Quentin Tarantino has been uncharacteristically quiet of late. The filmmaker has always been chatty and avuncular compared with the warily self-protective Chris Nolan or the fiercely on-message Spike Lee. In the past, Tarantino was eager to engage interviewers on depictions of race or violence, even acknowledging that some of his protagonists may have lacked a “moral center,” costing them audience empathy. Tarantino has even speculated that directors should consider retiring by age 60; now, at 54, not having made a film in three years, he doesn’t rush to revisit that topic.
All this seems relevant because Tarantino has confirmed he will soon be shooting a dark film set around the time of the Manson murders of 1969 and starring Leonardo DiCaprio as a struggling television actor. Tom Cruise may also play a key role in the movie.
This is an important project for Tarantino for several reasons: It marks his emergence from the shadow of Harvey Weinstein, who has shepherded his movies since Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction almost 25 years ago. Further, it hopefully represents his renewed commitment to storytelling over ego-building. Even Tarantino’s most loyal fans were abashed in 2015 at his insistence on opening a three-hour cut of The Hateful Eight, complete with overture and intermission.
The box office performance of some of Tarantino’s later films may have dented Weinstein’s already struggling empire — an irony, since Pulp Fiction arguably advanced the mogul’s career more than any other film. Its extraordinary success spurred the Disney empire to invest hundreds of millions in the then-struggling Miramax indie, thus lending Tarantino’s films vastly wider distribution; also making Harvey a very rich man. In announcing his split with Weinstein, Tarantino candidly acknowledged that “I knew enough about the harassment issues to do more about it than I did.”
The announcement also is important for DiCaprio, who has not worked since depicting the suffering hero in The Revenant (for which he won an Oscar). Once seemingly omniscient, DiCaprio has made only seven films in the last 10 years but has been heavily involved in climate change projects. From time to time studios have hinted at his commitment to big period biopics in which he’d be cast as classic heroes ranging from Theodore Roosevelt to Leonardo da Vinci.
The character he’ll be portraying in the Tarantino movie is less heroic. He is a struggling actor who, once cast in a TV Western, is pondering a move to Italy to emulate Clint Eastwood’s career arc. Will his character be endowed with the “moral center” — Tarantino’s phrase — to connect him with the audience?
Critics have lavished praise on Tarantino, coining expressions to describe his “aestheticization of violence.” Certainly the violence of 1969 represented a darkly chaotic moment. Political assassinations dominated the headlines, just as sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll ruled the culture. When Charles Manson and his gang murdered actress Sharon Tate and eight other victims, the brazen, unmotivated crimes sent a shock wave through Hollywood. Too many, Manson symbolized the noir nihilism of the period. Everyone was suddenly locking their doors and pulling down their shades.
In the tense hours after the murders, the erratic behavior of law enforcement heightened the paranoia. Though Tate’s husband, Roman Polanski, was in London at the time of the crime, he was instantly looked upon as complicit. Rushing back to Los Angeles, Polanski sought refuge in a bungalow on the Paramount lot to escape the media. The Polanski name even then aroused a cloud of suspicion (his innocence was quickly established).
The setting of the Manson murders would seem to be ideal for Tarantino, if he yearns to return to the dark ironies of his Pulp Fiction period. In his later movies, such as Hateful Eight, Inglourious Basterds or Django Unchained, strong threads of satire occasionally vitiated the violence. Tarantino himself explained to interviewers that his work was becoming more literary and less cinematic. “Maybe I should write plays or novels rather than movies,” he reflected. “My dialogue is becoming too poetic.”
DiCaprio may prod his director this time to search for empathy rather than poetry.