After unleashing his nastiest work, The Hateful Eight, in 2015, one might rightfully expect Quentin Tarantino to lean even further into the subversive excavation of the violent heart of America in his latest feature, Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood. Subversively set mostly in a claustrophobic, snowed-in haberdashery, the “epic” The Hateful Eight — made and released in the impossibly huge (and most glorious) 70mm format — was a three-hour-plus Western whodunit that ends in a grand guignol bloodbath. The result was the biggest middle finger the Hollywood enfant terrible ever flashed to his audience and critics. The era of Hollywood — the film begins on Feb. 8, 1969 — is ripe for similar exploration: two years after the “Summer of Love” proved a futile cultural movement, and one year after the pendulum swung in the opposite direction, ushering in the most violent period of that decade (and possibly all the years since).
But Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood is a much different behemoth than Tarantino’s previous film, a startlingly gentler and thankfully smarter ode to people stuck in the margins as cultural tides shift. It hews much closer to the pathos and humanity of Jackie Brown (1997) by crafting a tapestry of characters teetering on the edge between success and failure, their dreams dictated, realized, or heartbreakingly crushed by the same Dream Factory that spawned those aspirations in the first place. The bloodshed of the era is still present — the Manson family and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie, shiny and effervescent but tinged with a yearnful aching) are two of the three narrative threads that run through it, after all — but it figures as a stalking specter rather than taking narrative prominence. Thus, Hollywood is a rich but ultimately tricky affair. On one hand, it’s a lopsided yet consistently enthralling late-career “hang-out” movie (see Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo  and his subsequent rehashes of it for reference), languidly paced as to allow his characters room to behave and ruminate rather than twist and shout their way through the capital-W writer’s patented purple prose, which is largely reserved for the films-within-the-film that populate his latest. On the other, it’s an indictment of Hollywood, the director himself, and cinema at large as one of the ultimate creators of personal and cultural fantasies, for better and for worse.
Rick Dalton (a near-career-best Leonardo DiCaprio) is on the outs as a popular television star, relegated to cameos as “heavies” after leaving his stint as a cowboy hero and attempting to make it in the movies. Marvin Schwarzs (Al Pacino), a potential new agent, praises one of the actor’s big-screen roles as a Nazi-immolating World War II fighter, but a flashback shows the performer’s reticence at using a flame-thrower, whinily exclaiming, “It’s too hot!” To which the prop master flatly answers, “It’s a flame-thrower, Rick.” This, coupled with Rick’s constant humbling and self-deprecation to Schwarzs, signals his waning self-confidence before the agent ultimately sends the actor into a downward spiral. He points out the parasitic nature of audience to movie star: Rick plays baddies now because it’s cool to see the star of Bounty Law take one in the gut, but eventually the cycle will push him even further down into the lower rungs of stardom and then into anonymous oblivion. It’s no coincidence that Hollywood is set during the death of the studio system (and made during a time synonymous with the “death of cinema”), and it takes full advantage of the industry’s instability and its effects on three protagonists to emerge as Tarantino’s most tenderhearted and melancholy work to date.
Tarantino himself has been a victim of the kind of pigeonholing to which Schwarzs speaks — some paint him as simple pop provocateur rather than master filmmaker — so it’s hard not to read this moment as a plea for sympathy (although it’s admittedly tough to sympathize with a personality as bombastic and strident as he projects) that verges on self-aggrandizing. Not until the director slyly begins interpolating loose versions of his own work within the narrative does the honest auto-critique begin — self-awareness rarely glimpsed in his oeuvre. That Nazi-burning certainly recalls the climax of Inglourious Basterds (2009), and a saloon showdown Rick stars in is straight out of Django Unchained (2013). They’re far from self-congratulatory victory laps; instead they blend the reality of his film’s historical setting and the faux reality circumscribed by the entirety of cinema. Tarantino sees the seventh art having the ability to dictate, shape, and reflect viewers’ fantasies and to enter consciousness as a representation of reality — a system in which he’s been joyously complicit. A crane shot over a drive-in theater screen and into the blinding white light of its projector visualizes the snake beginning to eat its own tail, but there’s no moment more mind-warping and exhilarating than watching Robie as Tate nervously communing with an audience watching the real Sharon Tate in The Wrecking Crew (1969) on the big screen.
The Django-like showdown, with its already flimsy representation of generic and filmic reality interrupted by Rick calling out for his lines, is further complicated by an analogous scene directly following it, in which his out-of-work stunt double-cum-driver-cum-best friend, Cliff Booth (a grizzled, chiseled, charming, and disarming Brad Pitt), visits the Spahn Ranch. A mock-up Western town used in cheapie productions of yesteryear, the remote locale is now home to the Manson family (Dakota Fanning, Lena Dunham, Margaret Qualley, among others), and their behavior is disarmingly reminiscent of the characters who once populated the movie set in which the family now lives, further wrinkling the depiction of cinema’s dissemination into reality. Like the dolly shot of the Manson girls slowly walking past a massive street mural of James Dean in Giant (1954), the scene posits that movies and their industry loom as large in their lives as it does for the Tinseltown aspirers Sharon, Cliff, and Rick. But here, the aforementioned meta-cinematic glee is supplanted with trademark Tarantino slow-build tension, until it inevitably erupts into the filmmaker’s trademark bursts of violence.
The director has asked reviewing press to refrain from spoiling his latest in depth, which this critic will begrudgingly abide by, but it’s entirely possible that Tarantino is smart in proposing that no one attempt to work through its final act without the benefit of time and repeat viewings. Indeed, the film’s final stretch throws what came before it into a vertiginous tailspin, while reinforcing its looping film-as-reality vs. film-as-fantasy dialectics and continuing to be as touching and bludgeoning, wonky and elegant, obvious and provoking, cartoonish and sincere as its first two movements. Ultimately, Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood is not his masterpiece — as Inglourious Basterds self-proclaims in its last shot … and maybe it is? — but it may be his magnum opus (as self-proclaimed by Tarantino in recent press) in chronicling both bull-headed confidence and crippling doubt in his life’s purpose as filmmaker and film watcher.