Quentin Tarantino movies are like high-end sushi.
The difference between Once Upon a Time In Hollywood and every other movie this summer is the same difference between Jiro's world-class sushi and the fare from any local, cheap sushi joint. Whether that other sushi is great or inedible, Jiro's sushi, regardless of whether or not one enjoys the taste of any specific type of fish, is undoubtedly the best cut on the market. The same can be said for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, a film which definitely isn't for everyone but is an indisputable masterpiece, nonetheless.
With Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino has reached a strange crossroads in his path as an auteur. Tarantino is a film icon, his work so beloved and so influential that it has irreversibly shaped pop culture around it. In 2019, his eye for his craft has never been sharper. At the same time, Tarantino's particular breed of filmmaking—edgy exploitation that seems targeted to shock and amaze other film buffs—no longer holds the same type of cultural relevance that it did in the '90s and early '2000s. In short, Tarantino has perfected his art at a time when its eventual irrelevance seems all too obvious.
In this light, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood could be seen as Tarantino's swan song. This is a master filmmaker from a bygone era making a masterful film set in another bygone era, released during a modern era when everything that came before it is being questioned, re-analyzed, and mostly discarded.
Set in an alternate version of Los Angeles in 1969, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood follows washed-up Western star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his best friend/stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt, who absolutely steals the movie), along with Dalton's new neighbor, famous actress and real-world victim of the Manson Family, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie).
Rick has the strongest "arc," spending the bulk of the film coming to terms with his feelings of displacement in an industry in which he used to play the hero and has now been relegated to villain-of-the-week. Cliff, no longer necessary for Rick's stunt work, mainly bums around the city. Meanwhile, Sharon Tate attends a screening of one of her own movies and basks in the audience's enjoyment of her performance. None of them are in any rush to do anything that would typically be seen as "driving the plot."
But Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a rare film whose plot necessarily needs to take a backseat in order to properly explore the setting. And make no mistake, this film evokes a stronger sense of "place" than any other movie in recent memory. Tarantino has essentially rebuilt a fully functional playground of 1960s Los Angeles that makes the movie feel like it was ripped straight from the era. The soundtrack is one of the best Tarantino has ever made. Every single scene is dotted with '60s-appropriate music, TV, radio, and advertisements. The characters function largely as vehicles through which to explore various facets of this world, from movie sets to the Hollywood strip to the Manson Family ranch.
Of course, like every Tarantino movie, the dialogue is razor-sharp, effortlessly blending absurdist humor with the occasional emotional gut punch. Rick and Cliff both feel like real people, and more importantly, their friendship feels genuine. Both characters are certainly racist and sexist, which is sure to turn some audience members off, but their attitudes seem perfectly tuned to the dominant ideology of the '60s, as opposed to serving as a reflection of Tarantino's views. In other words, Rick and Cliff are men of their time, both in good ways and bad.
Then, of course, there's the Manson Family, always operating on the fringes of the film—hitchhiking, collecting food from dumpsters, and ultimately plotting murder. The main questions prior to the film's release revolved around how Tarantino would handle the murder of Sharon Tate. Without getting into specific spoilers, the final act of the movie is both incredibly violent and weirdly hilarious, offering the kind of satisfying ending that Tarantino does best.
It's safe to say that there are no other movies out there quite like Once Upon a Time In Hollywood. It's probably not what audiences expect, and a lot of people will almost definitely hate it. But that doesn't make it any less of a masterpiece.