Movies

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood Shows Tarantino Is the Rare Kind of Director Who Shouldn’t Retire

For some filmmakers, the best way to fight aging has been to make movies about it.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt stand in front of a billboard in a still from the film.
Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
Sony Pictures Entertainment

Quentin Tarantino has been talking about quitting the movies for almost as long as he’s been making them. Even as early as a 2004 interview with Entertainment Weekly, Tarantino offered assurances he wouldn’t stick around past his sell-by date. Asked what he saw himself doing at 60, he suggested he will probably have moved on to writing novels by that point, saying, “I won’t be making movies, that’s for sure.” Around 2014, that urge gelled into something like a retirement plan. Tarantino began talking about creating a 10-film filmography and calling it a day. His latest, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, is his ninth of that proposed 10 (assuming, like Tarantino, you treat Kill Bill as a single film and try to forget Four Rooms happened). A bittersweet, complex, conversation-starting look back at the film business at the close of a tumultuous decade, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood also works as a strong argument for why it’s too soon for Tarantino to pack it in. It’s not a film Tarantino would, or could, have made 20 years ago, and that’s part of what makes it so remarkable.

When talking about his plan, Tarantino has repeatedly come back to one word: geriatric. “A lot of the [’70s] movie brats have gotten old and it shows in their work, and I don’t want that.
And I’m not picking on them because you go back 100 years and directors don’t get better as they get older,” he told Entertainment Weekly in that same 2004 interview. “As you get older your interests change, you have older interests. Not everything has to be so visceral or kinetic. If I say Martin Scorsese’s movies are getting kind of geriatric and everything, he can say, F— you, man! I’m doing what I want to do, I’m following my muse, and he’s 100 percent right.” That muse is one, however, Tarantino has expressed no interest in following. Speaking to the Telegraph in 2010, he doubled down while throwing in some new, even more colorful terms, saying “I don’t want to make old geriatric colostomy bag movies. I want to make hard-d–k movies and I want them all to come from the same place as Reservoir Dogs; from the same artist, from the same man.”

On the one hand, he has a point. As with many artists, directors’ filmographies often might as well include an “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here” placard after a certain age. Tarantino’s own go-to example tends to be Billy Wilder, who wound down his career with less than fondly remembered efforts like Fedora and Buddy Buddy. A variety of factors can conspire against older directors, even beyond a depletion of creative energy. This includes ageism and the film industry’s desire to move on to the next, hot, young prospect while putting yesterday’s stars out to pasture, regardless of what they have to offer. We know Tarantino knows all of this well, because he explores all of it in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

But plenty of directors have made themselves exceptions to the trend. In 2007, for instance, Sidney Lumet released his final film at the age of 83, and anyone watching Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead might easily have mistaken it for the work of an up-and-comer. It’s a kinetic, uncompromising film filled with sex and violence unafraid to head toward a bleak ending that also benefits from the decades of experience Lumet brought to the project.

Not that a movie has to be filled with edgy material not to feel geriatric. When Agnès Varda died earlier this year at the age of 90, she ended her career having followed her own path from her earliest days to the end, including some final films reflecting on her own mortality that were as invested with energy as Cléo From 5 to 7. Tarantino’s preferred punching bag, Martin Scorsese, seems like an odd choice to label with the G-word. In the decade after Tarantino’s EW interview, Scorsese’s projects have included the intense, sweaty, Best Picture–winning The Departed, the 3D Hugo, and the borderline experimental thriller Shutter Island, a film filled with nods to 21st-century Korean thrillers and avant-garde 20th-century composers. Furthermore, maybe “geriatric” doesn’t have to have negative connotations. Witness Clint Eastwood’s The Mule, a lively drama about a 90-year-old drug mule that offers both suspenseful thrills and a rumination on old age (and not one but two three-way scenes, as Pete Davidson and John Mulaney were eager to point out in an SNL appearance talking about the film).

But ultimately, it’s Tarantino himself who offers the best argument against Tarantino. At 34, he made Jackie Brown, a film about hitting middle age and wondering what life has to offer next. It’s one of Tarantino’s best, yet many of the same themes run even deeper in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. A long, midfilm sequence follows aging cowboy star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) from the beginning to the end of a day spent shooting a guest appearance on the TV series Lancer. Rick is hungover and insecure, and after flubbing some lines during his first scene, he returns to his trailer and excoriates himself. It’s funny until it’s not, especially when Rick tells his own reflection he’s going to kill him. Then he rallies to film the next scene with an intensity that’s downright Shakespearean and ends the day with a renewed sense of his own abilities.

It’s a journey, one that captures the complexity of the film’s thoughts on getting older and staring down an obsolescence that feels premature. Tarantino handles these formidable themes with depth and consideration (and, sure, some geysers of blood), all while tying them to even larger themes about the weight of history and the way eras end. It plays like the work of someone trying to understand the world he glimpsed through the haze of childhood as a kid growing up in L.A. and of someone who’s watched the ground shift beneath him since he became a wunderkind in the ’90s indie movie scene. Hollywood revisits some familiar Tarantino elements, but it also introduces a host of new interests and new tricks—a willingness to slow down the pace even beyond that of the largely dialogue-driven films that precede it, an urge to step beyond the familiar genres, an openness to looking beyond the most obvious influences of his past work. It’s the sort of film that makes you eager to see what Tarantino does next.

But what if what comes next is the end? In 2016, Tarantino seemed to give himself a possible out, telling a crowd of festivalgoers that he might reconsider “if at 75, if I have this other story to tell, it would still kind of work.” His logic: He’d have his 10 canonical films and then, apart from those his—wait for it—“geriatric” effort. Yet as Tarantino gets older—he’s 56 now, four years away from that age by which he said he’d be done—that sort of distinction seems to be increasingly meaningless. Why should the former video-store clerk try to live up to some dictate he set for himself as a young man determined to make young-man films or no films at all, a dictate his own artistic impulses have started to rebel against? If anything, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood suggests he’s better equipped than almost anyone to make geriatric films exciting.