You can say this about Quentin Tarantino – he’s consistent. His settings and timelines may change, but regardless of the movie you still see a filmmaker unshakably devoted to his style. It’s so pronounced that you’ll hardly see him step outside of his self-defined box or sway too far from his brand. Take his recent conversations about making a Star Trek movie. Right off the bat he confirmed to Empire magazine that his version would be replete with profanity, a needless addition but a glaring Tarantino trademark.
I doubt any of that will be a problem for die-hard Q.T. fans and I can understand why. But as someone who feels his stories are often smothered by his style, it makes it easy for me to keep my expectations in check whenever a new Tarantino movie arrives. His 9th film (10th by release, but whatever) comes in the form of a retro la-la land fairytale set in the waning days of Hollywood’s Golden Age and our country’s perception of innocence. It’s a movie full of surprises, none bigger than this – I kinda love it. And let me get this out of the way – I think it is his best film.
“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” walks in several of Tarantino’s familiar footprints. It’s set within an alternate timeline, it’s a compendium of the filmmaker’s favorite classic cinema pastiches, and it sports a fascinating array of unique and often eye-popping characters. It isn’t much interested in plot. Instead Tarantino’s focus is on these characters and recreating 1969 Los Angeles with an obsessive level of detail.
Leonardo DiCaprio stars as fading TV star Rick Dalton and Brad Pitt plays his reliable stunt double and best friend Cliff Booth. The two are drawn from an era where actor and stuntman worked closely together both on and off screen. If Rick loses an acting gig so does Cliff. And Cliff not only takes Rick’s lumps on camera but he’s his chauffeur, gopher and overall handyman.
Television westerns were Rick’s ticket to stardom (Tarantino’s flashbacks to Rick’s former hit show “Bounty Law” are spot-on and so much fun). But as Hollywood transitions to a new era, Rick senses the industry leaving him behind. Instead of adapting he spends much of his time boozing and feeling sorry for himself. Enter the easygoing Cliff, a good listener and even better encourager.
As with other Tarantino films, “Once Upon a Time” routinely sees fiction intersecting with fact. An example, Rick lives in a nice house at the end of Cielo Drive in Benedict Canyon. Many will remember that street name from the horrific Manson Family murders. Rick’s new neighbors are indeed filmmaker Roman Polanski (Rafał Zawierucha) and his wife, rising Hollywood star Sharon Tate (played with an effervescent beauty by Margot Robbie).
Much has been made of Robbie’s lack of dialogue, but her portrayal of Sharon Tate has a very unique role to play. In many ways she stands as a symbol as much as a character. She represents innocence, goodness, and compassion. Tate is a constant ray of light and Tarantino shoots her with an ever-present glow. That’s why we’re hit with a looming sense of dread when we get those few glimpses of Charles Manson (Damon Herriman) or when Cliff gives a young hippie hitchhiker (Margaret Qualley) a ride to Spahn’s Movie Ranch. We know what history says and where things are heading.
As for the leads, “Once Upon a Time” is a very character-driven movie and Tarantino gives his two biggest stars plenty of meaty material to chew on. DiCaprio goes wild in a role that’s big and showy in the same way many Tarantino roles are. Still there are layers of sadness and insecurity that DiCaprio absolutely nails. But it’s Pitt who steals the show. Not only does he look the part with his sun-bleached hair and leathery good looks, but he’s tempered, laid-back, and easy for us to connect with (despite a few potential skeletons in his character’s closet).
The film does feature some of the same Tarantino vices that we seem to get in all of his pictures. For example he has this weird fascination with profanity. He doesn’t use it for realism or emotional effect. It’s something woven so tightly into the fabric of his style and he can’t seem to break away from it. Because of that many the characters across his movies often talk alike and sound alike.
Tarantino does indulge himself a little too much specifically during a long sequence on the set of Rick’s new western. Admittedly, it’s kind of fascinating watching Tarantino essentially shoot a TV show within his movie. It’s also a segment that features several good moments including Luke Perry’s final appearance and a fabulous performance from 10-year-old Julia Butters (she’s a revelation). But it still feels detached from the film’s other moving parts.
It’s hard to imagine a better looking film in Tarantino’s catalog (bold statement, I know). Every scene gives you an image worth setting your eyes on or a detail that in some way calls back to 1969. You get his nostalgic visual splurges often rooted in his pop-culture fluency. Whether it’s a Sgt Fury and his Howling Commandos comic on a coffee table or DiCaprio’s Rick grafted into a scene from “The Great Escape”. And of course there is the sheer technique seen throughout the entire movie. My favorite may be Tarantino’s knack for tracking shots best seen in a neon-bathed nighttime drive down the Sunset Strip and a subtly unnerving pan of Spahn’s Ranch.
So much else could be said about the rip-roaring soundtrack filled with songs of the period that haven’t been played to death in other films. About Tarantino’s surprising restraint even among such nostalgic excess and the unexpected splash of maturity seen most in his treatment of his characters. And how about the plethora of great cameos from Al Pacino, Kurt Russell, and Zoe Bell just to name a few. We could even talk about how Tarantino’s ending (in its own twisted way) offers us something his films rarely give – a glimmer of hope.
I can see “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” getting criticized from both sides. Tarantino stalwarts who come to the movie hungry for his traditional pomp and shock may be disappointed in how little they get. Those looking for a more traditional narrative may find the movie too messy and light on plot. Me, I love how this film manages to avoid many of Tarantino’s self-induced trappings while still being unlike anything else you’ll see in the theater this year. And while I still grumble at some of his style choices, I can’t deny being completely absorbed in this crazy yet magnificent cinematic concoction.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS