When I first heard that Quentin Tarantino’s ninth motion picture would take place in Hollywood during the late 1960’s and feature characters with names like Roman Polanski and Charles Manson, I admittedly had some misgivings. Setting aside my love for Tarantino’s filmography as well as my undying zeal for gratuitous violence, I just wasn’t sure I was ready to watch Sharon Tate get murdered by a cult of psychotic, LSD-addled hippies. Even if I were up for that from a purely biographical standpoint, I had doubts that Tarantino would approach such a tragedy with restraint or decorum, given that his prop sheet to date has been topped by the line item ‘Literally all the fake blood and maybe some real blood too if you happen to have some on hand.’
As it turns out, I should have given dear ol’ Tarantino the benefit of the doubt. This is, after all, the man who rewrote World War II so that Hitler got gunned down by Tommy Gun-toting Jews in a French theater in 1944.
Be forwarned – spoilers abound in plenteousness.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood stars Leonardo DiCaprio as fading actor-man Rick Dalton and Brad Pitt as his driver / bodyguard / repairman / drinking buddy / gofer / sex appeal-emanator Cliff Booth, who may or may not have once committed uxoricide and gotten away with it. Dalton, once an in-demand star of television westerns akin to Bonanza and Gunsmoke, is now contending with irrelevancy and chronic alcoholism as the Golden Age of Hollywood fizzles and the allure of the classical hero wanes. New Hollywood is on the rise, and with it its unconventional protagonists and moral ambiguity and maverick directors and experimental cinematography and boundary-pushing violence and nudity (those who were alive during this era will surely recall how steamy it was to see Faye Dunaway naked in 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde… from the neck up). It’s a strange new world, 1969 Hollywood – one populated by aspiring auteurs and loathsome hippies alike – and Tarantino clearly did his homework when arranging his mise-en-scène, which encapsulates both the beautiful and ugly aspects of the decade.
OUATIH is gorgeously shot and capitalizes on its ample two-hour-and-forty-minute runtime to thoroughly immerse its viewers in the atmosphere of the period. From the opulent Beverly Hills to the palatial Playboy Mansion to the dusty Spahn Ranch, Tarantino does more than merely provide a tour of the world of his obsession, he beckons us to pull up a retro bubble chair and make ourselves at home. The end result is akin to a holodeck recreation in that it looks, feels, and smells so real that it threatens to overstimulate the senses. Since its standing ovation at Cannes back in May, this film has been billed as Tarantino’s love letter to the 1960’s, so I won’t claim to be the first to call it that in a critique clocking in three weeks after the global premier (I’d draw a parallel between myself and Rick Dalton here, but let’s be honest – I’ve never had a prime to look back on with yearning). I will, however, touch on one of the common criticisms that has arisen out of this film’s painstakingly methodical direction – pacing.
Tarantino has always been more invested in the minutia of his characters’ lives and the intricacies of their pop culture-laden dialogue than anything resembling narrative thrust, but here the scales are tipped even further so that any consideration of a destination seems to have been left out of the equation. From the onset, we are treated to lingering establishing shots of famous L.A. landmarks, prolonged car rides through picturesque boulevards, meticulous crowd shots peppered with famous faces, and lackadaisical scenes in which characters literally watch television. All of this, though wholeheartedly entertaining, has little impact on the plot and seems aimed at invoking sentiments of reminisce in the hearts of industry professionals who were active during the period – at least, on a purely surface level. In fact, so much filmstock is dedicated to establishing shots, in-universe film shoots, and Brad Pitt beating the shit out of filthy hippies that some critics have accused Tarantino of self-indulgence and outright laziness, all the while equating OUATIH to everything from an inside joke to an especially languid episode of Seinfeld.
This is rather unfair, and likely a consequence of high expectations combined with false assumptions that Tarantino would be delivering another Pulp Fiction. High expectations are indeed the bane of the cinematic experience and can sully the enjoyment of even the greatest of films. I myself felt similar deflation following Edgar Wright’s 2017 crime-racer Baby Driver, which I thoroughly enjoy viewing now but felt slightly dissatisfied with in the theater for no reason other than that I’d been expecting an absurd, rapid-fire comedy like Hot Fuzz or Scott Pilgrim vs The World. Fortunately, I learned my lesson from that experience, which is never to limit an auteur to their signature style. Writers and directors grow and mature throughout their careers and must be permitted the freedom to explore new creative expressions. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is no Pulp Fiction, nor is it Reservoir Dogs or even Inglourious Badwerds – actually, it has more in common tonally with the comparatively humdrum Jackie Brown than anything else in Tarantino’s repertoire. This is not a criticism, because everything at play in OUATIH functions perfectly in service to its effective – albeit comically roundabout – character tale, which involves the revitalization of Dalton’s ailing career.
Having been reduced to guest spots on television procedurals, Rick Dalton bemoans how far he’s fallen and dreams of being discovered by Roman Polanski, who happens to live up the lane. “Just think,” Dalton pines to Cliff Booth near the beginning of the film. “I could be one pool party away from being in a Polanski film.” We subsequently witness Dalton’s numerous trials and minor triumphs as he endeavors to stay committed during the shoot of a western pilot, until the time comes when he’s forced to travel to Italy and star in a string of Spaghetti Westerns, from which he earns very little due to his lavish lifestyle. As the third act commences, he confides to Booth that he’s broke and cannot even afford his own home anymore, much less Booth’s services. On the climactic evening of August 9th, 1969, a chance encounter results in the Manson Family infiltrating Dalton’s home instead of Polanski’s, where they meet Booth, who proceeds to, shall we say, f***ing murder them all with brutal efficiency. Booth’s slaying of the cult members results in Dalton being invited into the Polanski residence by the very-much-still-alive Tate, who promises to introduce Dalton to Polanski. Everything that transpires, significant and trivial, sets up Dalton’s introduction to Roman Polanski, and the film closes on a hopeful note. The entire thread with Sharon Tate and Charles Manson is little more than misdirection, which might be one of the most brilliant red herrings I’ve ever witnessed in a film.
Otherwise, the performances are all mesmerizing, with Brad Pitt stealing much of the show as a cool, aloof, suave, Hawaiian shirt-wearing swiss-army-man. The wonderfully versatile Margot Robbie is as spirited and vivacious as ever, and Kurt Russell is a welcome presence in anything. I also wholeheartedly enjoyed DiCaprio, which only seems to happen when Tarantino directs him. Like his equally-enjoyable portrayal as the gleefully malevolent plantation owner Calvin Candie in Django Unchained, DiCaprio owns the role of a vain, self-absorbed, hyper-serious buffoon who wants desperately to be loved and cherished by everyone he meets. Suffice to say, he’s delightful to watch, especially in his scenes with Pitt, with whom he shares some of the best on-screen chemistry I’ve seen since Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling in The Nice Guys.
Though it’s far from a masterpiece, OUATIH is an immersive and sentimental sendup to a transitional era in Hollywood and one of the better offerings of the Tarantino-verse, which only needs one more installment before I can pen a proper Top Ten List. Until then, the descending order of his films would be Inglourious Badwerds, Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Django Unchanged, and then everything else in no discernable order.