Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is the 9th feature film written and directed by Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction, Django Unchained) and stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Rick Dalton, an actor in the 1960’s who is fading into obscurity along with Hollywood’s golden age as the landscape of filmmaking changes and characters like his former television cowboy, Jake Cahill, are no longer in as high of demand as they used to be. As an under-confident Dalton struggles to stay relevant amongst an ever-evolving crop of new projects within Hollywood’s cinematic landscape, he and his stunt double Cliff Booth (played by Brad Pitt) attempt to navigate the world of 1969 Los Angeles whilst reconciling the fact that their heyday may be on its way out the door. Also starring in the film is Margot Robbie (I, Tonya) as Sharon Tate (a famous actress married to lauded then disgraced filmmaker Roman Polanski in the 1960’s, whose real-life brutal murder at the hands of the Manson family became one of the desert cult’s most infamous killings), as well as Kurt Russell, Margaret Qualley, Dakota Fanning, Timothy Olyphant, the late Luke Perry, and Al Pacino.
Quentin Tarantino always seems to have a bit of controversy floating around both himself and his movies, yet it never seems to damage the final product, whether incidentally or overtly. The writer and director of some of the most critically acclaimed movies of all time seems nigh untouchable when it comes to difficult-to-tackle subject matter altering the perception or production of his films, and if anything, he always seems to be more overpraised for his lesser-quality material than underrated in just about any capacity. The largest controversy surrounding Once Upon a Time, of course, was how he would handle the brutal murder of Sharon Tate and her four other fellow victims by the Mansons; after all, Tarantino is known to be brutal with his violence and quite exploitative of the violence against women in them in particular, and while that’s certainly a topic that merits discussion, perhaps in another, more substantial piece left to more qualified voices on the topic (the apparent unsafety of Uma Thurman during one of the Kill Bill volumes is a significant subject in that arena), I’m not sure it’s entirely relevant to the review of this film in this context, not because Once Upon a Time doesn’t get violent or attempt to play around with history a bit (it absolutely does at points), but largely because it’s not really about the infamous Manson murders; if anything, that’s only part of the backdrop of the film (though it is addressed).
In fact, I sincerely doubt that much controversy is going to surround this film as a whole at all, because the truth is, even as lesser Tarantino material than the director of Reservoir Dogs and Hateful Eight normally gets into, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is still a really great movie. Throughout, Quentin Tarantino’s love for the 1960’s era of Hollywood motion pictures is more than obvious, and the production values within each frame are staggeringly well-realized, which is common for a Tarantino flick, although nonetheless impressive. Each set within a set, movie direction within this movie’s direction, and ad-lib within the script are great fun to watch, and no one sells them better than Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, a Tarantino gold-mine pair the director has cited as being the most dynamic star duo in movies since Paul Newman and Robert Redford.
The former in particular really gets a chance to stretch his acting muscles here, affecting a bit of a speech impediment when he’s not “acting” on-screen to sometimes sympathetic, sometimes hilarious effect, given how absurdly talented of an actor he actually is (he’s got an Oscar, for crying out loud). He’s long-been an actor of tremendous range, always challenging himself with new and exciting roles to dig into, but after what Tarantino did with him in Django Unchained, the Revenant star almost shot to a stratospheric level of acclaim given how ingeniously realized his portrayal of villain Calvin Candy was, and as the lead in Once Upon a Time, DiCaprio makes the most of every second he’s on screen, practically chewing up the scenery and spitting it out into his brilliant performance within a pilot his character shoots in this movie. He continues the stretch of his already mega-wide girth of an acting range here, and manages some genuinely hilarious moments that make me want to see him in a more straightforward comedy just to see what he’ll do with it.
The scene-stealer, though, ends up being Brad Pitt as Cliff Booth, his antics as Dalton’s stunt double and somewhat hired-hand partner providing some of both the funniest, most tense, and gruesome elements of the whole production. Booth has a bit of controversy surrounding him that I won’t get into here due to spoilers, but suffice it to say, the film mostly leaves it up to the audience to determine whether or not that controversy has any truth to it, or whether that truth would merit much relevance given where the story goes with his character. It really is quite a bold step for Tarantino to openly include the notion of inconsequential brutalism in Hollywood in one of his movies given the current prevalence of “cancel culture” (which I contend is mostly a good thing given how much actual bad it’s gotten rid of despite occasionally stepping a bit too far) in today’s sociopolitical landscape, but you can’t say that his picture isn’t sincere or authentic, regardless of how those things would have gone over in modern times.
Indeed, there are a number of things both within and about Once Upon a Time that seems almost intentionally designed to provoke some sort of reaction, whether from one’s knowledge of historical events and film language, or the (again, largely merited) “sensitivity” of modern culture, and while it may not quite go over as well with many people, one kind of has to admire to boldness of a filmmaker so well-regarded from a critical perspective practically begging people to shit all over something he’s been developing for a full decade. Much has been made as of late about whether “subverting audience expectations” is actually a good thing or just a coward’s move designed to provoke a reaction (a conflict largely brought to prominence by The Last Jedi and Game of Thrones), but the way Tarantino handles the undertaking of that very task in Once Upon a Time is the reason that he continues to be such a relevant filmmaker, by subverting them in service of story, even whilst he never promised or pretended to address any need to fulfill them in the first place. Is it brave? I don’t know, but it is affecting, and there haven’t been many non-blockbuster movies this summer that have provoked this sort of immediate curiosity with how things might play out, nor the sort of fascination with what’s on screen that begets that curiosity.
The one thing I will say is definitely a point of contention as far as quality is the inclusion of Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate. I’m not so much talking about how Tarantino chooses to handle the murders (something I also can’t get into because of spoilers), but rather the notion of her being a significant character in the movie, because ultimately her storyline, as contrasted with the others, doesn’t seem to have much bearing on the overall plot for most of the film, and in fact she doesn’t actually end up serving a purpose toward advancing the narrative other than the mystery aspect of “how will Tarantino handle this,” and functioning as a B-plot to make the movie longer because it’s fun to see Margot Robbie play around in a Tarantino movie. That’s a shame, because if her character had some more defining relevance to the plot or effect on the primary narrative, Once Upon a Time could actually be considered a masterpiece. As it stands, it’s just a really solid (if a bit overlong) movie that showcases why, even at his weaker points, Tarantino is still one of the best and boldest filmmakers in the business.
If there are any other flaws with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, they’re mostly rudimentary production flaws that are likely a result of Tarantino becoming a bit too self-indulgent and sure of himself in the writing of the thing, with the overall runtime clocking in at around two and a half hours, approximately an hour of which forms the second act of the picture, which is noticeably weaker (although no less interesting) than the other hour and a half surrounding it. As well, the director’s affinity for playing around with unclear cuts to flashbacks and moving around certain events in a timeline can get a bit confusing at times, and truth be told, I’m still not quite sure what exactly the timeline of this movie is, let alone what it’s meant to convey to the audience, if anything. And sure, not every movie has to be about something (in fact, some of Tarantino’s best aren’t actually about much at all), but while there are themes in the movie, they play a backseat fiddle to the characters simply existing in this time period, and personally I would have like to have seen them more overtly expressed.
In the end, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood certainly won’t be for everyone, and if this is your first Tarantino flick, it probably won’t win you over, largely due to its unfamiliarity and the filmmaker’s penchant for unwieldy pacing. This penultimate entry in the director’s filmography seems to be largely designated for the veterans where he’s concerned, but even with his more limited reach among his audience, Quentin Tarantino shows no signs of slowing down or aging in his narrative ambitions. The performances are great, the production is immaculate, the story is bold, brash, and unapologetically his, and it seems he’s still got more than a few tricks up his sleeve. It may not be his best by a long shot (okay, a mid-range shot), but it’s still one of the best movies of 2019.
I’m giving “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” a 9.2/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
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Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time. Writer for Bitesize Breakdown.