Quentin Tarantino has been regarded as the one of the most quintessential filmmakers alive and kicking ever since Pulp Fiction burst on the scene, receiving critical acclaim and putting his off-brand, rough-around-the-edges style on the big-screen. The director has had an interesting career since then, developing a catalog of mostly well received films from an array of genres. Whether it be the samurai film series Kill Bill, the black-comedy war film Inglorious Basterds, or his foray into westerns with Django Unchained (my personal favorite) and The Hateful Eight (my least favorite). Although filmmakers like Martin Scorsese have continued directing worthwhile features well into their seventies, it would appear Tarantino is content with winding down his career with a taut and tidy ten, all likely to be released before his sixtieth birthday. His latest film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood marks his ninth film. This, of course, depends on which way you slice it. Technically, Tarantino has ten feature-length productions under his belt, but, by either consolidating the Kill Bill duology as he intended or ignoring his Grindhouse film Death Proof altogether, it checks out.
I was excited for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, even though I didn’t know what to expect. Leonardo DiCarpio and Brad Pitt are both formidable actors, particularly the former, in my opinion, and it’s nice to see younger talent like Margot Robbie and Dakota Fanning able to cut their teeth with such an influential director. Margot Robbie’s character is that of Sharon Tate, a fact that immediately drew suspicion for what the film might be about. Sharon Tate was an actress and model hailed as one of the most promising newcomers in cinema. Her life was tragically cut short when she was murdered by members of the infamous Manson Family. She was eight-and-a-half months pregnant when she died.
This led everyone to speculate that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood would be Tarantino tackling Charles Manson and the heinous crimes he and his cult committed. In truth, Once Upon a Time is less about the Manson murders, and can more aptly be described as Manson murder adjacent. It wouldn’t be right to say the film doesn’t tackle them in a significant way, but, it’d be best to say they’re a looming shadow in the background, waiting for the chance to pounce out. This is not, say, a character-study on Charles Manson or the sociology of the cult-group involved. Instead, Once Upon a Time feels like a fairy-tale tribute to a bygone era. The same way Tarantino touched upon spaghetti westerns, exploitation films, and samurai action movies, this film allows him his love-letter to the golden-age of Hollywood.
The film was a box-office success, garnering nearly 400 million at the worldwide box-office, becoming the second-highest grossing film of the director’s career, and attained a positive critical reception, as well.
Set in Los Angeles, it’s 1969 and actor Rick Dalton has found that his career is starting to dwindle amid the changing film industry, dealt the unfortunate blow of realizing he isn’t as great as he once was. Quentin Tarantino has always been self-indulgent, impulsive, and unrestrained. These are all factors that contribute a lot to why we like him. He’s opinionated and although he’s a devout movie buff, it didn’t seem to be art-house films that caught his eye most times. The parallels between Rick Dalton’s dwindling career and what we can assume are Tarantino’s perceptions about the loss of the golden-age or, perhaps, even a parallel to his own career, are easy to draw. The best thing about Rick’s character, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, is it allows Tarantino to celebrate the art of film-making, while allowing DiCaprio to show his acting chops and the struggles of his character. Some of my favorite scenes are actually him, playing characters as Rick Dalton, stumbling on lines at times, then, at others, doing particularly well.
Rick Dalton isn’t alone in Hollywood, as he finds a friend in his stuntman Cliff Booth, played by Brad Pitt. Cliff Booth has lived a very different life than Rick Dalton. Instead of fancy mansion homes, Cliff lives in a small trailer. Likewise, Rick’s sense of entitlement and need for self-worth isn’t mirrored back. Frankly put, Cliff Booth seems like a cool guy. In-fact, Cliff almost seems like too nice of a guy. He’s considerate and sincere, and he always has Rick Dalton’s back through thick and thin, constantly toting the guy’s ego. He’s so likable, in-fact, you might find yourself constantly waiting for the bomb to drop on him. As if he’ll reveal himself as a super-villain or something, but it never really does. There is, … admittedly …, the possibility he killed his wife, however.
Although Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth are fictional, it’s clear Quentin Tarantino drew at least some inspiration from Burt Reynolds and his friendship with stuntman Hal Needham. There’s also a parallel to be drawn for Billie Booth’s death and the death of Natalie Wood, which involved her husband, Robert Wagner, and their friend Christopher Walken on a yacht.
Margot Robbie’s performance as Sharon Tate has drawn some criticism because the little amount of character development she was afforded. Having watched the film and read Quentin Tarantino’s explanation, I feel inclined to agree with him and disagree with naysayers. The film doesn’t present her so much as a character as it does an idea. She doesn’t own the frame because of anything she says, but, instead, she haunts it. Her presence feels melancholy and even sad, with you anticipating that looming shadow in the background to pounce at any moment.
In the end, maybe Once Upon a Time in Hollywood isn’t so much a love-letter as it is a story being told, fittingly a “Once Upon a Time…,” fairy-tale that allowed Tarantino the final cut privilege. It neither sees Hollywood purely for what it is nor entirely glamorizes it, instead, it sees it the way Tarantino sees it, or, at the very least, has chosen to present it. If nothing else, it feels true to the director’s catalog leading up.
The film has glimmers of humor, as is to be expected, and sees strong performances from Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, but never particularly elevates itself beyond average Tarantino fare. This isn’t detrimental, not if you’ve enjoyed Pulp Fiction, for instance, and its, at times, frivolous, but entertaining nature. When Once Upon a Time in Hollywood loses its linearity and structural clarity, it walks the line between what works and what’s superfluous. The film is well-crafted, but that doesn’t mean it can’t, at times, feel tedious and undisciplined. As the film ends, nearly approaching a third-hour, it does so in suitable balls-to-the-wall Tarantino fashion. It’s an enjoyable end, as well.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has an interesting mix – the relationship between Rick and Cliff, as well as the pending presence of The Manson Family and how it all relates to Sharon Tate. I think it all adds up in a way that concocts a good film, but I partly wonder if the ideas would’ve been better off separated and expanded on rather than brought together and, perhaps, diluted.
Nevertheless, I would recommend it as an entertaining, well-aimed Quentin Tarantino film that’ll stir up conversation and contemplation after it has been watched.