2010s, Action-Adventure, Auteurs, Drama, Scifi

Ad Astra (2019)

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Director: James Gray
Screenwriters: James Gray, Ethan Gross

By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers…

James Gray has remained conspicuously earthbound throughout his career as one of American cinema’s least-appreciated yet consistently lucid and enriching filmmakers, a teller of tales rooted in a world too often crude and exhausting, with flashes of the sublime through the murk blinding as often as they illuminate. Produced by and starring Brad Pitt, wielding a big budget and spectacular special effects, Gray’s seventh feature Ad Astra represents a sharp leap in ambition, and yet it’s also an unmistakeable, remarkably unalloyed extension of his career to date, taking up his most consistent themes and painting them upon his largest canvas yet. Gray’s initial argot, evinced in Little Odessa (1994), The Yards (2000), and We Own The Night (2006), was an updated version of a brand of American film situated on the nexus of film noir and social realist drama, fare like On The Waterfront (1954), Edge of the City (1957), and The Hustler (1961). Such a stage allowed him to at once analyse dynamic processes like immigrant assimilation, upward mobility, and gangster capitalism, in conflict with the internal foils that define the individual person, matters of identity, morality, empathy. With Two Lovers (2008) he turned to a more intimate brand of character drama whilst maintaining his carefully modulated awareness of context, a mode he sustained even whilst shifting to historical settings and broader canvases for The Immigrant (2014) and The Lost City of Z (2016).

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As I noted in writing on The Lost City of Z, Gray’s films are, in essence, ghost stories set amongst the living, tales of haunting gripping his protagonists in their desperate struggles to be born anew. Gray’s fascination with characters who find themselves bound to others – family, lovers, collaborators – in voyages into folie-a-deux perversity here takes on a form that’s become borderline obsessive in current American film, even its more fantastical wings, the figure of the lost and taunting father figure. The realistic special effects adventure and science fiction movie has also known something of a boom in recent years, prefigured by the likes of John Sturges’ Marooned (1969) and Brian De Palma’s Mission to Mars (2001) and recently expanded by Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity (2013), Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014), Ridley Scott’s The Martian (2015), and Damien Chazelle’s First Man (2018). The latter film was a biography of Neil Armstrong, the epitome of the cool, calm, collected type prized by organisations like NASA and utterly inimical to a showman like Chazelle. Gray tackles a similar personality in his protagonist, Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), who’s famed in the ranks the NASA-supplanting SpaceCom for the way his heart rate never goes over 80 bpm even in the most adrenalin-provoking straits.

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The film’s opening sequence describes such a circumstance in a fearsomely filmed episode of spectacle, as Roy is working on a massive antenna reaching from Earth into the outer atmosphere for easy communications with deep space. A mysterious pulse of energy sweeping in from the void strikes the antenna, wreaking havoc. Amidst a rain of plummeting colleagues and wreckage, Roy manages to flip the switch on the electrical systems, preventing the whole structure from melting down, at the expense of being swept off the antenna’s side. Falling to Earth, Roy has to wait until the atmosphere becomes thick enough to stabilise his tumbling fall and deploy his parachute, trying not to black out. Even when he does succeed in releasing his parachute, debris rips holes in it, sending him into a chaotic spin, but he still manages to land without being badly injured.

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After recuperating in hospital, Roy is called to meet with some SpaceCom brass (John Finn, John Ortiz, and LisaGay Hamilton), who admire his grit and ask him to perform a mission on their behalf. Roy’s father, H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), went missing in the outer solar system when he led a pioneering scientific mission, the Lima Project, to search for signs of alien intelligence. Long since presumed dead with the rest of his crew, Clifford has been hailed as one of the great heroes of SpaceCom’s history and the colonising process. But now SpaceCom believe Clifford might in fact still be alive, and pursuing some kind of anti-matter research that’s sending out the energy surges and might, if it destabilises, even annihilate the solar system. SpaceCom commission Roy for a very strictly delineated mission, to travel to Mars, the outermost outpost of colonisation, and broadcast a pre-prepared appeal to Clifford to cease the surges and make contact.

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Gray’s version of a spacefaring future has a fascinating tint of the retro to it, as if torn from the pages of a theoretical book predicting space exploration and migration from the late 1950s. Visually, it’s a realistic mishmash of technologies both potential and shop-worn, showroom-fresh and salvaged for expedience. Initially, Roy is offered as the essential square-jawed action man right out of a comic book or pulp tale. The title references the Royal Air Force’s motto, at once evoking the elusively poetic as well as the valiant but narrow pretences of a martial ethos. Roy is deployed by SpaceCom, an organisation Gray amusingly initially presents as a cadre enveloped by a mix of Madison Avenue-like controlled messaging and militaristic caginess. Roy makes the voyage to the moon in the company of his father’s former colleague and friend Thomas Pruitt (Donald Sutherland), albeit one who fell out with Clifford precisely because he wouldn’t follow him to the extremes Clifford aimed for. Gray’s awesome vistas of the moon surface, with the gleaming lights of cities shining out of dark craters, gives way to Roy’s stirred contempt in noting the way the American moonbase has become something like an airport or shopping mall, replete with consumer outlets, with boles of tacky hedonism. Even the flight he and Pruitt arrived on was commercial, charging outrageous prices for petty comforts. This is one of Gray’s canniest notions, suggesting that space habitation won’t ever really take off until the profit motive compels it.

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The moon has also become another stage for human fractiousness, with the many countries claiming various sectors of it locked in a perpetual state of quasi-war for the right to mine resources and defend domain. Despite the risks, the local garrison promises to get Roy and Pruitt aboard the interplanetary rocket, the Cepheus, awaiting them on a distant launching pad. As it unfolds, Ad Astra unveils itself as a variation on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and its various adaptations. The use of voiceover to penetrate the lead character’s hard shell and ready habits of spouting sanctioned clichés certainly harkens back to Apocalypse Now (1979), although as an assimilation of Conrad Gray’s take feels closer kin to the Ron Winston-directed, Stewart Stern-written’s 1958 TV adaptation for Playhouse 90, which recast the tale as a generational conflict as well as a depiction of cultural collision and malformed hybridisation, making its version of Kurtz the adoptive father of Marlowe and paragon of enlightened, elevated values turned bestial shaman. Such a twist might be said to recast Conrad’s story as more specifically American, a contest between elders ensconced in a citadel of certain faiths contending with a questioning, seeking youth facing a wealth of possibility as well as the pain of impossibility. Gray has explicitly compared the film to a version of Homer’s The Odyssey a common point of mythopoeic reference for all these works, but one told from the point of view of Telemachus, the wandering, searching son.

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Certainly Ad Astra plugs into Pitt’s recent, quasi-auteurist fascination with taking on roles that explore the mystique of certain brand of fatherly masculinity, echoing in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011) and Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood (2019), trying to grasp at what made the old-school ideal of manhood tick in order to assimilate its might but also excise its sick spots. Pitt, who started off as a long-haired lover boy and despite his very real talent always seemed like an actor cast for his looks first and his ability second, has finally reached a point in his career, rendered just a touch leathery by nascent middle-age, fidgety anxiousness starting to light those cover boy eyes and a sense of weary humour in self-knowledge twisting up that former perma-pout, where his lingering potential is being realised. Gray already touched on Conradian territory with The Lost City of Z but also argued with it as he presented a white, western hero who finds himself constantly nearing but never quite grasping his quasi-religious goal in the jungle. Also like his last film, Ad Astra entails revising that film’s portrait of a son so determined to live up to his father and join his myth that he eventually loses his life with him in a mission to the edge of the known. But Ad Astra is also a film that suggests Gray has a surprising affinity with sci-fi, particularly the precepts of early forays in the genre that sparked its 1950s screen craze, like Irving Pichel’s Destination Moon (1950) and Byron Haskin’s Conquest of Space (1955), both produced by George Pal, as well as Haskin’s later Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964).

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Haskin’s efforts to balance a stringent portrayal of what was then the largely still theoretical nature of spaceflight with a questioning, yearning sense of its meaning formed one of the first truly important bodies of work in the genre. Ad Astra can be regarded in many ways as a highly advanced remake of Conquest of Space, enlarging on that film’s detail-obsessed realism with all the arts of modern moviemaking, whilst also assimilating the theme of father-son conflict and madness inspired by confronting the void, and pivoting around key sequences like funerals in space where the eternal and the coldly immediate are both utterly tangible. Like Robinson Crusoe on Mars, it contends with space as an existential trap where the hero(es) contend not just with solitude and survival but with the conceivable limits of existence and their search for a divine presence. In Conquest of Space the father was also a much-heralded hero of space pioneering and his son condemned to dwell in the shadow of his legacy, and finally had to step and in save the day when his father’s seemingly rock-solid psyche gives way as he becomes convinced their journey to Mars is an act of sacrilege. Sci-fi had been on cinema screens since the near-coinciding birth of both forms, but Haskin helped forge a crucial question that’s propelled the genre ever since, certainly influencing sci-fi films as different as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Nicholas Meyer’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), not just in imagery but in a central, overriding impetus, a demand for transcendental meaning in the experience of spacefaring.

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Gray obeys the picaresque structure of both The Odyssey and Heart of Darkness, as a succession of events leading Roy from the familiar world to the very fringes of the human sphere, passing through zones of lawlessness, conflict, and collapse along the way to various outposts testifying to a tenuous hold on a universe that might shrug them off. Gray mixes in aspects that retain some of the zest of a pulpier brand of sci-fi whilst twisting it to his own purposes. During Roy and Pruitt’s transportation across the lunar surface to the Cepheus dock, their moon buggy convoy is assaulted by a flotilla of vehicles from a piratical faction, in an action sequence that can be taken as Gray’s take on the helicopter attack in Apocalypse Now. It’s also, like that precursor, one of those scenes you know to be an instant classic of the medium even as you’re watching it, through Gray’s depiction of speed and force as experienced from a rigorously controlled viewpoint, concussive impacts and swift, arbitrary destruction conveyed with a woozy blend of immediacy mediated by the strange, fluidic motion of low gravity. Roy’s cool under pressure asserts itself again, taking control of his buggy and managing to elude pursuers finally with a daring leap into the depths of a crater, a breathtaking moment where the vehicle swings in a languorous arc across the vast pit, suspended between past and future, death and survival.

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The buggy lands without damage, but when he reaches the launch site Roy is forced to part with Pruitt, as he suffers a heart attack following the battle. Sutherland as Pruitt offers a paternal figure to “hold my hand” as Roy puts it, although Pruitt recalls Clifford calling him a traitor. Pruitt insists that Roy leave him and get on with the mission, passing on to him a thumb drive loaded with information SpaceCom kept from Roy, including videos that suggest that reveal, far from perishing heroically, Clifford turned despotic and suppressed a revolt amongst his crew through violent means, determined to continue research with a cabal of remaining loyalists. When the Cepheus stops to answer a distress signal from a drifting spacecraft against Roy’s initial wishes and instinct, he and the Cepheus’ Captain Tanner (Donnie Keshawarz) cross to the vessel to search for survivors, only for Roy to lose contact with the Captain as they explore the interior, in a sequence that slides steadily towards the truly strange. Roy finally comes across the Captain to find him dead, his faceplate smashed and face gnawed off by a baboon, one of a pair of such animals, desperately hungry and maddened, still alive on the abandoned craft.

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Roy manages to kill both animals and gets back to the Cepheus, only for the second-in-command, Stanford (Loren Dean), to freeze up as the ship suffers a power outage during the landing on Mars thanks to another energy surge, once more forcing Roy to assert his steady hand and land the ship. On Mars, Roy encounters Helen Lantos (Ruth Negga), the administrator of the Mars colony who nonetheless doesn’t have sufficient clearance to be present as Roy is pressed into reading SpaceCom’s prewritten pap in a broadcast to his father. On a second attempt, Roy tries a more personal message, tentatively allowed by the controllers, but when they seem to suddenly be alarmed and try to swiftly send Roy back to Earth he realises he got some sort of reply. Helen extracts Roy from the room he’s locked up in and fills in the last piece of the puzzle confirming that Clifford killed many of the people on his mission including Helen’s own parents, in the name of continuing his mission. Determined to confront his father and doubting Stanford’s capacity to fulfil the Cepheus’ mission to stop the anti-matter surges by any means including an atomic bomb, Roy resolves to reboard the ship with Helen’s help.

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Ad Astra self-evidently picks up where The Lost City of Z left off, in contending with the idea of exploration and the kinds of people who dare to make leaps into the beyond, tethering the venturesome exterior journey with an internal struggle. But where the previous film voted the explorer empathy in his social rage and visionary drive, Ad Astra counterpoints with the viewpoint of the abandoned and the betrayed. More subtly, it also extends The Immigrant’s confrontation with people on the borders of new experience whilst still mentally trapped within the old. Percy Fawcett’s determination to discover a lost civilisation and make contact with a wondrous populace at once distinct and familiar is here swapped out for the elder McBride’s hunt for alien intelligence, the quest for a confirming and affirming mirror. Gray sees pioneering as an act aimed as much in rebuke to the familiar as it is an expression curiosity about what’s unfamiliar, and as a process rooted in incapacity to live within a quotidian world, but which is always doomed to drag that world in its wake. Roy passes through the corporatized and commercialised moonbase, a scene reminiscent of Fawcett’s arrival at a jungle city with opera and slavery, surveying a zone where what was once charged with infinite mystery and potential has been colonised and subordinated by the more familiar pleasures and evils of the world. Roy notes that his father would’ve despised such a development, a cogent awareness of the debasement but also offloading any requirement to make a judgement of his own onto the moral abacus of the father figure.

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Gray’s recurring mental landscapes are a warzone in the clash between identity and aspiration, enacted by people who sign on to repeat the journeys of their mentors and forebears despite many good reasons not to. Little Odessa and We Own The Night dealt with characters for whom the natural gravity of following a family legacy is both the easiest thing in the world to obey and also something his protagonists felt to be abhorred; Two Lovers dealt with the same proposition in terms less of material values but anchored instead in desire. The Immigrant’s climactic image of two people bound by a singular concoction of love and loathing heading in separate routes returns in Ad Astra more emphatically in familiar terms. Out Gray’s characters venture to places where traits of character that allow some to thrive and others to fail are mercilessly exposed, but Gray probes a common presumption in genre entertainment where those who question can’t do and those who do can’t question. Gray achieves something passing unique in recent mainstream cinema with Ad Astra, in creating vivid experiential cinema that’s also about conveying a state of mind rather than stating them rhetorically. The stages of Roy’s journey mimic his own self-reconnaissance, the visuals, at once hyper-clear and struck through a dreamy sense of removal, of mysterious abstraction in the void, and finally of hurt gripping like a vice in a cosmos vast and echoic, at once dwarfing and inimical but also lacking any meaning without eyes to see and minds to know.

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As the pivotal figure for a tale of derring-do, Roy is initially opaque, reciting his carefully worked phrases and speeches to get approval from digitised psychological evaluations and operating with the kind of self-control and focus that’s readily mythologised as the ideal tool for government, business, and the military: a man who can do the job and obey exact parameters of behaviour as long as he holds sure the faith that the systems demanding such capacities work with flawless logic. Gray diagnoses Roy’s prized impassivity and coolness as aspects of a carefully erected psychological apparatus to guard against passion, a dam his father’s abandonment and vanishing forced him to build. Gray echoes the thesis essayed long ago in Howard Hawks’ canonical study of old and young American males, Red River (1948), where the old-school tough guy persona was found to be based in closet hysteria, a state of ferocity muzzled rather than controlled. Early in his film Gray notes Roy’s memory of his wife Eve (Liv Tyler) leaving him, a form in the periphery of his awareness, and the process of working his way out towards his father is also in part the process of working his way back to her. Being confronted with evidence that his father was not the paragon both he and SpaceCom needed him to be shakes something loose, and Roy’s hallowed calm shatters.

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And yet the process of regaining his emotional reflexes ultimately don’t retard Roy’s daring and cool, where others around him fail and flail, as Gray seeks to analyse the difference between a kind of false stoicism and a more authentic kind. Ad Astra depicts a key part of coping with grief, where emotional reality is not denied but simply existed within, like the contained capsule of air that is a spacesuit. The counterpoint of Roy’s musing voiceover and his immediate experiences are reminiscent of Terrence Malick’s in this regard, although Gray avoids Malick’s more particular approach where his characters’ thoughts winnow out poetical essentials amidst frenetic associations. Faced with evidence of his father’s destructive actions, seemingly rooted in indifference to more paltry human needs, Roy recognises the same pattern of behaviour that has defined him, and he takes it upon himself to enact an oedipal drama on a cosmic stage. The myths Roy has accepted, which prove to have also been propagated by authority in order to retain its sheen of inviolable competence and purview, demand complete reorientation of his identity. Gray here seems to be getting at something absolutely vital about our time, the way spasms of reflexive rage and denial pass through many a body politic the moment foundational myths rooted in an idealised sense of the past and communal identity are interrogated.

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Roy meets his essential counterpart and foil in Lantos, who has only been to Earth once, born and living on Mars, a biography that subtly bisects Roy’s path. Lantos is a citizen of the void, orphaned and static: alienation is the literal air she breathes. Lantos extracts Roy from a room where he’s been sequestered with a barrage of calming influences projected on the walls, like being stuck inside an animated ambient music track. Lantos’ gift to Roy is a new sense of vengeful urgency in his mission, compelling him to be the one who goes out to bring his father to account, even as SpaceCom try to bundle him off the mission once he renders proceedings personal. Lantos helps Roy in trying to get back aboard the Cepheus, a self-imposed mission that demands swimming through water-filled tunnels and climbing up through a hatch between the rocket exhausts. Even once aboard Roy finds himself in danger as the crew leap to apprehend him. The crewmembers try to shoot and stab Roy even as he protests he has no malicious intentions, but the jolts of the launching spacecraft in accidents that kill all three crew, leaving Roy alone with three corpses. This sequence, another of Gray’s superlatively executed action scenes, is also a study in the concept of aggressive action as something that works upon itself: SpaceCom, revealed as an organisation that ultimately prizes the appearance of competence and rectitude over the actuality, and its immediate representatives react with mindless aggression the proves self-defeating.

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But Roy is also forced to regard the consequences of his own actions, which see him bringing death and mayhem in a manner not really that different from his father, in the single-minded desire to reach a goal without thinking too hard about what it might provoke, his determined aspect like a too-powerful engine amongst other beings who simply drift in existence. Roy’s voyage through space to Neptune sees him almost lose his mind and body in the decay of solitude, before arriving at last at the Lima Project station. Flares of energy radiate from a dish on the hull and Clifford lurks within, king of a drifting tin can where old musicals play on screens amidst floating corpses. Clifford proves haggard and baleful but still utterly lucid and readily confessing to Roy that his obsession entirely displaced any care he had for Roy and his mother, a moment that, amongst other things, extends Gray’s motif of phony speech contending with hard, plain, honest statements throughout the film: although Clifford deals out a cold truth to Roy, at least he respects him enough to offer it. In this part of the film I felt as if Gray’s inspiration was beginning to desert him even as his essential points came into focus. It might have been fascinating if he had taken Conrad’s (and Francis Coppola’s) cue and portrayed the remnants of Clifford’s personality cult engaged in atavistic perversity at the end of the universe in their awe and cringing before a blank vastness, rather than narrowing the experience to a generational confrontation.

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Gray’s ultimate point is articulated through Roy as he comprehends his father has experienced the most gruelling loss of faith, sacrificing everything and everyone including himself for a quasi-mystical project that has yielded nothing, manifold planets of infinite variety and beauty mapped but none offering what Clifford was so desperately searching for. “We’re all there is,” Roy sums it up, with both the inference that the kind of bond tethering father to sun across the solar system is worthy in itself, but also making the task of holding onto human life both more precious and also more awful and despair-provoking, knowing what both men know about human nature, and the fragility of its toehold in the universe. As a climactic point, this wrestles with the same problem Haskin foretold in the 1950s as humanity looked out upon the universe and struggled with the loss of old limits. But it also makes a fascinating about-face from the general run of sci-fi, starting with those old Haskin films and progressing through the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and many more, where the religious impulse is sublimated into a more generalised sense of wonder and possibility, as Gray confronts a frontier that provokes despair in many, the probability that we’re alone and have to make do.

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The images of Clifford and Roy hitched together in space, Clifford trying to tear loose from his son, inverts the climax of The Martian: the finite tether of human contact strained and broken, as Clifford demands the right to make his own end, obliging Roy to quite literally let go so he can drift off into gorgonized eternity. Roy has to synthesise his own good reason to return to Earth and face the music, summoning the ghostly image of his wife’s face as a reason to defy the void and launch himself through the planet’s rings to get back to the Cepheus, in the last of Gray’s astounding sequences, protecting himself against debris with a piece of panelling stripped to use as a shield. This touch seems in itself a closing of a circle even as it evokes a different Homeric figure, given Pitt played Achilles in 2004’s Troy but never got to wield that character’s civilisation-encapsulating aegis: here at last we get the cosmic hero, defier of fates. If Ad Astra sees Gray underlining himself in ways he’s usually avoided for the sake of trying to put across a film to a mass audience, particularly in some fairly superfluous concluding scenes, it’s still nonetheless a mighty, sparely beautiful, finally gallant attempt from a great filmmaker.

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2010s, Auteurs, Crime/Detective, Thriller

Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood (2019)

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Director/Screenwriter: Quentin Tarantino

By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers…

Quentin Tarantino’s debut Reservoir Dogs, all the way back in 1992, was a film about acting in crime film drag where Tim Roth’s antiheroic Mr Orange was the prototypical Hollywood wannabe, working to become his role so deeply all lines between life and performance vanish, immersed in a game of whose tough guy act ruled. Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood, his ninth film, inverts that proposition to a great extent: it’s a film explicitly about acting, intersecting with crime and other random and inescapable cruelties of life, and the feeling when that gravity you’ve been defying through the transportation of creativity suddenly kicks in. Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood sees Tarantino returning to the climes of Los Angeles he recorded in his first three films, Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction (1994), and Jackie Brown (1997), albeit a recreation of a remembered city, the one of Tarantino’s childhood, recreated in such fetishistic detail it constitutes an act of conjuring. As ever in Tarantino’s cinema, fantasy and reality are blended to a delirious and unstable degree, but this time nominally subordinated to a pastiche of the familiar true crime ploy of outlaying narrative as a succession of checklist items in terms of who did what, where, and when.

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Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood revolves around one of the most infamous episodes in modern crime, by extension often regarded as an authentic pivot in the psyche of an epoch: the conversion of the counterculture dream into a nightmare by the marauding of Charles Manson’s “family” of young, disaffected disciples, events that refashioned not just Hollywood’s social landscape but in the whole relationship of celebrity culture to the world beyond. Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood’s title pays overt heed to Sergio Leone, one of Tarantino’s singular heroes, but its resonances go right down into the psychic life of Tinseltown and its misbegotten children. Tarantino’s narrative befits such fairytale associations, offering a revision of familiar history mixed with character dramas enacting a legend of renewal in a triumph of hope over experience. It also evokes the strange relationship between Hollywood, which was entering a crisis point at the time the film is set, and the filmmaking world Leone represented, in particular the Spaghetti Western. Today known for a rich and peculiar annex of pop culture, that mode was at the time so generally deplored and regarded as a synonym for cheap and nasty that one of Tarantino’s central characters, actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), is left distraught by the proposition of turning to it for career extension.

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Tarantino rose swiftly to the top of the heap of eager young independent filmmakers in the 1990s not just for his postmodern nimbleness and evil comic sensibility, but for his eagerness to resurrect the careers of actors out of favour for whatever reason. Tarantino’s belief in the special connection between actor and role, audience and on-screen avatar, brought immediacy and amity to his bricoleur excursions. Tarantino’s time as a struggling young talent who turned to acting to try and make a few bucks seemed to have honed such identification as well as armed him with some of the core themes of his oeuvre. Tarantino highlights the likeness between the industry schism of the ‘90s where once-mighty, now-waned stars like John Travolta and Burt Reynolds took their shot in indie film, and the more urgent upheaval of the late 1960s, where Hollywood almost collapsed in on itself with backdated product, a breakdown that also cheated many interesting and promising performers of the careers they seemed to deserve. Dalton is glimpsed at the outset in his heyday as the star of the TV show Bounty Law, being interviewed along with his stunt man Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt).

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By 1969, agent Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino) is trying to talk Rick into going to Italy, as Rick’s career faltered after his decision to leave Bounty Law and try for a movie career, and now he’s trapped in a succession of guest roles as bad guys in TV series, a punching bag to build up new stars. Rick’s great consolation is that he owns his house on Cielo Drive, nestled in the groves of Beverly Crest, with new neighbours in Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). “I could be one pool party away from starring in a Polanski movie,” Rick notes. Sharon’s career, in sharp contrast to Rick’s, is just taking off, ushering her into the jet set. The bulk of Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood unfolds on a single day in February ‘69, as Rick struggles to keep an even keel whilst playing the villain in a pilot for Lancer, a new Western being helmed by Sam Wanamaker (Nicholas Hammond).

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After buying a fateful first edition copy of Tess of the d’Urbervilles for her husband, Tate takes time out to watch herself in The Wrecking Crew (1968) in a downtown theatre. Cliff has fared in even more undignified straits than Rick, living in a trailer behind a drive-in movie theatre and working as Rick’s chauffeur, professional buddy, and general dogsbody because he can’t get any stunt work, for reasons that emerge later in the film. Whilst driving around town, Cliff repeatedly encounters lithe, gregarious, jailbait hippie Pussycat (Margaret Qualley) and finally picks her up. He agrees to drive her out to the Spahn Movie Ranch, a rundown former shooting location for Westerns where she lives with a peculiar gang of fellow waifs and weirdos. Pussycat is disappointed their beloved chieftain Charlie isn’t around, but Cliff is nostalgic to see the Ranch, where he and Rick used to shoot Bounty Law, and wants to talk to the owner George Spahn. But Spahn is laid up blind and guarded by a squad of young women who keep him sexed into submission, of which the most aggressive is Squeaky Fromme (Dakota Fanning). Cliff runs the gauntlet and chats with George, who doesn’t remember him, but upon emerging finds one of the young men in the gang has put a knife in one of his car tires.

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Tarantino grows his story out of the tempting morsel offered by the Manson Family’s residence at the Spahn Ranch, one of those details of history charged with layers of irony. The Ranch’s decaying state spoke of the sharp decline of the once-booming production of Westerns for both movie screens and TV, of which Rick and Cliff become avatars. Pop culture at large is being reinvented and colonised by a new sensibility represented by the so-groovy Tate and other exalted beings she’s glimpsed partying with at the Playboy Mansion, colourful and urbane rather than terse and rustic. The Family’s resemblance to the kinds of ruffians beloved of Western plotlines, a gang of disaffected and free-floating cultural exiles under the thumb of a lowlife posing as a guru, comes sharply into focus as Tarantino shoots Cliff’s arrival at the Ranch as a variation on Clint Eastwood’s arrival in town in A Fistful of Dollars (1964), threat vibrant behind every gesture even without an apparent cause. One reason that Manson’s onslaught lodged so deep in the psyche of Hollywood wasn’t simply because he bade his followers invade their mansions and desecrate the bubble of their community, but because he seemed to have fashioned a grim alternative version of the fantasy dynamics of the town, the great male visionary with his small army of rapt followers and pliable harem. The damage his female followers inflicted on Tate wasn’t simply execution but a wrathful act of blood sacrifice that punished her not simply for being successful, beautiful, and exalted in the world but for being their counterpart.

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For most of its first half, however, Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood barely touches on the Manson cult, instead drifting with its central characters in their various spaces of labour and lifestyle. Cliff sighs his way acquiescently through odd jobs for Rick but loves tearing about the streets of the city in his car with the radio cranked in the meantime. Tate puts her feet up and gets to enjoy the movie, beholding herself transmuted into movie star gaining laughs and cheers from fellow patrons and all the fruits of a job well done. The Family girls wander the streets salvaging food and scrap whilst in a beatific bubble, seemingly happy as fringe dwellers in the great society, a little like Cliff, who proves receptive to their presence, aware of them as weird fixtures around the LA scene. Rick, even in the midst of personal and career crisis, has a wellspring of professional skill he can tap. This approach to narrative signals Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood as much closer to a character study than a standard plot-driven thriller, where the time and place are also a character.

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Rick’s career is also a compendium of anecdotes, many with unhappy endings, as when the star of Lancer, James Stacy (Timothy Olyphant), asks if it’s true he almost got the lead in The Great Escape (1963). Tarantino mischievously offers digitally altered sequences inserting DiCaprio-as-Rick over Steve McQueen, as Rick grudgingly mumbles his way through explaining what happened. Acting is an eternal hall of mirrors filled with alternate selves, prospects grasped and missed, integral to an industry that needs the star actor as interlocutor between audience and art but also beset by ambiguity, a job with less security than the average mailman knows even for a man like Rick who’s colonised the dream life of a generation. The actor’s image achieves immortality, but the actor certainly doesn’t. By contrast Cliff is at once more curious and pathetic. Sent by Rick to fix his aerial whilst he shoots the Lancer pilot, Cliff drifts into a reverie recalling when Rick guest-starred on The Green Hornet, when Rick finally managed to talk the show’s stunt supervisor Randy (Kurt Russell) into giving Cliff the chance to possibly get some stunt work on the show, only to get lippy with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) as he showed off to the other stuntmen and accepted his challenge to a fight.

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Cliff as stuntman is the working stiff supporting the star show pony, the one who, whilst still immersed in the reflective glamour of the movie world, nonetheless has to put actually body and soul on the line for the construction of effective and convincing action cinema. Thus the stunt artist exists in that nebulous zone between fantasy and reality Tarantino loves plumbing. Lee is a taunting object for a man like Cliff not simply as a potent rival but as one making the leap from one caste to another: Lee has not just usurped his position but also achieved the ultimate promotion. So Cliff stokes Lee’s famous temper and they come out of it tied in terms of hits laid, although the fact that Cliff left a great dent in a car he threw Lee against seems to prove him the victor. Randy’s wife (Zoë Bell) interrupts them and gets her husband to throw Cliff off the set. Tarantino cuts back to Cliff as mutters, “Yeah, fair enough,” in the sure realisation and acceptance that even if he did get another chance he’d surely find a way to screw it all up again.

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This sequence reveals much about Cliff, including his genuine ability as a fighter as well as confirming all his talents for self-sabotage. It also deliberately begs many questions, as it’s revealed the big objection to Cliff is a strong rumour that he murdered his wife. A flashback is even added as Cliff recalls drunkenly handling a spear gun on a fishing trip with his wife who was just as soused and abusing him, but whether Cliff actually meant to kill her or some ugly mishap happened out of focus because of the booze isn’t shown. This all seems to explain a lot about Cliff’s situation. And yet the way Tarantino deploys it lodges it firmly in an ambiguous zone, affecting the way others regard Cliff in his memory and yet, much like his impression of Lee, possibly so non-objective that it’s hard to trust – compare it to the way Tate remembers Lee as a gracious tutor. Rick certainly doesn’t seem to believe Cliff killed his wife, but then again he’s so joined at the hip with Cliff, so reliant on him as a friend and helpmate, that he hardly counts as objective either. This is unusual territory for Tarantino who, whilst always engaged in a slippery dance between realist and fantasist postures, usually avoids engaging in destabilising the integrity of his storytelling in this manner. Much as a movie like Kill Bill (2003-4) had the undertone of a tale created by the child of a single mother designed to mythologise their parent, it maintained the rules of that fantasy.

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This disquiet in Cliff’s background lends a troubling aspect to what otherwise seems his easy-to-idealise valour in all other respects, as a near-forgotten war hero, a loyal pal and manservant to Rick, and unswayed enemy of Manson’s antisocial thugs. This is certainly in keeping with Tarantino’s general disinterest – the women of Death Proof (2007) and Django excepted – in the kinds of unsullied knights pop culture prefers, or at least likes their dark days well-hidden. Like his previous film, the often aggressively misunderstood The Hateful Eight (2015), Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood needles our laziness as viewers over who we assign sympathy to in movies and why and the kinds of myths we like swallowing and why. Most of Tarantino’s narratives have revolved around characters who can be hero or villain depending when you meet them. It also invokes awareness over the treacherousness of the history he’s engaging, with the tendency of the members of the Manson Family to blame each-other for heinous acts and the various forms of apologia attached to them depending on one’s personal and socio-political sympathies, as well as Polanski’s swift trip from tragic lover to exiled creep. The Manson murders were a long time ago now, and yet they still retain relevance, still inflecting aspects of the zeitgeist from political discourse to the difficulty as a film viewer to be had in watching Tate’s body of work, short of roles worthy of her startling beauty and comic talent.

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Rick’s career is explored with such fanatical detail, from his spot hosting and performing on the TV music show Hullabaloo to his B-movies like the Nazi-roasting war flick The 14 Fists of McCluskey, for which he learned how to use a flamethrower, to the point that we know his oeuvre better than many a real career. This serves not just Tarantino’s delight in pastiche but also his larger narrative target. Rick’s body of work is replete with echoes of Tarantino’s own – Bounty Law depicts a professional bounty hunter a la Django Unchained (2012), The 14 Fists of McCluskey offers a simplified version of Inglourious Basterds (2009) – and the feeling that Tarantino’s facing down his own middle-aged, mid-career demons through Rick repeatedly surfaces. Tarantino’s no longer the coolest kid on the indie movie block, but to all intents and purposes an establishment figure who’s taken some licks in recent years and facing the challenge of constantly trying to outdo himself when it comes to outré provocation and trying to mature without sacrificing his specific cachet. More immediately, Rick’s attempts to hold himself together in the course of shooting his guest role seem almost trivial given the forces waiting in the wings, and yet they’re all-consuming to him and vitally important in terms of his profession, a gruelling study in shattered confidence duelling with professional pride and abused talent.

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Rick is confronted with a preternaturally smart and disciplined eight-year-old co-star, Trudi (Julie Butters), clearly a kid with everything before her and impatient with his old-school affectations. Rick bursts into tears as he tries to explain the plot of a Western novella he’s reading to her as he sees the likeness to his own lot in the hero’s struggle with aging and wounding. This moment doesn’t simply acknowledge a metatexual commentary but makes an active aspect of the story, Rick knowing full well as he explains it to Trudy exactly how it reflects his own story and also connects with a very specific instance in Western movie folklore, the bullet in the back John Wayne’s character in El Dorado (1966) stands in for his aging, a reference that comes full circle in the finale as Cliff takes a similar wound that will also compel him to act his age. “’Bout fifteen years you’ll be livin’ it,” Rick mutters as Trudi tries to console him over his wane, reflecting both his own awareness that as a female actor Trudi’s up against even more daunting forces than him and also taking a momentary pleasure in the cruelty of acknowledging it, stealing just a tiny flame of her magic back from her, before his shame kicks in. It’s one of the best bits of writing Tarantino’s ever offered, not just in terms of the way it characterises Rick but also in the way it registers in terms of the larger narrative. The Manson Family will attempt to do just the same thing in far louder and more pyrotechnic terms, and the likeness echoes again as Rick’s role on Lancer is playing a vicious criminal mastermind with a coterie of henchmen.

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On set, Rick struggles to get through a lengthy scene with Stacy, and unleashes a torrent of abuse at himself once he’s back in his trailer, aghast at his inability to do what he’s known and prized for. This moment drew me back to Orange rehearsing his legend in Reservoir Dogs, as if we’re seeing the other end of a train of thought for Tarantino, the contemplation of what mastering such skill means at different ages, the fantasy of transcending self finally and inescapably exhausted, but with the bitter kicker that the only answer is to recommit to it. So Rick returns to the shoot newly galvanised and attacks his next scene with such gusto even Trudi is bowled over. Such are the absurd and yet inescapable measures of an actor’s gravity. Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood posits what could have happened if the Manson Family had targeted someone a little more capable of taking care of themselves. The key precept here is a great one: acting, especially in the language of old-school machismo, is often written off as an inherently phony art for creampuffs and pretty boys. And yet the Hollywood of the 1960s (and now) would have been filled with people who really could fight, shoot, ride, and do many a difficult and dangerous thing, and many lead actors were, then and now, rewarded to the degree that an audience sensed something authentic about the way they handled the world – no-one doubts, for instance, that Lee could have won just about any fight in life even if many a barstool brave could, like Cliff, fancy himself as the one who could take him.

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Tarantino offers a system of rhyming vignettes binding together the real and the imagined in these terms. Tate defeating an opponent in The Wrecking Crew wrings applause from the audience she sees it with, and she learned her karate moves from Lee, whose tutelage of her is briefly glimpsed as one of the film’s most cheery, fleeting visions of two ill-fated people alight in their youth and ability. Later Cliff and Rick’s honed skills will be used in a more immediate and consequential way which the audience knows is both total fiction and yet palpably real in the viewing context. Where Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice (2014) dealt with an LA left paranoid and punch-drunk in the aftermath of the Manson killings, Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood is a prelude where the possibility of something malignant and dangerous is only slowly registered and reality is just starting to lose a certain shape. Manson himself (Damon Herriman) is only glimpsed once in the film, appearing in Polanski and Tate’s driveway seeking Dennis Wilson, who used to live there, looking like just another weedy, hairy hipster. Tarantino stages the finale with Cliff under the influence of acid and has trouble being sure, when he’s confronted by the Family members, whether he’s hallucinating or not. In his Lancer role Rick is called upon by Wanamaker to remake himself in a vaguely hippie image with buckskin jacket and Zapata moustache, adopting the new apparel of the popularly perceived reprobate. Rick himself doesn’t like hippies either, in large part because he senses accurately they’re part of the forces corroding his career as well as decorating the corners of his town with strange sounds and smells.

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Cliff is easier-going in that regard, buying an acid-soaked cigarette off a hippie girl (Perla Haney-Jardine) for eventual delights, and laughing indulgently as Pussycat bawls at a passing cop car. But Cliff’s intrusion upon the Ranch sees a collective of gangly, unwashed drop-outs gaze at him like irritable marmosets from the old mock-up frontier cabins. This spectacle changes the film’s tone subtly but radically as something enigmatic and dangerous manifests amidst the otherwise entirely ordinary world we’ve been watching, and suddenly we’re in one of Tarantino’s classic, patient suspense situations. A scene like the beer cellar shoot-out in Inglourious Basterds depended on a sense of the unexpected suddenly and steadily turning an apparently straightforward meeting into a slaughter. Here Tarantino plays on the audience’s presumed awareness of the various signifiers here and there, like the names Spahn and Charlie and Tex, to lend menacing undercurrents to a situation that otherwise seems borderline silly, with the mistrustful youths ranged about like Hitchcock’s crows and Squeaky playing hard-ass watchdog. Cliff is unfazed by the attitude turned his way but also not aware, as the viewer is (presuming the viewer knows anything of the Manson story), of the kind of danger he’s in.

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Cliff eventually does manage to chat with Spahn (Bruce Dern), who proves aged, cranky, and barely aware of who Cliff is. He’s also an elder avatar for Cliff himself, a physically ruined and impoverished old stuntman, used by the Family in a way that surely feels like beneficence to him. When he fixes on Clem (James Landry Hébert) as the one who knifed his tire, Cliff beats the shit out of him and forces him to change the tire. The cliquish, self-cordoned sensibility of the Family – the adoring girls of the gang signal their sympathy to Clem and hurl abuse at Cliff – is noted with a fastidious sense of black comedy mixed with a sharp understanding of the rituals of such a gang for whom their own expressions of violence are considered honest and those of others unforgivable offences, crashing against Cliff’s complete indifference to such signs, a natural loner who’s long since mastered the arts of surviving that way. One of the Family girls rides up to fetch Tex Watson (Austin Butler), the most murderous of Manson lieutenants, who’s off running riding trail tours: Tex’s speedy ride back the Ranch transforms him into the quintessential Western henchman dashing to save a useless underling, only to find Cliff already driving away. Jose Feliciano’s cover of “California Dreaming” rings on the soundtrack, pursuing the various characters on their journeys back home with a note of wistful longing: the adventures of the day are passed, and what’s left is the mopping up.

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Rick and Cliff’s experiences are counterpointed throughout with Tate’s, free and easy on the Hollywood scene, somehow managing, despite the fact she lives right next door to Rick, to exist in a different universe. Rick and Cliff finally catch sight of her and Polanski in their convertible entering their driveway, like a glimpse of the anointed. The couple’s arrival at the Playboy Mansion for a party is a glimpse of a moment’s idyll, the apotheosis of a period in-crowd with so many of them doomed to an early grave. Tate dances with Michelle Phillips and Mama Cass whilst Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis) watches and explains to Connie Stevens (Dreama Walker) the strange situation Tate lives in with husband Polanski and former fiancé Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch): “One of these days that Polish prick’s gonna fuck things up and when he does, Jay’s gonna be there.” There’s a suggestion Tate’s living arrangement with Polanski and Sebring was essentially a ménage a trois, but Tarantino keeps a wary distance from engaging with that. There’s a surprising gentlemanly streak to the way Tarantino lets Tate retain her almost too-good-for-this-world lustre, and not replacing her visage in her movies with Robbie’s. Tate gently mocks Sebring for his penchant for listening to Paul Revere & The Raiders and enjoys using her new if still fledgling star status to get herself in to The Wrecking Crew screening. Tate has no reason to worry about the disparity between herself and her screen self, recreating her on-screen movements from the audience in muscle-memory of the acquired skills and thrilling to the impression of cool reflecting back at her.

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Late in the piece Tarantino introduces an amusing codicil to the way the entwined yet distinct Tate and Rick stories relate, as it’s revealed both Tate and Sebring are fans of Rick’s and too shy to breach the distance between them. TV, cheap and unglamorous, is a nonetheless a common lexicon for everyone. Watching The FBI ironically unites Fromme and Spahn and Rick and Cliff, the latter two watching Rick in one of his guest roles as another bad guy: these stark little morality plays join the highlife to the lowlife, planting different seeds for cultivation. Tarantino spins this as he finally shifts focus onto the murderous crew Manson sends out to Cielo Drive, with Tex in command and including Susan ‘Sadie’ Atkins (Mikey Madison) and Patricia ‘Katie’ Krenwinkel (Madisen Beaty). As they work themselves up for the oncoming attack after being abused by Rick for driving their old and noisy car up his street, they latch on to a motive, the felicity of killing actors like Rick: “We kill the people who taught us to kill,” Atkins raves in increasingly demented enthusiasm in a vignette that captures the pseudo-radical morality of the Manson clan whilst also hinting Tarantino’s having a sideways swipe at the rhetoric often swirling around his films.

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It’s passing inane to note the obvious, that Tarantino deeply immerses himself in not just the movie business but specific wings of that business that have long tended to obsess him. He makes a show like Lancer, a second-string The High Chaparral or Bonanza, central to his plot precisely because of its virtually forgotten status and thus a fitting totem for pop culture’s mysterious melding of the ephemeral and the perpetual. Tarantino even allows Atkins that much grace in grasping an aspect of a truth. The little myths and legends we absorb day in and day out as consumers of such fare, so vital in the moment and readily discarded, are part of our substance whether we like it or not. Rick’s anxiety is made clear precisely because he knows he’s being actively written out of the mythology of his day remembered to less dedicated movie and TV buffs. What’s most interesting here is the way it frees Tarantino up on other levels, with a story structured and sustained in a way I’ve never quite seen before. Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood often seems scattershot as it’s unfolding, when in fact many apparently random vignettes and details prove carefully designed, in an attempt to deliver an entire film that’s one of his long, slow burns. Even a digression depicting Cliff in his trailer feeding his dog, has a function in this regard beyond simply noting Cliff’s shambolic life: we also see the perfect control he has over the pet, and like Cliff it’s a lethal weapon awaiting a signal to attack. By the time Tex and the others finally stalk the night in black clothes with butcher knives in hand, they’ve become actuations of fate stalking our heroes as well as very real terrors.

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When Tarantino resumes his story six months after the long day he’s described, the season has shifted. Rick has been to Italy, shot four movies that even gave Cliff a chance to recover his mojo, and is returning home married to Italian starlet Francesca Capucci (Lorenza Izzo). The great days are over: Rick has no idea if his sojourn will bring him more work so he’s looking at selling his house and tells Cliff he can’t employ him anymore. So the two men get roaring drunk before returning to Rick’s house and Rick lights up that fateful acid cigarette, and the doors get kicked in. Finally all of Tarantino’s gestures large and small reveal their larger pattern: Rick and Cliff have been granted as much solidity in their existence as Tate, Sebring, and their friends Abigail Folger (Samantha Robinson) and Voytek Frykowski (Costa Ronin), their movements ticked off as part of the same historical ledger, the grim stations of the true crime calvary doubling.

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The way Tarantino twists the true story of the fateful attack on Cielo Drive to his own purposes isn’t that hard to predict but still arrives as a set-piece of blackly comic ultraviolence as Cliff in an acid daze smashes Tex and Krenwinkel to bloody pulps, and Rick, shocked by the bloodied, sceaming Atkins crashing through his window and into his pool, grabs the first weapon on hand, which proves to be that flamethrower from The 14 Fists of McCluskey. As a climax this is of course similar to the finales of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained with a similar blast of gruesome, schadenfreude-tinted catharsis not just in the absurdly hyperbolic destruction of a truly malignant enemy, but also in releasing Rick and Cliff and even the bewildered Francesca from feeling like guest stars in their own lives. That part of Tarantino’s oeuvre which has long felt inspired by MAD Magazine reveals the depth of the influence in the way he transposes those old “Scenes We’d Like To See” strips into his movies. Indeed, the more one knows about the real brutality of the killers the more punch there is to it. Tarantino can make the revenge fantasy as nasty as he likes and still it cannot compare to what was really done to Tate and her friends.

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And yet this also made me wonder if Tarantino might have done better to swap his signature absurdist bloodshed for a harder, more realistic battle, all the better for breaking the spell of dark magic the Manson Family managed to weave about itself despite all. But as catharsis it still packs such a giddy, outlandish punch it’s hard to care too much about the distinction. The real brilliance of it becomes clearer in the subsequent scene as Cliff and Rick take leave of each-other not in any paltry parting but a scene of heroic gratitude and kinship. Rick encounters Sebring, brought out by the disturbance to the gate of Sharon’s house. Rick explains what transpired to the startled and fascianted young man, and gaining exactly the sort of potentially career-changing rapport he’d hoped for with Tate, who’s been saved. Sebring, as a fan, even grasps why Rick had the flamethrower. This particular revelation managed somehow to make me laugh and tear up all at the same time, as it finally becomes clear what Tarantino’s been trying to describe, for all his love of posturing as a cynical bastard. He knows well that part of us still longing to be saved by our heroes, even long after we learn what clay we’re all made of.

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