Tarantino’s ‘Once Upon A Time ... In Hollywood’ is a poignant, wry slow burn

Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio star in "Once Upon a Time...In Hollywood."

Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio star in "Once Upon a Time...In Hollywood."

Sony Pictures / Contributed photo

It’s hard to talk about Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon A Time ... In Hollywood” without beginning at the film’s conclusion.

Not to play too much of a spoiler but there’s a moment leading up to the movie’s final set piece where Brad Pitt’s stuntman Cliff Booth is caught off guard in a 3-to-1 disadvantage against a trio of would-be killers. Surrounded by people a third his age, the aging Booth doesn’t flinch as they encroach on him wielding knives and sinister glares. He fights back.

The scene serves as a fairly on-the-nose metaphor for the state of Tarantino’s career juxtaposed with Hollywood’s current blockbuster-driven landscape. Will the oft-controversial filmmaker dull his narrative originality and wild nostalgia to make his work more palatable for audiences whose tastes have been programmed to eagerly anticipate comic book movies, remakes and reboots? Not a chance in hell.

Still as defiant of Hollywood expectations as he was when he broke onto the scene with “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction” in the early 1990s, Tarantino magically creates something in his ninth and penultimate film that he hasn’t done in a long time: Hope.

While one of the film’s strengths is how much it borrows from other works in Tarantino’s cannon — “Once Upon A Time ...” shares the introspective and vulnerability of “Jackie Brown” and boldness and suspense of “Inglourious Basterds,” the director isn’t afraid to tread into water unknown.

There’s perhaps no better example than the whimsical day-on-the-town sequence the audience spends with Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) around the movie’s midpoint. Some things feel familiar in “Once Upon A Time ...”— like the flashback to Booth’s amped up fight scene with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh), but there’s nothing quite like Tate watching herself in “The Wrecking Crew” screen inside a local movie theater in any of Tarantino’s previous work.

Patient, deliberate, and quixotic — it’s moment that shows a filmmaker willing to evolve despite critical opinion that he’s too dependent on sub-genres like thrillers, westerns and exploitation movies.

“Once Upon A Time ...” doesn’t fit into any of those three categories.

That is not to say the film is ignorant of Hollywood’s past. On the contrary, it’s evident by the film’s three-character narrative structure and its climax that Tarantino is deeply invested in not only exploring and living inside the Hollywood myth but ensuring it lives on forever.

And that’s why he spends the first two-thirds of the movie whisking us through three day-in-the-life journeys, featuring Booth, Tate, and protagonist Rick Dalton (the absolutely raucous Leonardo DiCaprio who’s arguably never been better). Like the moment with Tate in the theater, Tarantino needs to show us Dalton’s reaction when he receives praise from a young castmate. At a career crossroads much like the film’s auteur, Dalton is searching for meaning and identity in a landscape that’s looking more and more unfamiliar to him.

It’s a universal insecurity, and yet a theme that has gone largely untapped since Jules Winfield diner speech at the end of Pulp Fiction.

Like the film that won Tarantino his first Oscar, “Once Upon A Time ...” also spins on a disjointed narrative structure that features multiple parallel timelines in its first two acts. It’s not until a flash forward sequence that catapults us into the final and third act where we begin to see the director showing his hand — if ever so slightly.

That’s not to say the conclusion is a giveaway. Nothing is predictable following the time leap from February 1969 to August 1969.

Tarantino ratchets up the tension and the extreme violence in the final 20 minutes and leaves the audience playing catch up. It’s film-making magic and a pure delight.

One thing is clear as the camera soars over the Los Angeles horizon in the final shot: The director yearns deeply to save the victims who were killed that fateful August night. The past remains unchanged but the gift of “Once Upon A Time ... In Hollywood” is Tarantino’s ability to dream up a world where we have the power to change it.