On the evidence of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood — a studio-backlot story set in 1969 — Quentin Tarantino is mellowing nicely. We’ve already had an “uncharacteristic” film in Hateful Eight, which was long and slow-burn and not exactly an adrenaline shot to the heart. It pissed off a lot of devotees who had signed on for “a Quentin Tarantino movie”. OUATIH, I suspect, will piss off even more people. But a change of course — more like a gentle swerve, really — is the surest sign that a filmmaker is charting out new directions. This is a solid film. A good film. Unlike Hateful Eight, it even has the pop-culture nods we expect, from the highbrow (Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet) to the other end of the brow spectrum (Gordon Douglas’s Lady in Cement) — both showcased during a single car ride with pop hits blasting from the radio. Is it a great film? I’ll let Time answer that question.

What is a “mellow” Tarantino? For one, the swearing isn’t creatively colourful. There’s no nudity (unless our censors are scandalised by the sight of a woman’s armpit hair). The violence exists, but we also get a surprisingly emotional deep-dive into the life of an over-the-hill TV-Western actor, Rick Dalton. (Leonardo DiCaprio is riotously good as an alcoholic, small-timer given to insecurity and self-pity.) The set pieces are smaller, less attention-grabbing. The setup takes its own sweet time, a long, long fuse to a big bang — but where the similarly structured Hateful Eight kept it tight, focusing on just the characters, OUATIH is loose and sprawling. It’s as much a (dare I say this?) documentary — one part is narrated as though it were newsreel footage — about the time films like Easy Rider were signalling the end of the Studio Era, though Tarantino looks at the period through the TV end of things. I can’t say I know American TV from this time very well, but I guess the smell of the B-grade is the same, big screen or small.

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The narrative is spread over three characters (who represent three rungs of Hollywood). In the middle, there’s Rick. Below him, there’s Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), Rick’s stunt double, friend and handyman around the house. He carries a dark secret that’s hinted at, but Pitt is all light, a blonde sun god that Robert Richardson’s camera worships. I laughed loud when Cliff clambers onto the roof, ostensibly to repair an antenna but really so he can take his shirt off, casually pop a cigarette in his mouth, and allow us to inhale old-style movie-stardom. (Pitt is marvellously relaxed.) And then, at the top rung, there’s Rick’s neighbour Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), the starlet who’s Hollywood royalty. She’s married to Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), who’s the hottest director in town after Rosemary’s Baby.

Gradually, these characters come under the spooky shadow of the Manson Cult — and the mellower Tarantino prefigures this development in a masterfully offhand moment. When Cliff stops the car at a signal, a line of hippies crosses the road — soon, their paths will cross, too. Tarantino hasn’t lost his playfulness. He plays with our knowledge of the press about the film. (Reports have told us it looks back to the time a heavily pregnant Tate was butchered by Charles Manson’s acolytes.) He plays with our knowledge of this history. (See how gently, almost lovingly, he handles the encounter between Manson and Tate.) And he plays with the years of training we’ve had from cause-and-effect narratives in the cinema. The first great set piece occurs when Cliff ends up in the Manson ranch. Despite a too-easy “pussy” joke, it reminds us that Tarantino hasn’t lost sight of who he used to be, of what endeared him to us in the first place. This is a masterclass in ratcheting up the tension. Pacing, camera angles, characters, their lines, the promise of violence, black comedy — everything comes together magnificently. The impact of this sequence is such that when we see a heavily pregnant Tate, much later, I was cowering in my seat.

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I wished the characters had had more to them, though — that they were more than just pawns on Tarantino’s chessboard. But what they lack in depth, they make up for in other ways. Like the slapstick humour in Cliff’s scene with the Green Hornet-era Bruce Lee (Mike Moh), or the comedy-pathos in Rick’s chat with his eight-year-old costar who may be the world’s youngest Method actress — though she would prefer the term “actor”, and likes to be called by her screen name so she is “invested in the reality of the story”. If you are not interested in this period, you may sense a lot of indulgence. (There were times I fidgeted, too.) Do we really need the pool party in the Playboy mansion? (But then, we wouldn’t have had the cheap thrills of glimpsing Steve McQueen and Mama Cass.) Do we really need such lengthy scenes of Sam Wanamaker directing Rick in a Western? (But then, if we are not invested in the process of acting, how do we really feel Rick’s emotion when he finally nails it?

Tarantino, as always, has fun with the casting. Al Pacino shows up in a small part. Lena Dunham shows up as a Mansonsite — I don’t know why, but I could just see her as a hippie. Big (but not too big) names like Sergio Corbucci — whose Django lent its title to a Tarantino film from 2012 — show up in posters and references. But if there’s something Tarantino has achieved in OUATIH, it’s how he uses Margot Robbie, who gives a brilliant gestural performance. She has barely any lines — she’s used as a presence, as an embodiment of the Zeitgeist of the era. There’s a long stretch of Tate walking into a theatre playing one of her films (The Wrecking Crew, one of those then-disposable, now-kitschy-cool Dean Martin movies) and enjoying the reactions from the audience. This is like nothing Tarantino has done earlier. It’s alive, but it’s also tender. You catch a woman at the cusp of possible stardom. We know these dreams are going to be snuffed out in the cruellest way, but she doesn’t. Tarantino has made something artfully allusive, mixing what you see with what you know.

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And then we come to the final stretch, the source of all those spoiler alerts we are being subjected to. I am not revealing anything but the fact that all the characters (including a scene-stealing Rottweiler named Brandy) and plot lines converge. This is another kind of playfulness. The mellowness flies out of the window and we get the Tarantino of old. Violence. Blood. Lip-smacking gore. It doesn’t exactly fit with what came earlier, but it’s great fun. And it’s amazing how writerly the whole thing is, even in this action stretch. We get misdirections. We get callbacks. We get a speech about television violence that casts all those earlier shooting scenes of gunfights in a new light. Old Tarantino or mellow version, he’s a writer first, thrilling filmmaker second. He’s said he saw OUATIH as a novel first. The film he’s made is novelistic in the best sense. Sometimes, you want to skip over some parts. Other times, you wish you could turn back the pages and relive the parts. And you always, always, want to know what happens next.

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