At last, Sharon’s story converges with that of Rick and Cliff. Until then it’s all easy and breezy, and not especially urgent, with lots of yammer, walls hung with exploitation-film posters and amusingly foregrounded shots of bare female feet. Then abruptly the mood and tone shift with a visit to Manson’s lair at the Spahn Movie Ranch, a bravura sequence with soaring crane shots, galloping horses and a chattering Lena Dunham (!) that fills the movie with dread. When Dakota Fanning bares her fangs and a squeaky rodent announces her name before it’s uttered, the film feels headed straight toward hell — and you’re not sure you want to ride along anymore.
Joan Didion famously wrote that “many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the ’60s ended abruptly on Aug. 9, 1969, ended at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brush fire through the community, and in a sense this is true.” I wonder what Tarantino might think of that sentiment; not much, I imagine, given that one day he would grow up, live in Los Angeles and chase a dream of Hollywood. He would have been 6 when Tate was murdered. The sympathy that he shows for her isn’t surprising, and neither is the adoration expressed toward Polanski, who’s largely a marginal character but also symbolically important.
When Rick enthuses about Polanski, it is hard not to hear Tarantino’s voice in the character’s excitement. For a long time, Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) seems like a near-cartoon of a familiar Hollywood success story: the wildly talented director with a beautiful actress-wife and a wide open future as well as a string of fabulous critical and box office successes. In some ways, Polanski reads like a tragic variation on Tarantino, a kind of horrific doppelgänger, which is one reason, I think, that this movie feels more personal than some of his recent endeavors. He loves this world so much, and that adoration suffuses every exchange, cinematic allusion and narrative turn.
In “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” Tarantino does a lot that’s familiar, including toggling between laughter and mayhem. The true jolt, though, is how melancholic the story finally plays; that is partly (rightly) because of the murders, which weigh heavily on the film in obvious ways. You’re always grimly aware that these aren’t just movie characters, but figures based on real people who belonged to the same ecosystem that Tarantino would eventually join. He knows exactly what lies ahead for the lost world — of Los Angeles but also of Hollywood — that he has so lovingly reimagined here, which is why this homage also has the ache of a requiem.