By Jake Wilson
Midway through Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Sharon Tate (played by Margot Robbie) goes to the movies. Specifically, she goes to one of her own movies, Phil Karlson’s 1968 spy spoof The Wrecking Crew.
Inside the theatre, she makes herself at home, slipping off her go-go boots and putting her bare feet up on the seat in front of her, while smiling at her onscreen counterpart (the actual Tate, not Robbie) as if the pair were sharing a private joke.
She is, you might say, enjoying herself. So too is Tarantino: there seems little doubt that every detail of the tableau has been selected to give him pleasure, and we are being permitted to witness a private ritual of self-gratification, on more than one level.
This is one possible secret centre of a very long film, which often appears to consist of nothing but secret centres. Many of these take the form of lulls where drama is wilfully kept at bay, leaving all the more scope for Tarantino to nerd out over the cars, clothes, hairstyles, advertisements, TV shows and movies he associates with the Hollywood of 1969 (and hence with his own 1960s childhood).
There is a story, or at least the promise or semblance of one. Taken at face value the film is an old-fashioned buddy movie, built on the easy rapport between two stars, both close to their best: Leonardo DiCaprio as Rick Dalton, a faded actor in TV westerns, and Brad Pitt as Cliff Booth, Rick’s stunt double, dogsbody, and seemingly only friend.
Craftily, Tarantino allows us to be charmed by these characters while still viewing them with some ambivalence. Rick is a crybaby and a drunk, self-absorbed and more than a little naive (he could almost be imagined as the fresh-faced cowboy actor played by Alden Ehrenreich in the Coen brothers Hail, Caesar! a couple of decades on).
Cliff is the tough guy Rick can only pretend to be, with a laid-back manner that comes from having nothing to prove. But not everyone likes him, and part of the film’s gameplan is to leave us guessing about just what manner of man we’re dealing with.
Hip guys but very much not hippies, the two are increasingly out of place in the New Hollywood represented by Tate, who has moved into the house next door to them in the Hollywood Hills along with her husband Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), the hottest director in town.
This adds a note of dread to the film’s breezy comedy – since no viewer can fail to be aware that Tate, along with several others, gets murdered that same year by the followers of cult leader Charles Manson (Damon Herriman).
The encounter between fiction and fact is the crux of the film, however long we take to get there. More precisely, Tarantino is bent on pitting the playful, weightless violence of genre storytelling against the traumatic violence of real-world history – as he has done previously in films like Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained.
For all the obsessive accuracy of the period detailing, it’s immediately obvious that this is not a literal, realist re-creation of a time and place, but something more like a troubled dream or hallucination. Or a fairytale, as we might glean from the title – which pays homage to Sergio Leone’s visionary Once Upon a Time in America, a “memory piece” in the grandest sense.
As always, Tarantino’s goal is to heighten the contradictions rather than resolve them, leaving us to guess whether he’s the idiot savant he’s so often taken for or whether he’s playing a deeper game than most of us can see.
How willing is he to explore what might lie beneath the film's many surface pleasures? Perhaps it’s mere evasion that he avoids confronting the figure of Manson, who might be understood as a dreadful analogue to a director, orchestrating crimes while keeping his own hands clean.
On the other hand, a cameo by stunt co-ordinator Zoe Bell – who, since her starring role in Tarantino's 2007 Death Proof, has increasingly assumed the role of his conscience – is one of several broad hints about the darkness lurking, all along, beneath the glamorous surface of Hollywood.