In Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood, amiable nostalgia gives way to unbearable suspense

If Quentin Tarantino's latest film falls a long way short of meaningful, it still deserves credit for groping towards profound ideas.

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Quentin Tarantino’s Second World War thriller Inglourious Basterds began with a line that was redolent of a child’s fairy tale  –“Once upon a time in Nazi-Occupied France” – while indicating also that liberties would be taken. (They were: Hitler was killed by the heroes.) For his latest picture, those first five words have been promoted to the title, retaining their earlier connotations and gesturing towards a dreamy sun-struck nostalgia, conjured with the invaluable help of the cinematographer Robert Richardson and the production designer Barbara Ling. Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood unfolds over two brief periods in 1969 as the (fictional) fading movie star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) starts to comprehend that his career may be entering its final reel. During a charged meeting with the agent Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino), the power balance shifts delicately as Rick realises that the senior man is there not to flatter him, as it first appears, but to read him the last rites.

Rick is in the boneyard of TV guest spots but at least he has his loyal former stuntman, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), at his side. Cliff is an unflappable sort whose duties extend to being Rick’s driver, babysitter and shoulder to cry on, literally so in the scene in which he responds to his pal’s sobs by handing him a pair of sunglasses and dispensing some authentic period racism: “Don’t cry in front of the Mexicans.”

While Rick sweats over his lines, drinking himself into a spluttering stupor, Cliff lopes through life wearing a Hawaiian shirt and a grin the length of Sunset. Pitt has for most of his career avoided the easy-going pretty-boy roles that his looks always seemed to be lobbying for, and can finally bring an ironic edge to them now that he’s 55 and getting crispy around the edges. DiCaprio, 11 years Pitt’s junior but looking starchier, has more heavy lifting to do here and grows to be a faintly exasperating presence. Though the actor has two magical, glimmering moments in which Rick allows himself to be vulnerable in the presence of a child, Tarantino’s affection for scenes of this blowhard struggling to nail a take is likely to outstrip an audience’s patience.

Living next door to Rick on Cielo Drive are the actor Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and her husband Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), who is hot right now thanks to the success of Rosemary’s Baby. Any viewers for whom the names “Cielo Drive” and “Sharon Tate” ring no bells will watch the first two hours of the movie in a state of merry obliviousness. For those who recognise the address as the place where Tate, eight months pregnant at the time, was murdered in August 1969, along with four others, by members of the Manson Family, the film’s many bright moments will be laced with foreboding. In a restaurant’s burnished beige interior, the eye can’t help but be drawn to the blood-like spatters: the cherry in a cocktail, a red pocket square. On the set of Rick’s latest Western, lassoes are strung up like nooses. Leaping on to the roof to fix the fuzzy television reception, Cliff shares the screen with a nest of metal spikes – the TV aerial, if not the sword, of Damocles.

But then the presence of Sharon Tate is the whole reason the film exists, our prior knowledge of her fate lending ballast to a story that would be weightless without it. Having real figures interacting with fictional ones is a novelistic device (EL Doctorow’s Ragtime being a shining example, though it’s not without precedent in the cinema of Woody Allen and Robert Altman). Tarantino sprinkles his film with walk-ons from actors playing 1960s celebrities (including Steve McQueen, Bruce Lee and Mama Cass), and there is a Playboy Mansion party straight out of the French and Saunders Jackie Collins parody “Lucky Bitches”.

It’s hardly news that this director sees no divide between movies and life, but this marks the first time he has turned that elision into the subject of an entire film. Cinema and reality bleed into one another in every frame. Sharon and Rick both watch themselves on screen in a state of rapture, and for Rick the pleasure is borderline sexual: “Here I come, here I come!” he calls as his big scene approaches. The Manson Family are even holed up on a one-time film set, a ranch where the camera adopts the vocabulary of a Western: tilted close-ups, a slow pan up the legs of Pussycat (the superb, springy Margaret Qualley) in her high-cut denim shorts.

After an amiable couple of hours, leisurely to the point of pointlessness, the movie shifts into a new register of unbearable suspense and unimaginable violence. It would be remiss to reveal anything about Tarantino’s staging of the events at Cielo Drive, though to call his approach radical would be underselling it. If Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood falls a long way short of meaningful, it still deserves credit for groping in its graceless way towards profound ideas about the restorative miracles of cinema and the consolation of lies projected at 24 frames per second.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 16 August 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The age of conspiracy