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Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood review: Quentin Tarantino’s latest is an unharmonious clash of ideas

Dir: Quentin Tarantino. Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Emile Hirsch, Margaret Qualley, Timothy Olyphant, and Austin Butler. 18, 161 mins

What is there left for Quentin Tarantino to say in 2019? His work in the 1990s, from Pulp Fiction to Jackie Brown, sparked a minor revolution in the way we employ cinematic language. Nowadays, we see his influence everywhere – even his biggest critics won’t deny that. But how do you stay fresh in an industry when you’ve already become enshrined in its history? And what happens when cinema moves on without you? When 2015’s The Hateful Eight was met with mixed reactions from both critics and audiences, those seemed like fair questions to ask. Now, in his ninth (and supposedly penultimate) film, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, Tarantino tackles those ideas of creative insecurity head-on.

Set in 1969, this warm, deeply nostalgic film eulogises the classic screen cowboy, whose position as the great American hero had begun to fade. It’s also riddled with the anxiety of feeling left behind by the world, and thus Tarantino’s most raw, personal film to date. The trouble is, there’s a reluctance to actually betray this fact on screen, so swamped is Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood by Tarantino's attempts to offer a wider cultural statement that never quite comes together. It’s an unharmonious clash between two separate ideas: the director’s personal anxieties and the real story of the end of the 1960s.

The film offers two separate narratives that seem interlinked by destiny. First off, there are Tarantino’s two fantasy creations: Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), who’s saved the day many times over as the star of TV’s Bounty Law, but doesn’t have much to show for it, and his stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). In Rick’s words, Cliff is “meant to help carry my load”. He’s his best friend – well, only friend – and crutch, and has been driving Rick around town ever since he got his licence revoked. While Rick may live in luxury in the Hollywood hills, Cliff drives a rickety old car and lives in a trailer with his dog, Brandy. What the actor offers, however, is a shield against the dangerous reputation Cliff has earned, either fairly or unfairly (Tarantino leaves this open to interpretation).

Despite being bound together by their own misfortune, theirs is a sweet, genuine friendship, electrified by the fact it’s being played out by two of Hollywood’s greatest living stars. It’s the first time in their careers that the two have ever been paired together and they’ve been given free rein to flex their outsized personas. DiCaprio is all poised, studied intensity. Pitt has the easy smiles and laidback charm. It’s exhilarating to watch.

The second, parallel story in Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood is a truthful one (or as truthful as it can be, after receiving one of Tarantino’s revisionist makeovers, a la Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained). The house next door to Rick has recently become the home of actor Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and her husband, director Roman Polanski (Rafał Zawierucha). For those who know their Hollywood history, that address was 10050 Cielo Drive. On 9 August 1969, three followers of the cult leader Charles Manson entered the property and brutally murdered all its occupants: Jay Sebring, Wojciech Frykowski, Abigail Folger, and Tate – who was pregnant at the time. Tarantino sets his film in the months leading up the crime, letting the tension rise, like storm clouds rolling in to wreak havoc on the “peace and love” idealism of the decade. There’s an off-kilter quality to how he shoots the film, even in its happier moments, as the camera looms over the future sites of death and destruction and an uneasy standoff takes place at the Manson headquarters at Spahn Ranch.

It’s a tension also felt in Rick’s world, since he and Cliff symbolise the last gasps of Classical Hollywood, as threatened by the decade’s intergenerational clashes and the rise of the counterculture. As many have theorised, the Manson murders and the paranoia they sparked cemented the dawn of the grittier, moodier New Hollywood. Tarantino mourns what was lost and idealises his two heroes to an extreme, including in a scene where Cliff bests Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) in a fight – a moment that exists only to eulogise the skills of a no-name stuntman.

Yet it’s telling how easily Rick and Cliff can be aligned with Tarantino himself. A scene from one of their old films sees Rick let loose a flamethrower in a room filled with Nazi officers, in a direct nod to Inglourious Basterds, while the western series they’re currently working on feels a little too sombre and brutal for daytime TV, having more in common with a revisionist western like The Hateful Eight. For a film that’s elsewhere so obsessed with period detail, there’s no way this is a coincidence. At one point, the Manson members theorise that it’s the violence they grew up watching on TV shows like Bounty Law that’s made them murderous – an allusion, also, to the decades of criticism Tarantino has faced for his films.

There’s no doubt the director feels greatly for Tate and the film’s most tender scene sees her slip into a local cinema to watch her film The Wrecking Crew. Robbie comes alive in her performance here, as she giggles and blushes when people applaud, close to tears in the knowledge that she’s made an impact (however small) on the world.

But this scene is really the only humanity Tate’s ever given. She’s a symbol, like everyone else in the film. And while the ending takes risks that will inevitably divide audiences, there’s a problem in how Tate’s story becomes about Rick and Cliff, and everything they represent. This isn’t about her or the brutality she suffered (it’s hard to think that Tarantino had violence against women at the forefront of his mind, considering that Emile Hirsch, who was convicted for assault in 2015, was cast as Tate’s close friend Jay Sebring). Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is about a director decades into his career wrestling with concerns he’s reached the end of his glory days. And, to Tarantino’s credit, even if the film muddles its message, there’s enough here to prove that those fears are unfounded.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is out in UK cinemas now