It’s fitting that Quentin Tarantino is talking up retirement as his supposed penultimate film, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, is solely focused on the end of an era and accepting that. Following a series of vignettes that come together on the night of the Manson Murders, his latest film is not only a wonderful, conflicted throwback to an era that’s never coming back, but also quite possibly his best work this decade as it’s such a thematically rich piece of filmmaking that’s worth dissecting and analyzing.
While this film is obviously taking us back the ’60s, it’s also taking us back to a different time in Tarantino’s career, specifically his work in the ’90s. In their Jackie Brown review, Siskel and Ebert agreed that film “is about the process, not the payoff.” This is a statement that’s not only true about his first three films, but also his latest. Sure, it’s all leading up to the Manson Murders (or at least Tarantino’s version of events; which despite altering history, never take away any of the serious impact that the murders actually had), but it would be missing the point to say that the film is about Manson, or any of the other characters for that matter. Instead, it’s about the cultural zeitgeist leading up to August 8, 1969, and how everything changed after that.
There’s also a lot of subtle tension leading up to that night. Throughout the first half of the movie, members of the Manson family are often shown wandering in the background, including a wonderful scene where a group of them walk past a poster of Giant, the James Dean starring film about cattle ranchers. Not only does it hint at the Spahn ranch, where the Manson family lived before the murders, but it also reminds the audience of tragedy, as it was Dean’s final film released after his tragic death.
Another brilliant moment is the inclusion of Neil Diamond’s Brother Love’s Travelling Salvation Show when Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) agrees to take a Manson family member (Margaret Qualley) up to the Spahn Ranch. It gives the moment a hauntingly spiritual atmosphere that reminds the audience of Manson’s sickeningly manipulative ways. While Manson only shows up in one scene, his sinister shadow symbolizing his evil nature looms throughout the film, foreshadowing the heinous crime that brought the “Free Love” era to an end.
In direct contrast to the evils of Manson looming over the film, Tarantino also allows Sharon Tate the same luxury. Her spirit looms over the film as a contrasting force to symbolize the era-defining innocence and love that was robbed when she was slain. In that sense she’s the most important part of the film, and Margot Robbie does an incredible job of bringing Tate to the screen. Sure, she doesn’t have that many lines, but she brings such a warm and kind presence to the film through her mannerisms and emotions, and it makes for a memorable performance that allows Tate’s spirit to linger throughout the film, even when she’s not on screen. Tate’s presence is undoubtedly the most powerful aspect of the film and a testament to Robbie’s capabilities as an actress.
Tarantino also shows the end of an era through the eyes of Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio). Dalton’s fading star as a TV actor makes for an interesting and fun little foil to the Manson/Tate story, as he slowly starts to accept that he needs to adapt or his career will come to a close. Even if it’s not as thematically satisfying, it does say a lot about accepting that times change, much like how Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice used getting over an ex-girlfriend to reflect the same idea. It’s still really fascinating stuff, and often makes for a lot of the comedic highlights of the movie.
Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood certainly takes its time, especially compared to the steadier pacing of Tarantino’s last couple films, but it’s an incredibly rewarding experience for those who are willing to go for the ride. The scenes involving the Manson family and Sharon Tate are certainly the most thematically enriching compared to Rick Dalton’s character arc, but that’s not to say that the latter isn’t fascinating either. As a whole, it’s certainly conflicted about the time period it’s set in, both lovingly embracing its beauty, while also exposing and disarming the sinister, manipulative underbelly of it all. It’s possibly Tarantino’s best in years, while also coming back to the elements of his 90’s work that made him such a force to be reckoned with.