If Quentin Tarantino keeps his promise to retire after directing 10 films, then Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, his ninth, may be an attempt to cram an entire career’s worth of pet themes, images, and obsessions into one sprawling penultimate project. Even the title riffs on a Sergio Leone spaghetti Western—a B-movie genre that, along with plenty of others, gets lovingly pastiched in the course of this two-hour-and-forty-minute saga about a group of Tinseltown denizens, some historical, some fictional. Once Upon a Time is nominally structured around the Manson family murders of 1969; its main characters, longtime TV cowboy Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his faithful stunt double and personal driver Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), spend their long, lazy days and often drunken nights at Rick’s house on Cielo Drive, next door to the place where the pregnant Sharon Tate and her four guests were slaughtered that summer by members of the Manson cult.
The knowledge that this grim event is impending at the end of the six months the movie covers lends the whole story a faintly sinister cast. But as the weeks tick down toward that fateful August night, Once Upon a Time is surprisingly buoyant in tone, as crammed full of color, humor, and idiosyncratic character moments as any Tarantino film since Jackie Brown. For a movie set during a period of violent and dislocating social change, Once Upon a Time has a curiously loping, good-natured energy. It’s animated not by the furious discontent that fueled dropouts like the Manson crew but by an elegiac melancholy for the world the Tate-LaBianca murders sought to expose and destroy.
That disconnect between content and tone—between the shambolic buddy comedy that animates Pitt and DiCaprio’s scenes together and the lamb-to-the-slaughter suspense of every scene involving Sharon Tate, played by Margot Robbie—is what gives Once Upon a Time its forward propulsion. But it’s also what leaves viewers, at least this one, uncertain of why Tarantino wanted to tell this story, and to tell it in the largely fictionalized framework he did. (Note that fictionalized there is not a dis: There’s nothing wrong with embroidering on the facts for artistic purposes, and Tarantino makes clear from the outset that this is more historical fantasy than faithful biopic.) There are certainly connections to be made between Tate’s trajectory, as we glimpse it here—a young, idealistic actress just beginning to realize she might be a rising movie star—and the trajectory of Rick and Cliff, two more jaded figures from Hollywood’s recent past realizing they’ve crested the peak of their hirability. But Tarantino seldom seems interested in thinking through those ideas. Instead he crosscuts between Rick and Cliff’s plotline (they spend so much time together that their story arcs function as one) and the odd scene of Tate and her houseguests shimmying to pop records or lounging by the pool.
Robbie does get one long, wonderful scene in which Tate happens upon a movie theater showing her film The Wrecking Crew, goes in alone, and watches herself, quietly delighting in the audience’s positive response to her physical comedy. But too often the male protagonists get the chance to be real characters—prickly, self-deluded, ridiculous, surprising, funny—while she functions principally as beautiful, innocent, impeccably go-go-booted bait. If Robbie’s Sharon gets little interiority, even less is accorded to the pack of mostly undifferentiated “Manson girls,” who include Margaret Qualley, Dakota Fanning (as Manson protégée and future would-be presidential assassin Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme), and, in an unexpected but somehow just right cameo, a creepily smiling Lena Dunham. The sense that this is a movie about and for men is underlined by the prominence of one of Tarantino’s best-known on-screen fetishes. Bare, slender female feet are consistently featured in the foreground of the image, pressed against car windows, tromping down hot L.A. sidewalks, and propped on dashboards or (disgustingly) on the backs of theater seats. The prominence of feet is such that it’s hard not to think Quentin is just trolling us—an “ain’t I perverse?” gag that might be funnier had we not last year heard allegations from Uma Thurman, one of Tarantino’s erstwhile muses and favorite foot models, about being mistreated and endangered on the set of Kill Bill. (Tarantino disagrees with Thurman’s version of the events.)
Though there’s one extended and effectively queasy sequence set at the Spahn Ranch—the abandoned Western movie set that the Manson followers used as a compound—the figure of Manson himself is almost absent from the movie. He appears only once, played by look-alike Damon Herriman (who also played the character on the Netflix series Mindhunter), and speaks barely more than a line. (A pre-scandal Roman Polanski, Tate’s then-superstar director husband, gets an even smaller role, with Rafal Zawierucha occasionally appearing by Robbie’s side in the Fauntleroy-style velvet suits the director sported at the time.) Most of Once Upon a Time’s generous running time is spent not on the dusty abandoned sets of Spahn Ranch but on the bustling backlots of the various shows and movies DiCaprio’s character Rick works on. We accompany his descent from the comfy heights of ’50s TV stardom to the late ’60s indignity of decamping to Italy for a stint as a hero in dubbed B-movie Westerns, with Cliff by his side ever ready to take the wheel for a dangerous set piece, fix a broken TV antenna, or just pick his boss and apparent only friend up at the makeup trailer.
The temporal structure of the movie is loose but dense with layers. There are flashbacks nested inside flashbacks, extended pastiches of fake movies and TV shows (including several full scenes from Bounty Law, the black-and-white frontier justice series that made Rick famous), and intermittent bursts of voice-over, including by Kurt Russell as an apparently omniscient narrator. Bruce Dern appears in a single funny and touching scene as the senile proprietor of the deserted movie ranch; Al Pacino flits merrily in and out as a know-it-all executive; the late Luke Perry, appearing in his final role, plays the stoic cowboy hero to Rick’s theatrically snarling villain. The whole package is enjoyably heterogeneous, stuffed with verbal and visual jokes and vibrant period-appropriate music and filmed in Tarantino’s ingeniously kinetic style. But knowing what it’s all leading up to—the night in August 1969 when a man and three women from the Manson compound will appear on Cielo Drive, knives in hand, in front of the house of a Tate who is by then 8½ months into her pregnancy—makes the movie’s many pleasures hard to enjoy, especially knowing how much Tarantino loves a no-holds-barred gory showdown.
A revelation about Pitt’s character’s past midway through the movie might change how you respond to the culminating orgy of violence, which, as is often the case in Tarantino films, seems at once like a critique of the vision of masculinity that’s imposed on us by TV and the movies and like a celebration of it. (In fact, a character in the movie—to reveal which one would be to say too much—at one point advances a theory about our culture’s dependence on mediatized mayhem.) In choosing to set a movie on Cielo Drive in the summer of 1969, Tarantino took on a historical event that not only changed how Americans thought about fame, violence, and the counterculture but also ended five innocent lives (seven if you count the LaBiancas, who died in a separate Manson-incited incident the following night).* It’s fine to walk out of this movie not quite sure what Tarantino was using his story’s proximity to this real-life tragedy to say; that’s part of the ambiguity inherent in making art. But it’s dispiriting to suspect that part of why he wanted to stage a Manson-adjacent story was because the accoutrements—the period cars and costumes and neon signs, the glowering barefoot hippie girls, the acid-laced cigarettes and glowing movie marquees—were just so cool.
Correction, July 29, 2019: This article originally misidentified the LaBiancas as Sharon Tate’s next-door neighbors. The LaBiancas lived in a different Los Angeles neighborhood, where they were neighbors to another man, at whose house the Manson crew had once partied.