Once Upon a Time in Hollywood review: Tarantino's ode to pre-Manson LA is pure movie-world intoxication

Robbie Collin

Dir: Quentin Tarantino. Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Al Pacino, Dakota Fanning, Damian Lewis, Bruce Dern, Emile Hirsch, Luke Perry, Damon Herriman, Mike Moh. Cert TBC, 161 mins.

Ask a film historian when the Hollywood illusion shattered and they might point to the night of August 8 1969, when four members of the Manson Family cult broke into a luxury villa in western Los Angeles and savagely murdered five of its occupants, including Sharon Tate, the 26-year-old actress and girlfriend of Roman Polanski, and the couple’s unborn child.

It’s understandable that a deep-dyed cinephile like Quentin Tarantino would want to re-stage the event and poke around in its moving parts – and just as understandable that audiences would be half-electrified and half-terrified at the thought of what might result. This is, after all, the director whose Second World War film, Inglourious Basterds, hardly allowed the clouds of recent history to cast a shadow over his appetite for cinematic carnage, as Brad Pitt’s Jewish-American commando cut a scalp-lopping swathe through Nazi Europe.

Pitt returns in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Tarantino’s non-stop-extraordinary ninth film and a hazily freewheeling Tarantinification of the Manson massacre and the winding road towards it. It takes place over two meandering February days six months prior to the killings, before tying up armfuls of loose threads on the fateful night itself.

Crackling with sandpapery mid-life charisma, Pitt co-stars as Clifford Booth, the long-serving stunt double and informal personal assistant to Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton – a buffoonish, doughy-handsome television actor not entirely unlike Burt Reynolds, whose humbler abode is one door down from the chic the Tate-Polanski residence. As the film begins, Dalton is told by his agent (Al Pacino) that his leading man days are numbered.

Walk-on villain roles have diluted his brand to the point that Rome might now be a smarter base of operations than California, since the spaghetti western scene is taking off. Rick is heartbroken, but knows the game is almost up. DiCaprio is a riot at making his character talented-ish, sweating, coughing and stammering off-camera, yet delivering the goods – sometimes brilliantly – when action’s called.

Meanwhile Cliff roves around the city, carrying out odd jobs, tending to his bull terrier Brandy, and reminiscing about past gigs. And Sharon (Margot Robbie) is just enjoying being a newly minted star: in the film’s most delightful, lowest-key sequence she wanders into a cinema playing her 1968 action comedy The Wrecking Crew and smilingly savours the audible enjoyment of the cinema-goers around her, with her bare feet propped lasciviously on the seat in front.

Tarantino luxuriates in bringing this prelapsarian heyday roaring back to life, and the effect is pure movie-world intoxication, laced with in-jokes and nibble-ably sweet period detail. (This film must have the most plausible, immersive depiction of late 1960s LA since they shot films in LA in the late 1960s.)

Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

As for the Manson clan, ensconced at the ‘movie ranch’ where Cliff once plied his trade, they’re almost incidental figures, though a string of chance encounters with one lissom acolyte (Margaret Qualley) leads to a potted spaghetti-western showdown that gives the lie to Rick’s earlier claim that the genre’s a crock. Not when it’s carried off with piano-wire tension and dust-blown atmospherics as magnificent as this, it isn’t.

And so the film rambles intriguingly along, less the fairy tale promised by its title than a loose bundle of short stories, none of which give any clear hints as to where things might end up.

Where they do is undoubtedly the big talking point, and one that would be insane to unpack three months before its UK release, though it’s safe to say Rick and Cliff become embroiled to an extent.

The murder scene itself, meanwhile, must be the single most shocking sequence in Tarantino’s filmography for a number of reasons, with one moment that had me shielding my eyes and another that made me groan “oh no” out loud. There’s a gleeful toxicity to it that will launch a thousand think-pieces – not least because Pitt’s character is capital-P problematic, entirely by design.

But the transgressive thrill is undeniable, and the artistry mesmerisingly assured. What began as a retro atmosphere bath ends with the steely focus of a mission statement, returning its director to first principles: the shock of the old made rivetingly new.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood screened on May 21 at the Cannes Film Festival, and is released in UK cinemas on Wednesday August 14