Rick Dalton, former star of the western series Bounty Law, and his stunt double/chauffeur/best friend Cliff Booth, are washed up. In Quentin Tarantino’s latest film-about-film, somehow only his second set in Los Angeles, there’s a sadness in the air as Rick finds his Hollywood status shifting: not slowly fading out of the culture’s collective memory, as stars often do, but losing his status as a folk hero. He struggles for work, and though he’s still recognised on the street, as insider Marvin Schwarz reminds him (Al Pacino in a small cameo), he’s mainly called upon as somebody for new heroes to beat up in their own shows. It’s 1969 and it feels like the end of the road for Rick and Cliff.
Meanwhile, another star is rising; the young actor Sharon Tate, embodied perfectly by the equally luminous Margot Robbie. Unlike Rick and Cliff, of course, she’s based on a real-life legend. Living next door to Rick with her husband Roman Polanski, we follow Tate from day-to-day as she picks up a book, goes to a Hollywood party and catches one of her own movies at a matinee. Juxtaposed with scenes of young hippies affiliated with Charles Manson, and knowing what we do about the life and death of Sharon Tate, there’s a chill in the air. Tarantino liberally cuts back and forth between Rick’s struggle for relevance, Tate’s carefree life, and the Manson family’s looming shadow, urging us to figure out how the puzzle pieces will come together. Naturally, it’s not what we expect.
OUATIH spends a lot of time concerning itself with the spaces in between the action – the waiting on sets, the space between jobs, the solitude of taking in a movie alone, or driving from one place to another. There’s a lot of driving in this film. It’s the opposite of a typical Hollywood film, which often feature a rapid rise to stardom, movie premieres, and photoshoots. Here, that’s all been and gone, replaced with a lot of waiting and dead space: at 2 hours and 40 minutes, this is a shaggy story. Audiences who aren’t enamoured with Tarantino’s late-period love of digressions, tangents and casual disregard for economical storytelling will be frustrated. Even I was checking my watch during one sequence in particular. But if you’re tuned in to Tarantino’s frequency, you’ll love these vignettes. The scrapbook approach to Hollywood history is enlivened by scenes in which Rick is seamlessly Forrest Gump-ed into real-life movies and TV, helping to sell a vivid alternate universe. It’s all in service of creating a reality which is at once romanticised, fantastical, and refreshingly grounded.
The cast are uniformly excellent. DiCaprio is doing some of the best work of his career, stretching to embody all of Rick’s vanity, insecurity and sadness. A scene in which he chugs coffee, smokes a cigarette and tries to shake a hacking cough, simultaneously, is one of the funniest things he’s ever done. Pitt, meanwhile, tears into a near-superpowered character who could have been one-note in the hands of another actor. Robbie as Tate is perfect, bringing mischief and charm to the film and leaving us wanting more – indeed, it’s hard to disagree with those critics at the time of the film’s Cannes premiere who found her to be bafflingly underused. Elsewhere, a cast of heavyweights appear for one or two scene cameos, fleshing out this fantasy version of Los Angeles. Special mention goes to Margaret Qualley, Dakota Fanning and Austin Butler as some of the more prominent members of the Manson family.
As the film inevitably draws to a close, and Tarantino’s mission statement in telling this story becomes more clear, I was tempted see it as an exploration of time itself. Of course, it’s a somewhat self-indulgent evocation of a bygone age, the L.A. of Tarantino’s youth and cinema legend. But it’s also about a yearning for the paths not taken, the way things were and the way things could have been. In Rick’s story, about the ways in which we can find meaning and purpose in life, Tarantino reminds us that it’s never too late. It’s a bittersweet, and surprisingly mature, film.