Four years after his last feature, Quentin Tarantino is back, with his love letter to the 1960s L.A., Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. In keeping with Tarantino’s revisionist approach to history, the film follows fading star, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) as they navigate a changing Hollywood to reclaim fame and success.
Quentin Tarantino is a popular and talented filmmaker. He’s also a controversial one. And, depending on where you stand, he doesn’t disappoint on either front. With Once Upon a Time, Tarantino seems to have really chilled out, particularly in comparison to his previous work. The spectacular violence of previous films is (almost) non-existent here, with Once Upon a Time ostensibly being a hang-out film, complete with straightforward narrative. It’s in the B-plots that Tarantino wanders off the path, in no particular direction. The film meanders through Hollywood, much like its leads, cutting back and forth across their careers and lives. These cutaways can sometimes feel quite jarring – worryingly like a Family Guy cutaway gag at times – and have little to no effect on the main story. What they do though, is flesh out these characters, and their world, adding to the tangibility of Tarantino’s version of Hollywood in 1969.
Hollywood here, is gloriously brought back to the end of its Golden Age (and dawn of the New Hollywood era) with some fantastic practical sets. Tarantino quite literally transformed Hollywood to make this film, and you can tell. This trademark attention to detail, in both style and pop culture helps immerse you in this era; several old TV shows of yesteryear, such as F.B.I. and Dalton’s Western show, Outlaw Bounty, are brought to life. Adverts of the time are allowed to play out in full, on radio and TV, amplified by the film’s carefully curated soundtrack. This immersion isn’t always for the better, as it adds to the film’s pacing issues. The various cutaways and shifts in focus throughout the first half or so of the film tend to leave the film feeling disjointed. The emphasis on Hollywood is made clear through long drawn out shots of characters driving through Sunset Boulevard and down the freeway, for example. Depending on how you settle in to the film’s groove, this could be jarring, or even frustrating, for some viewers. For me, Robert Richardson’s sun-soaked cinematography was what helped me settle in. In this vein, it is possible for one to lean back and enjoy this film. Ultimately, this will be what allows it to hold up, and possibly improve, on further viewings.
As the actor who’s desperate to stay on top, Leonardo DiCaprio is wonderfully pathetic as Rick Dalton. A star of Westerns and guest star on multiple TV shows, Dalton’s career is on its last legs. The contrast between the nervous Dalton, and Brad Pitt’s relaxed and confident Cliff Booth is entertaining, and their bromance definitely kept me invested in where the film’s story was going. The film makes use of its star-studded cast, albeit sparingly, with most getting time to shine. Margot Robbie stars as Sharon Tate, the female lead in a film that’s filled to the brim with testosterone; with the portrayal of Tate, Robbie and Tarantino seem to have taken a more restrained, respectful stance. One of the points of controversy here seems to be the lack of lines given to Robbie-as-Tate. Instead, we get slice-of-life moments with Tate, as she gets a book for her husband, and goes to see one of her movies at the cinema, excitedly watching along with the crowd. Interestingly, despite Dalton being inserted into other films (such as his audition for The Great Escape (1963)) and TV shows, the real Tate is kept in the footage from The Wrecking Crew (1969). To me then, this comes across as more of a tribute to her, to try and help audiences (who may not know about Sharon Tate) get to know the woman behind the character, and empathise with her. Likewise, Margaret Qually and Dakota Fanning are charismatic as the members of the Manson family, highlighting the sunny, idealistic front and dark underbelly of the infamous cult. Bruce Dern, Al Pacino, Timothy Olyphant and many more all make brief, memorable appearances throughout the film. Of particular mention, is Julia Butters as child actor, Trudi Fraser, who has some entertaining interactions with Dalton.
As mentioned, the film features very little of Tarantino’s trademark, spectacular, stylised violence. Ironically, while its primary use is to darkly comedic effect, it is definitely problematic, particularly in the wake of the #MeToo movement. The cries that the violence in this film is overtly misogynistic are not without fault, and there is undeniably a spectrum of opinions to fall into. It will be interesting to see how Tarantino follows on from this in his next (and apparently final) film. I’ve included an article from The Guardian below, as a jumping-off point for those that would like to read more about this aspect of the film.
Overall, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a solid entry into Tarantino’s generally impressive filmography, featuring some fantastic performances, cinematography and, of course, the traditional controversy that follows in the director’s wake.