Quentin Tarantino has always been fond of exploring tonal paradoxes. Usually, he focuses on the various ways in which audiences respond to violence, playing bloodshed for both humor (“Oh man, I shot Marvin in the face!”) and horror (Louis’ brutal and hauntingly casual execution of Melanie in Jackie Brown). In Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, however, the director expands his scope, peppering the narrative with all sorts of delicious visual contradictions: celebrities driving glamorous cars down sun-drenched roads while the radio reports on the latest casualties in Vietnam; an adorable child actor (don’t call her an “actress”) pontificating on her commitment to “The Method,” much to the embarrassment of her more traditionally-minded “learn the lines and hit the marks” costars; and a hippie commune built atop the ruins of an abandoned Western studio set.
Of course, such juxtapositions perfectly fit the movie’s setting—1969 was, after all, the year of Woodstock, the first lunar landing, the Stonewall riots… and the Manson Family murders. It also represented the beginning of the decline of the “Old Hollywood” system; the dream factory could no longer compete with the harsh realities of war, bigotry, and government corruption, producing darker, grittier fare like Midnight Cowboy and Easy Rider in an effort to remain relevant. I can’t imagine a more appropriate stage for the tale of a washed-up, alcoholic cowboy actor and his loyal stunt double sidekick; watching their struggle to navigate the rapidly-transforming—some might even say “decaying”—landscape is absolutely captivating, to the extent that the three-hour running time feels too brief (I sincerely hope that Tarantino someday releases an extended cut on home video, restoring Tim Roth’s excised—but still credited—cameo appearance).
That being said, historical window dressing does not automatically guarantee a quality story; fortunately, Tarantino is equally attentive to the subtle details that develop his characters. Consider, for example, the scene in which Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth prepares dinner for both himself and his canine companion. When he opens his fridge, it contains little more that a few cans of beer, a jar of mayo (sans lid), and a half-empty bottle of ketchup; he ends up eating stovetop mac and cheese straight out of the pot. His cabinet, on the other hand, is filled entirely with gourmet dog food. This emphasizes his role as a devoted caretaker, often at the expense of his own wellbeing—a microcosm of his relationship with DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton.
I don’t know if I’d argue that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is Tarantino’s best film, but moments like the above certainly make it his most mature and accomplished. If it is, indeed, his final feature (as he’s half-jokingly suggested in interviews), I’d actually be at peace with that; it’d be one hell of a farewell.