There are a lot of things one could say about Quentin Tarantino’s movies, but “formulaic” is not one of them. “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” isn’t a taut, densely plotted thriller like “Pulp Fiction.” Nor is it a sprawling historical epic like “Django Unchained” or “Inglourious Basterds,” or a locked-room mystery like “Reservoir Dogs” or “The Hateful Eight.” It’s something else altogether.
Set in 1969, “Hollywood” follows the adventures of western TV icon Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his longtime stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) as Dalton attempts to transition from TV into film. As the two men drift from opportunity to opportunity, they cross paths with their actress neighbor Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), who positively exudes joi de vivre.
At first blush, it’s hard to grasp what the idea of this movie is, because most of the film’s extended runtime is comprised of seemingly disconnected vignettes: Booth brawls with Bruce Lee in a Hollywood alleyway; Dalton contemplates his career decisions on the set of a TV pilot, with some help from a spunky child actress; Tate goes to a movie theater to watch herself in a comedy flick; Booth stumbles into the lair of the murderous Manson Family; Dalton and Booth head to Italy to star in a series of “spaghetti Westerns”; and so on.
As a result, “Hollywood” comes off as a leisurely, reflective sort of movie, an experience steeped in California cool. Here, all of Tarantino’s best filmmaking tendencies—and few of his worst—are on display. “Hollywood” has plenty of crackling dialogue, creative cinematographic moments, and high-tension sequences without ever lapsing into “Kill Bill” levels of bloodshed or “Django”-esque fourth-wall-breaking.
But that’s not to say, of course, that this is a family-friendly film—or that it’s ultimately pointless.
(Spoilers follow. Read on at your own risk.)
As is Tarantino’s wont, the film’s closing minutes veer into ultraviolent alternate history. When Manson Family killers come for Tate at the film’s climax, Dalton and Booth spring to the rescue. Booth employs his stuntman training to demolish two assassins, while Dalton retrieves the flamethrower he used in a World War II flick and uses it to incinerate the remaining killer. It’s an explosive denouement that comes almost out of nowhere, and yet somehow it serves as the fulcrum around which the entire experience turns. And more interesting still, it doesn’t feel like the kind of exploitation-flick homage for which Tarantino is well known. Something else—something deeper and more thoughtful—is going on in “Hollywood.”
There have already been some good takes on what “Hollywood” is really trying to say in its coda. Atlantic writer Caitlin Flanagan reads the film—in particular, Pitt’s heroic stuntman character—as a defense of traditional masculinity against its contemporary critics. Theologian David Bentley Hart makes a good case that the film’s ending is a kind of spiritual eucatastrophe, a glimpse into a Kingdom of Heaven where evil is decisively vanquished and history’s sins are made right. I have to admit, though, that those of us who didn’t live through the Tate murder or its aftermath—which is to say, my whole generation—can’t really relate to the observations made by Flanagan and Hart.
It’s taken me a long time to write this review, because I’ve spent a long time puzzling out my own thoughts. After much pondering, I tend to think that in large part, “Hollywood” subverts—and even inverts—the old maxim that violent cinema inevitably corrupts the moral sensibilities of those involved with it. Throughout the film, one watches Dalton and Booth feature in numerous pulp Westerns and low-budget action pictures. And when the time comes for them to be truly heroic in the real world—to defend the innocent Tate against pitiless killers—they rely on the dispositions, skills and tools cultivated in their roles as actors (that is, bravery, karate moves and a flamethrower) to defeat real monsters. They embody, that is, the heroism and talents of the characters they played onscreen.
Put a different way, Tarantino suggests that to the extent that actors’ and moviegoers’ moral dispositions are formed by the cinema, the cinema ought to depict the virtues that are actually necessary to confront and defeat evil. Movies can thus be a kind of laboratory for at least the four cardinal virtues of classical thought—fortitude, prudence, justice, and temperance.
There’s an old G.K. Chesterton quote that comes to mind here: “Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey.” And that latter—the idea of the possible defeat of the world’s wicked forces—is the moral core of “Hollywood.”
In short, if you’re a film buff—even if most Tarantino films aren’t your speed—“Hollywood” is absolutely worth seeing. (It’s probably the film that’s haunted me the most all year.) And in an cinematic season of endless reboots and sequels, it’s a nice reminder that thoughtful moviemaking for grown-ups isn’t quite dead yet.