The ninth, and if a long-held pledge is to be believed, penultimate film from Quentin Tarantino, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood has long been shrouded in the kind of secrecy typically reserved for films with post-credit stings. So what is it? A love-letter to the tinsel town of the late '60s? The story of a down-on-his-luck actor and his stuntman? A fairytale retelling of the Manson Family murder spree? The answer is all the above, and while that may sound like dream Tarantino territory - which, to a certain extent, it is - Hollywood has also arrived with its fair share of problems.
Our way into the pre-Manson world of 1969 California is "has-been" actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), and his stuntman/glorified driver Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Dalton was the star of a successful, Rawhide-esque TV show called Bounty Law, but left to pursue a career in movies that never panned out. Forced to return to TV, he's typecast as a bad guy and contemplates a stint shooting Spaghetti Westerns to restore his status as a leading man. But before he jets to Italy there's one more pilot to shoot. Cliff, meanwhile, motors around the city, repairing Dalton's TV aerial, popping home to feed his beloved pup Brandy and occasionally crossing paths with one of Manson's eye-catching acolytes on the side of the road.
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The connection between Dalton and Manson is, initially at least, simply geographical. Dalton's home in the Hollywood hills happens to be right next to the one owned by Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), hot off the success of Rosemary’s Baby and engaged to up-and-coming actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), who the Manson family murdered in August of 1969. Any direct retelling of the events of that night would no doubt have been in bad taste, but Tarantino more or less dodges any such accusations by doing for the Manson murders what he did for Nazi Germany in Inglorious Basterds; putting his own, wildly entertaining, cartoonishly violent spin on history through the fictional characters he's inserted into a real-life tragedy.
All the Tarantino hallmarks are here - the jet-black humour, fine-tuned dialogue, jukebox soundtrack and, yes, bare feet. And Tarantino seems energized by the period setting. While cameos from the likes of Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis) and Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) can feel a little opportunistic, the sense of time and place is astonishing. A nostalgic ode to the sun-drenched Hollywood of the late '60s, where cars cruise down the street to Simon and Garfunkel and cinemas dominate Hollywood Boulevard, it's a flawless recreation of a long-gone tinsel town.
But the baggy mid-section, where the film spends an inordinate amount of time on set with Dalton as he shoots his latest TV-show-within-a-film amid a crisis of competence, only seems to exist to satisfy Tarantino’s desire to make his own cheesy, made-for-TV western (we imagine there are hours of outtakes), leaving Hollywood, at times, feeling like Tarantino at his most indulgent and unfocused. But it’s a film peppered with scenes of such magnificence diversions like this are worth taking.
In one particularly brilliant sequence, Cliff effectively steps into a teeth-clenchingly tense horror movie after giving one of Manson’s acolytes a lift back to their commune. In another, surprisingly sweet scene, Robbie's Tate watches the real Sharon Tate on screen in Wrecking Crew, the 1968 film she starred in with Dean Martin. Tarantino eventually pulls the film's many threads together for a deliriously entertaining final act that’s both unexpected and destined to be a major talking point.
For more coverage from Cannes 2019 read our review of Terrence Malick’s return to form A Hidden Life.