Forging a style from the scraps of a consuming culture, the director alters the history of the Manson Family murders.

Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio star in Quentin Tarantino’s film.Illustration by Adrian Tomine

Cars and songs. To be exact: the sight of a car bowling along, at speed, while a song cries out on the soundtrack. That, in the end, is what Quentin Tarantino loves more than anything; more than crappy old TV shows, more than boxes of cereal, more than violence so rabid that it practically foams, and more, if you can believe it, than the joys of logorrhea. His latest work, “Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood,” is a declaration of that love. There are many scenes in which the characters—folks like Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt)—motor around Los Angeles without a care. To call those scenes the best thing in the film is not a slight upon Tarantino. As he, of all people, is aware, they are the kinds of scene that play in our movie memories, years after the event, on a helpless and happy loop.

Rick Dalton is an actor, just about. It’s 1969, and he’s worried that, sooner or later, somebody will say that he used to be big in pictures. He’s not yet over the hill, but he’s well past the peak. Having starred in “Bounty Law,” on television, in the nineteen-fifties, he is reduced to playing heavies and scumbags; and their sole purpose, as an agent named Marvin Schwarzs (Al Pacino) explains to Rick, is to be bested by the hero. Getting bested is the worst. Viewers come to see you as expendable. Still, it’s a job, and Rick likes nothing more, even now, than sitting down with his buddy Cliff and a six-pack of cold ones, watching an episode of “The F.B.I.,” and waiting for the moment when the villain—Rick, of course—gets to deliver his scumbag line, with a sneer on his scumbag face.Get the best of The New Yorker every day, in your in-box.Sign me up

Cliff is Rick’s stunt double, although, these days, he seems to be much more: driver, gofer, and fellow-drinker. He’s also a cheerleader, of a somewhat cheerless variety. He doesn’t shake a pom-pom or anything, being more of a shades-and-jeans man, without a trace of hoopla or hullabaloo. But he does cock a finger like a pistol, point it at Rick, and say, “You’re Rick fucking Dalton. Don’t you forget it.” This is Hollywood, after all, where being forgotten can be a cause of death. One lowly task, for Cliff, finds him high on the roof of Rick’s house, on Cielo Drive, fixing the TV antenna. It’s roasting up there, so he sticks a can of beer in his tool belt and strips to the waist. Followers of Pitt will fan their brows and recall his appearance as Will, on “Friends,” in 2001, during which, in the midst of a dispute, Phoebe exclaimed, “Oh, come on, Will, just take off your shirt and tell us.”

I remember thinking, back then, what a smooth and unrushed comedian Pitt could be, wholly at ease with the dazing effect that he had on other souls, and it’s been disheartening, ever since, to see him locked down into too many roles that give him only a fitful chance to be funny. Praise be to Tarantino, then, for granting Pitt the time and the latitude to unfurl his good humor, and for guaranteeing that no twist in the narrative, however menacing, is enough to nullify his smile. The result is one of Pitt’s most involving performances, blessed with wraparound charm, precisely because Cliff never tries to get too deeply involved.

One day, for instance, he picks up a teen-age hitchhiker by the name of Pussycat (Margaret Qualley) and gives her a ride to a ranch out in Chatsworth, in the San Fernando Valley. She lays her head in his lap as he drives. It’s creepy and dusty at the ranch, with a troop of girls as young as Pussycat, plus an old man (Bruce Dern) who claims to be blind but likes to watch TV. We hear mention of Charlie, whoever he may be. Something is massing in the air, like thunder. Cliff’s tire is stabbed, and we fear for his safety, out there in the half-wilderness, but he makes it home just fine. Oh, and by the way: Charlie’s last name is Manson.

Whenever you go to a Tarantino film, you come away with the feeling that history is one inch thick. The thinness is part of the fun. Boy, does he know every fraction of that inch—every movie poster in the hero’s home, every billboard beside the road, every commercial on the radio. (“Heaven Sent, by Helena Rubinstein.”) Rarely has the parading of such knowledge seemed more maniacal. Check out Rick, alone in his pool, floating in an inflatable chair and crowing along to “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron,” thus confirming the doctrine of cinema as Pop art: the more insignificant the detail, the more triumphant the director’s glee at plucking it from oblivion. Why must Cliff live with his dog, Brandy, in a trailer behind the Van Nuys drive-in? Because the location allows Tarantino, like a theatre manager, to put a title on the illuminated sign. “Lady in Cement,” it reads. “Frank Sinatra. Racquel Welch.” The name is actually spelled Raquel, but I bet you the error is deliberate.

What became clear, from Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” (2009) and “Django Unchained” (2012), is that he’s no longer content with the revival of trivia, forging a style from the scraps of a consuming culture. History is also there for the tweaking. So, in the first of those tales, Hitler is slain before the end of the war; in the second, a former slave destroys a plantation. (In both cases, fire is the purifier, and it flares again in the new film.) While many audiences revelled in the havoc, some of us flinched at its implications. I felt I was being inducted into the revenge fantasies of a blazingly gifted adolescent, or of an even younger boy, galvanizing the playground with shouts of “Let’s kill Nazis!” In short, Tarantino is the ideal creative figurehead for an era in which the old-school need to explore previous eras, or to argue over them, is being trumped, with the aid of technology, by the more exhilarating urge to remake them as we desire.

Hence the title, “Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood.” It echoes “Once Upon a Time in the West” (1968) and “Once Upon a Time in America” (1984), both directed by Sergio Leone, whom Tarantino reveres. But that coy ellipsis is revealing. It reminds us that “Once upon a time” is how fairy tales start. The filmmaker may be on a mission to get everything right about 1969, down to the sounds and smells, but he’s also inviting us to smoke a little wrongness. Rick’s neighbors, for example, are Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and her husband, Roman Polanski (Rafał Zawierucha), and we observe them partying at the Playboy Mansion, together with Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis) and other celebrities. All perfectly plausible. The fact that Tate was murdered by members of the Manson gang, on August 9, 1969, on Cielo Drive, is also a matter of record. For Tarantino, however, records are made to be broken.

The movie is a long haul, running more than two and a half hours. There’s an excursion to Rome. There’s a splendid, if superfluous, battle between Cliff and a haughty Bruce Lee (Mike Moh). And, yes, there’s a part for Nicholas Hammond, who was Friedrich in “The Sound of Music” (1965), as the eager director of a Western. Now and then, you get a sense, as with “Pulp Fiction” (1994), that, in Tarantino’s thirst to entertain, he is trying too hard—striking attitudes for the simple sake of cool, and encouraging his players to push the limits. Rick Dalton is a pretty bad actor, and DiCaprio, a very good actor, strains every last fibre to dramatize that inadequacy; the scene in which Rick, having screwed up his lines on set, lays furious waste to his trailer strikes me as an indulgence, though DiCaprio’s fans will doubtless hail his emotional bravado. Far more winning is Rick’s conversation with a child star (Julia Butters), an eight-year-old adherent of the Method. Not since Henry Spofford III, at a similar age, hit on Marilyn Monroe’s character, in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” (1953), has precocity been such a gas. Who’d have guessed? After soaking adults in blood, in film upon film, Tarantino turns out to be great with kids.

“Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood” employs the services of a narrator. In the later stages, especially, he shepherds us through crazy happenings as though, without the calming guidance of his voice-over, the various bits of story would fly apart. That fear of fragmentation will be familiar to readers of Joan Didion, who, in the title essay of “The White Album,” reports firsthand on the period, and the very place, that Tarantino now patrols. “A demented and seductive vortical tension was building in the community. The jitters were setting in,” she writes. As for the day after the massacre, on Cielo Drive, “I also remember this, and wish I did not: I remember that no one was surprised.” What Didion gauged and registered, more faithfully than anyone else, were faults in the circuitry, behavioral and neurological, of an entire social structure. Tarantino may be searching for the same anxieties, but only in gleams and flickers do they show through the sheen of his movie, and two things alone freaked me out. One was the sudden, insane burst of brutality that is inflicted by men upon women. And the other was the reaction of the people around me in the auditorium to that monstrosity. They laughed and clapped. No one was surprised. The jitters have become a joke. ♦

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