence of American popular culture. When she and her fellow would-be killers run up against that same violence in the form of washed-up Western star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stuntman turned driver Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), it swallows them whole with gleeful brutality. The violence of the outsider is no match for that of the establishment.

It’s fun to dissect Tarantino’s films, to watch him play with the meaning of violence in the context of entertainment, but his primary appeal is as a craftsman of good pulp, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood does not disappoint. Its cast of B-tier Tinseltown assholes, bug-eyed denizens of the lunatic fringe, and outsize showbiz weirdos is held together and made sense of by Tarantino’s circuitous writing, tempered on this outing by long stretches of city sounds and music without any dialogue at all. Myriad digressions into in-universe clips of Dalton’s film and television appearances give the movie’s fictional elements as much texture as its historical ones. Ads, labels, signage, and other ephemera summon a vision of Hollywood’s bygone charm, ratty and stained even then.

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Let’s All Go to the Movies

From the opening promo reel for the in-world show Bounty Law — starring Dalton and based in large part on the Steve McQueen-starring Wanted: Dead or Alive — to the invented episode of actual television program Lancer, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood weaves seamlessly between layers of fiction. The movie’s purest pleasure is Sharon Tate’s (Margot Robbie) trip to the movies to see herself in Phil Karlson’s The Wrecking Crew. There’s a genuine joy to it, an almost childlike feeling of “Do they notice? Do they know that’s me?” excitement as she peers around the theater at the other moviegoers. It’s infectious, impossible to resist. That love of the art form permeates the entire movie.

Robbie makes for an endlessly watchable Tate, and the film’s myriad clips and shooting sessions are both tremendously entertaining and fascinatingly period and genre-accurate filmmaking in their own right. Police procedurals, bad Westerns, Bond spoofs and rip-offs — so much ‘60s dross remade and examined not through a lens of uncritical boyhood adoration but from an experienced cinephile and industry pro’s sophisticated perspective. In Dalton’s tumultuous emotions about his growing irrelevance as an actor there’s a spark of joy in the craft of it, of the high of nailing a scene and the frustrating, soul-eroding misery of flubbing one.

Even the film’s depiction of the Manson Family digs into their lives as outsiders held apart from the embrace of the golden dream flickering in sodium and neon all around them. Spahn’s Movie Ranch itself is a kind of Hollywood graveyard, a place where the Family lives in paranoid squalor among the bones of yet another vanished cinematic era. They dumpster dive and watch TV in the shadow of the city, their one shot at becoming part of its legend the grandiose and half-baked scheming of their cult leader, himself a failed actor and musician. Everything, for better or for worse, turns on the glare of Hollywood’s fickle spotlight.

Riding in Cars with Boys

Tarantino hasn’t lost a step behind the camera, either. The movie’s close-ups of women’s feet at rest and in motion are among the most sensually natural he’s shot in a long career of shooting women’s feet. People mock it, but without it there’d be very little sex at all in Tarantino’s films. It’s delicate and energetic, a sweetly grimy look at the degradation and restlessness inherent to the foot as a sensual object. His vision of California’s highways and private roads is similarly attentive, though more concerned with feelings of freedom and reckless abandon than with voyeuristic happiness. There is a tremendous sense of motion to it. 

Much of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is taken up by characters driving from place to place in a haze of 60s music. Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), Dalton’s stunt double turned gofer and driver, is our wheelman for most of it, and his easy confidence combined with Tarantino’s smooth, patient camera work makes the film’s driving sequences some of its best. Tarantino shows equal facility with horses, as in a scene in which Tex Watson gallops from a trail ride back to Spahn’s Movie Ranch. The propulsive, muscular size and weight of the horse seems almost to drag the camera through the scrub brush and down the crumbling slopes.

Between its soothing camera and oddball performances, Hollywood is an ideal summer movie, a daydream spun out of air-conditioned darkness, cigarette smoke, and the flickering light of the projector. 

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