Review – Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019)
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Emile Hirsch, Al Pacino, Kurt Russell, Margaret Qualley, Mike Moh, Austin Butler, Dakota Fanning, Bruce Dern, Julia Butters, Luke Perry, Damian Lewis
As the self-taught filmmaker whose primary education was famously five years working behind the counter at a video store, a deep love of the movies has always been a central part of the Quentin Tarantino mythology. While that love of cinema of all kinds has always been evident in his movies through their eclectic references and homages, with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, this great lover of the movies finally gets to make his film about the movies. Taking us back to the late 1960s, he captures Hollywood at a moment of seismic generational change and in typically Tarantino fashion, demonstrates a simultaneous fascination with history and an unwillingness to be beholden to it.
It is early 1969 and Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), an alcoholic Western star whose best years are behind him, finds himself in the midst of a career transition. No longer a bankable leading man with his show ‘Bounty Law’ having ended eight years ago, Rick is faced with a choice between heading to Rome to make spaghetti westerns or accepting a string of TV guest appearances as villains, with each episode-ending defeat serving to symbolically hand the torch on to the next generation of stars. By Rick’s side through all of this is Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), his longtime stunt double who now serves more as a driver, general gofer and companion. While in part limited by the roles that Rick is being offered, there are other controversies in his own past that see Cliff struggling to get consistent stunt work.
The late 1960s and early 1970s was a period of great generational upheaval in Hollywood, and Rick and Cliff are on the wrong side of that divide. While a broader cultural shift is apparent through the constant presence of the “damn hippies” that so infuriate Rick, the new generation of screen talent is represented by the brash ethnicity of Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) who gets into an on-set skirmish with Cliff that does not end in quite the way you would assume; the strong-willed feminism of a very dedicated to her craft child actress (Julia Butters) who shares a scene with Rick; and Rick’s recently moved in neighbours Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie).
There was a certain wariness that greeted the news that Quentin Tarantino was going to make a film about the Manson Family murders and the death of Sharon Tate. With his penchant for exploitation and gratuity, people didn’t trust Tarantino to be respectful, and these fears were only exacerbated by the fact that, at one point, the film was set to be released on the anniversary of that tragic event. Those fears prove misplaced, however, as Once Upon a Time in Hollywood sets about reclaiming Tate as both a performer and person. While she is not as prominent a figure as the marketing for the film makes her appear – Robbie is definitely not co-lead with DiCaprio and Pitt – Tate is a fascinating presence that exists within the film on the peripheries of Rick and Cliff’s story. We hear about her before we hear from her – she doesn’t have any dialogue until about 45 minutes into the film – but she is this incandescent source of light and life which naturally draws the camera’s eye. Rather than having a particular plotline, we simply watch her go about her life, and while we know the tragedy that is to befall her, Tarantino ensures that there is no spectre that looms over her throughout the picture. He is shifting our perception of Tate from being a victim back to being a person.
While still undeniably a Tarantino film, there are subtle ways in which Once Upon a Time in Hollywood sees this iconic filmmaker offering us something a little bit different. For starters, this is easily his most compassionate film. Tarantino’s creations have always been first and foremost characters, but here they actually have the ring of truth to them. There is a genuine humanity not only to Sharon, but to Rick in his insecurity and Cliff in his isolated bravado, that is not present in Jules and Vincent, the Bride or Hans Landa – great characters all, but not relatable people. This compassion is then reflected in the tone and pace of the film. Where his films usually place a certain focus on their construction, often employing distinct chapters, and make you work a bit to piece together the plot into a story, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is much more leisurely. Not at all plot driven, it is a film of moments and interactions, taking its time recreate this world of Hollywood in the late 1960s and showing us the details. A filmmaker who has always revelled in the opportunity to mimic and appropriate styles, Tarantino has some fun here recreating scenes from the films and shows within this world. An interesting blend of the fictional and the factual, Rick and Cliff’s careers swing between real life shows and films like Lancer, The F.B.I., The Green Hornet and The Great Escape, and imagined ones like ‘Bounty Law’ and various westerns and war films that fill out Rick’s filmography. There is a tonal variety between the vignettes that Tarantino assembles, yet the film doesn’t feel uneven.
Tarantino is a filmmaker who deals in great scenes. Rarely placing himself at the mercy of pace and narrative propulsion, he allows for long scenes which become almost like short films in and of themselves. Think of the opening interrogation of Inglourious Basterds, or the Jack Rabbit Slims dance competition in Pulp Fiction. With its meandering tone, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is no exception, providing us with a series of great moments, some of which could end up in that Tarantino pantheon. The film’s highpoint is a scene in which Cliff gives a hippie a lift back to the Spahn ranch where he and Rick used to shoot ‘Bounty Law’ only to discover it is now the headquarters of the Manson cult. Shifting gears into horror, the scene takes on an eerie tension as Cliff’s swagger sits uncomfortably in a place where we understand the danger better than he does. There is a quite touching scene in which Sharon goes to the local cinema to see herself in her new movie, The Wrecking Crew. We watch the bright eyed excitement on her face as she takes in not only herself on the big screen but the reactions of the audience around her. Interestingly, Tarantino opts not to insert Margot Robbie into the scenes, but let Tate’s actual performance feature. And then, of course, there is the film’s climax.
Having meandered through the first two acts, the third sees a change in direction and tone. We jump forward six months to the 9th August. The narrator, to that point only used sporadically, becomes more prominent. The plot becomes more forensic, more detail oriented, as we march towards inevitability, with everything coming to a head in a scene which goes full Tarantino, combining brutal, uncomfortable violence and humour in the way only he can in service of an alternative history.
If we follow the director’s lead by considering the two volumes of Kill Bill as a single film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is Tarantino’s ninth film, which means we are edging closer to discovering whether the he, having always been adamant that he would retire after his tenth film, is a man of his word. Fun, insightful and compassionate, and halting the recent progression into self-indulgence, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood represents a bit of a return to form and is a valuable addition to an impressive body of work.
Review by Duncan McLean
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