When I heard Quentin Tarantino was making a movie about the Charles Manson murders, I flinched. Gifted as he is, I’ve always found the violence in his movies to be cringe-worthy because so often what we get are flagrant fantasias without any comprehension of what violence can actually do to both victims and perpetrators. Missing from Tarantino’s mindscape is the psychological consequence of violence.
His new film, “Once Upon a Time in ... Hollywood,” is a multilayered narrative that draws on the Manson murders while primarily focusing on the relationship between Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) – a fading TV Western star whose career has been reduced to guest villain appearances and the occasional starring role in low-grade spaghetti Westerns – and Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), Dalton’s longtime stunt double and best buddy. A Vietnam veteran, Booth is rumored to have killed his wife years before and gotten away with it.
Taking a cue from its title, the movie is pitched as a species of fairy tale. The re-creation of Los Angeles circa 1969 is both scrupulous and dreamlike, but because we know the Manson murders are in the offing, the atmosphere has a noxious charge. We are supposed to regard the Hollywood we see as the era’s last stand of innocence before the lights went out.
Considering that the year depicted was not long after both Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. were shot, with the Vietnam War raging, this swan song to innocence comes across as a bit air-headed. Likewise, Tarantino’s take on the alcoholic Rick – that he was a casualty of the increasing impersonality of the entertainment industry – is directly at odds with the reality of a time when the vastly money-losing studio system first opened its doors to a new generation of personal filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, and many others, directors who had a large influence on Tarantino.
In terms of creative influences, though, Tarantino’s abiding love is for schlock, especially chopsocky movies and spaghetti Westerns, both of which are amply referenced in the latest film. Most of what is referenced, however, are low-grade TV shows like “Mannix.”
The fact that Tarantino was only 6 when the movie’s events take place underscores the unreality of his nostalgia. What’s more, he appears to value schlock as aesthetically invigorating. He celebrates it and bemoans its passing. When Rick cries that he’s “not the best anymore,” the implication is that he once was.
The paradox of Tarantino’s oeuvre is that it is highly derivative of other movies, mostly genre pulp, and yet the films seem distinctly his. He is the most influential director of his generation because he ranges promiscuously through pop culture and brings to his borrowings an incendiary force. But the transformations he wreaks on pop culture – like his antebellum blood bath “Django Unchained,” or his World War II actioner “Inglourious Basterds,” – are fairly simpleminded. Compared to how, say, Jean-Luc Godard or François Truffaut transmogrified their pulp sources, it’s child’s play.
“Once Upon a Time in ... Hollywood” does have much to recommend it: Although DiCaprio seems miscast as an aging, washed-up actor (mostly because he never seems to age), Pitt, in a rangy, lived-in performance, is marvelous. As Sharon Tate, Margot Robbie is quite touching as the film’s golden emblem of innocence. In a wonderful scene, she sits in a public theater playing one of her movies and beams at the audience’s enjoyment.
Few directors can draw out tension in a scene with as much brio as Tarantino. What’s missing, for want of a better term, is a sense of aesthetic responsibility. In “Inglourious Basterds,” Tarantino turned the Holocaust into a pulpy revenge fantasy and in his new film, he does the same thing with the Manson murders. For all his stylistic sophistication, he remains Hollywood’s reigning adolescent.
Rated R for language throughout, some strong graphic violence, drug use, and sexual references.