Quentin Tarantino has been a controversial director longer than I've been alive, so when I went into his ninth movie, "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood," the only thing I expected was his usual mix of splattery ultraviolence, pop culture references and witty dialogue.
What I wasn't expecting was a chill, hangout movie that doubles as a fairy tale about the death of the golden age of Hollywood.
With "Once Upon a Time...," Tarantino seems to be entirely content with reducing the level of violence on display in his most recent movies and replacing it with floaty, relaxed scenes, depicting people on the fringes of Hollywood in Feb. 1969, who are going about their normal lives with no idea the Manson murders are about to kill their carefree dream of the 60s and usher in the fear and paranoia of the 70s.
But underneath Tarantino's impeccably curated vision of Hollywood--that practically glows with nostalgic warmth for a bygone era--you'll find a question that's been on his mind since he released his first movie, Reservoir Dogs, in 1992: how do we find the boundary line where movies end and real-life picks up again?
Character development has always been Tarantino's greatest strength and he ties his main three characters together with his theme of reality v. fiction in a way that makes the two inseparable here.
Leonardo DiCaprio, in one of his best performances to date, plays a washed-up cowboy actor named Rick Dalton; Brad Pitt plays his stunt double, Cliff Booth, in a performance that has totally convinced me Pitt is a brilliant character actor trapped in a leading man's body.
Margot Robbie, who had her breakout role with DiCaprio in 2013's "The Wolf of Wall Street," plays Sharon Tate in a role that could have given her more to do but nevertheless still utilizes Robbie's Oscar-caliber abilities well when she is on screen.
Dalton is a man who pretends to be a grizzled cowboy in his movies but is barely concealing his own fragile ego and crippling insecurities in his actual life. Meanwhile, Booth is the man who does the real heavy lifting for Dalton when staged violence is called for on set.
Tarantino uses a standout scene where Booth visits Spahn Movie Ranch, the place where Manson and his acolytes lived, to frame him as a real cowboy, wandering into a fake town with a stoic strut.
A particularly deranged Mansonite on the ranch, Steve "Clem" Grogan (James Landry Hébert), stabs Booth's tire with a knife, causing Booth to casually use some blunt force--in one of the few violent scenes in the movie--to make Clem change the tire.
And on the other side of town, Dalton is struggling to play a villain in a Western. When the cameras roll, he spews out an evil monologue about how he's going to kill a little girl, but as soon as the director yells "cut," he shrugs, lights a cigarette and has a friendly chat with the little girl he was just pointing a prop gun at.
The entire movie is based on scenes like those two where Tarantino makes clear distinctions between what is real and what isn't.
And then, in a classic Tarantino move I won't spoil here, he reminds us that sometimes the line between real and fake isn't as clear as we would like it to be.
Last Minute Thoughts: "Once Upon a Time..." is easily the closest movie in tone to Pulp Fiction that Tarantino has made yet.
I've seen all of Tarantino's movies at least three times, and I have to say this one ranks pretty close to the top for me. I definitely think it's his best since 2009's "Inglourious Basterds."
Tarantino has said he's only making 10 movies, and if that truly is the case, he's well on his way to ending his career on a high note.
Opening at over $40 million, "Once Upon a Time...," now holds the record for the largest opening weekend in Tarantino's filmography.
Check for showtimes here.