Spoiler alert! (Really.) The big movie to reckon with this summer may be as much about the mood of 2019 as about the Helter-Skelter 1960s. It’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino’s ninth big film, with a surprise streak of fantasy and mercy in it. He’s revising the course of events of 50 summers ago, when a revolutionary tension in the Los Angeles dream factory broke, or got broken into, by the murderous Manson family, when the beautiful and pregnant Sharon Tate and four more got slaughtered. Joan Didion in a famous essay at the time marked it the end of the Sixties, the crash of peace and love. Tarantino’s had time to re-imagine it as an actor’s story—many shades of manhood and morality in an air of everyday madness.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is many things, but let’s start with two. First, it’s a meticulous reconstruction of Los Angeles in the 1960s—sunlight angling through smog, the game faces of white guys, their lingo, their cars, and car radios, their hair, their self-pity—all at the moment of the Manson murders in Benedict Canyon: August 9, 1969. At the same time the movie’s a flight of fancy into an alternative ending for a horror story, yet another take on violence from the bloody-minded moralist Tarantino. Back in 1969, a “demented and seductive vortex of tension was building” in Hollywood, Didion wrote: “the dogs barked every night and the moon was always full.” And when the shocking news of midnight murder in the hills was confirmed, what she remembered—and wished she didn’t—was that “no one was surprised.” There’s the context of 1969 in which Quentin Tarantino has placed his own invention, a buddy flick with Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt cast as a downwardly mobile actor and his stunt-man sidekick. There’s propulsive energy and fun in this movie, and a strange beauty, too.