The late 2010s has been a period of transition in cinema, a time in which the established system of creative freedom and good, old-fashioned star power is visibly fading.
It’s not much different than the changing Hollywood of 1969, which is where Quentin Tarantino’s newest film, “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” takes place, and where we meet quasi-star of yesteryear Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his longtime stuntman and best friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Formerly an established leading man on a popular TV western, Dalton’s once-promising career has been in crisis mode ever since he turned his back on the small screen to pursue a career in movies — a move that hasn’t exactly paid off.
The turn of the decade ushers in the New Hollywood era and a slew of hip, young artists — among them Dalton’s new next-door neighbors, rising starlet Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and prodigy filmmaker Roman Polanski, hot off the release of “Rosemary’s Baby” — and Rick becomes aware that he’s on his way out, meaning Booth probably is as well. Meanwhile, the despondent and drunken Dalton’s career-based paranoia is mirrored in the city and country around him as the Vietnam War rages on and Charles Manson’s deadly Family grows in power.
The trailer for Tarantino’s 2009 masterpiece “Inglourious Basterds” boasted the tagline, “You haven’t seen war until you’ve seen it through the eyes of Quentin Tarantino.” One could easily say the same of late Golden Age Hollywood — the place and time of Tarantino's upbringing — as portrayed ever so nostalgically in this film.
The city and all of the dream-filled people that populate it have a uniquely raw sense of life and thoughtfulness breathed into them, each character fully realized whether given one line of dialogue or 200. Every performance, be it Pitt’s unshakeable coolness, DiCaprio’s booze-addled histrionics or Robbie’s endearing sweetness, feels completely natural, carrying Tarantino’s famously pedantic dialogue in a way that is far more convincing than it is showy. The scenery is shot so shimmeringly by master cinematographer Robert Richardson that, by the look of it, you would swear the movie was plucked straight from a 1960s film archive.
All of this combines to make “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” Tarantino’s most sincere, immersive and, dare I say it, realistic movie. He seems more invested in his characters than ever before, making for a viewing experience that is much more personal than visceral — something you probably couldn’t say about any of his other work. He mostly eschews his preference for ultra-violent set-pieces and exchanges it for drawn-out meditations on how different people react differently to change.
This method almost always works, making for a mostly refreshing and unexpected viewing experience. Still, the 161-minute runtime, while breezier than it has any right to be, would easily be knocked down had Tarantino fought the urge to put in as many standalone scenes of conversation, some of which feel unnecessary despite his trademark knack for great dialogue. Somewhere around halfway through, it’s easy to feel like the rip-roaring, bloody excitement that burned “Reservoir Dogs” and “Kill Bill” into the viewing public’s collective memory simply won’t happen. However, rest assured that said denouement is coming — it’s absurdly shocking, super satisfying and well worth the buildup.
“Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” is one of the year’s most beautifully crafted movies. It gives viewers the increasingly rare luxury of feeling as if they’ve been placed inside the mind of a craftsman who’s having the time of his life. People who truly love film deserve immersive experiences like this when they spend their hard-earned cash on an evening at the multiplex. Here’s hoping Tarantino and his contemporaries have plenty more of those in store for us in the years to come.
John Battiston is a Times-Mirror reporter and a founder of the Reel Underdogs podcast. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Reel Underdogs is not affiliated with the Times-Mirror.