Give me sexy, evil Hamlet.
It was around midnight between August 8th and 9th, 1969 that Tex Watson, Susan Atkins, and Patricia Krenwinkel arrived at 10050 Cielo Drive in Los Angeles on a mission from their cult leader Charles Manson. They were told to go to that house (a former renter named Terry Melcher once rebuked Manson) and kill everyone inside as gruesomely as possible. By morning five people were dead including a pregnant Sharon Tate (whose husband, director Roman Polanski, was in Europe working on a new film) with “pig” written in blood on the door. The brutality of the case became infamous, Manson eventually served life in prison until his 2017 death, and the mystique surrounding its glitzy Hollywood backdrop continues to enthrall the masses half a century later.
What if Watson, Atkins, Krenwinkel, and Linda Kasabian didn’t manage to cut the Polanski residence’s phone line? What if a famous neighbor heard their beat-up car with its horrid muffler and berated them back down the cul-de-sac, catching them off-guard enough to either accidentally attack the wrong house or willfully choose to ignore Manson’s explicit orders and silence their witness instead? The possibilities would be endless depending on who the orator of revisionist history put inside this impromptu replacement destination—endless and potentially wilder than even a cold-blooded murder at the hands of hippie strangers doing the “devil’s business.” All you’d have to do is work backwards from the climax, introduce a pair of anachronistic heroes, and set them forth on their fateful path towards conflict.
Much like World War II (albeit with a lot more specificity), Quentin Tarantino does exactly that with Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood: a love letter to classic westerns (home and abroad), cinematic magic, and those unheralded icons forgotten by time as the genre (along with them) transitioned its box office success to television instead. This is where Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) are found, two industry veterans slowly confronting the harsh reality that their respective time in the limelight is almost over. Booth’s sordid past should have already thrown him out if not for Dalton keeping him on-hand as chauffeur, handyman, and occasional stuntman. It won’t be long, however, before Rick proves unable to maintain his own utility too.
They’re thus at the mercy of their replacements with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) ushering in a new form of action-packed theatrics, James Stacy (Timothy Olyphant) earning lead during pilot season, and starlets like Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie with the real Tate’s performance preserved on-screen during The Wrecking Crew) exploding onto the scene. Dalton must fight for whatever scraps he can get now that his show has been cancelled. It’s either play heavies on TV so the networks’ up-and-coming A-listers can beat him up or follow the money of eccentric producers like Marvin Schwarzs (Al Pacino) to Europe and risk becoming completely obsolete back home. With confidence bottomed-out at zero, Rick can’t even muster the courage to introduce himself to Tate and Polanski once they move in next door.
For about two hours Tarantino reveals Dalton’s frustrations coping with this newfound life on the outside looking in. And while he’s struggling to remain relevant (with enough desperation to perhaps deliver the performance of his career), Booth is being blacklisted from stunt crews (the latest run by Kurt Russell and Zoë Bell) and forced to spend his time fixing Rick’s cable antenna and daydreaming about the pretty hitchhiker he passes on Hollywood Boulevard (Margaret Qualley‘s Manson Family ingénue Pussycat). It’s a sequence of events that places them on a trajectory wherein their downward trend will inevitably stop upon them hitting the ground with no hope of ever getting back up. But maybe some carefully placed items and a hungry pitbull just save might their lives to enjoy retirement.
We may have come to witness what sort of chaos Tarantino injects to alter the course of history during the last thirty minutes, but it’s this more introspective and often resonant journey beforehand that truly soars. Whether it’s the heartbreaking self-realization of Dalton’s mortality at the feet of a precocious young actor (Julia Butters) putting his craft to shame or Cliff’s natural inclination to go head-first into a shady situation to see if an old acquaintance (Bruce Dern‘s George Spahn, upon whose rundown studio ranch is now Manson’s base of operations) is being exploited, we’re watching these two men expose who they are beneath the superficial shallowness of Hollywood. Controversial murder for tasteless comedy aside, they’re seemingly good at heart and dedicated to their profession and each other.
It’s therefore a joy to dive deeper into who they are and what brought them to this specific point in time through brief vignettes of archival footage or visual montages narrated by Russell. This is where the 60s aesthetic shines brightest because we’re following as they hit Musso & Frank and drive past neon signs of landmark destinations immortalized in their vintage chic. I’ll admit to being so enthralled in Dalton’s behind the scenes machinations, Booth’s flights of imaginative fancy and suspenseful visit with Squeaky Fromme (Dakota Fanning), and Tate’s wide-eyed innocence at seeing herself on the big screen that I forgot what it was all working towards. The climax is a bona fide culmination of everything else, but its blunt force trauma leaves something to be desired.
I’m not saying you’ll forget it’s coming (Tate’s inclusion is to literally be our constant reminder), but I found myself not caring since I had so much to feast my eyes upon in the meantime. The production design is impeccable, the soundtrack superb, and the amount of cameos a delight to experience whether Tarantino regulars (Michael Madsen), offspring of regulars (Maya Hawke and Rumer Willis), or who’s who of familiar faces (Luke Perry, Lena Dunham, Damian Lewis, etc.). It’s also easy to become invested in Dalton and Booth’s lives because they move separate from the Manson centerpiece (Damon Herriman only receives one scene). Add the humor in DiCaprio’s emotional self-reckoning and Pitt’s even-keeled cool within fantasy and reality and you should be hard-pressed to feel any pacing lags.
How it shakes out is unforgettable in its cathartic, fictional revenge upon unrepentant monsters, but the inherent silliness of its circumstances feels as artificial as it is. Where I never assumed Tarantino might pull back a curtain and show the unhistorical deaths in Inglourious Basterds were dreamt, I did here. Part of this is the tonal disparity of its comedic horror styling and part the fact that we’d already witnessed other embellished moments revealed as idle thoughts. The ending isn’t necessarily cheapened as a result—just a bit of a letdown in how it tacks itself on as a grand finale that satisfies the film rather than the characters. It’s therefore not about the conclusion being bad, but the rest being better. That’s a good problem to have.
 Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio star in ONCE UPON TIME IN HOLLYWOOD. PHOTO BY: Andrew Cooper © 2019 CTMG, Inc. All Rights Reserved. **ALL IMAGES ARE PROPERTY OF SONY PICTURES ENTERTAINMENT INC. FOR PROMOTIONAL USE ONLY. SALE, DUPLICATION OR TRANSFER OF THIS MATERIAL IS STRICTLY PROHIBITED.
 Margot Robbie stars in ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD. PHOTO BY: ANDREW COOPER © 2019 CTMG, Inc. All Rights Reserved. **ALL IMAGES ARE PROPERTY OF SONY PICTURES ENTERTAINMENT INC. FOR PROMOTIONAL USE ONLY. SALE, DUPLICATION OR TRANSFER OF THIS MATERIAL IS STRICTLY PROHIBITED.
 Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt and Al Pacino in Columbia Pictures “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” PHOTO BY: Andrew Cooper © 2018 CTMG, Inc. All Rights Reserved. **ALL IMAGES ARE PROPERTY OF SONY PICTURES ENTERTAINMENT INC. FOR PROMOTIONAL USE ONLY. SALE, DUPLICATION OR TRANSFER OF THIS MATERIAL IS STRICTLY PROHIBITED.
 Leonardo DiCaprio star in Columbia Pictures “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” PHOTO BY: ANDREW COOPER © 2018 CTMG, Inc. All Rights Reserved. **ALL IMAGES ARE PROPERTY OF SONY PICTURES ENTERTAINMENT INC. FOR PROMOTIONAL USE ONLY. SALE, DUPLICATION OR TRANSFER OF THIS MATERIAL IS STRICTLY PROHIBITED.