Tarantino’s historically skewed take on Hollywood isn’t accurate, nor is it entirely Tarantino. Whatever it may be, it remains with the viewer.
I spent much of Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood doing as best I could to figure out what precisely I was watching. Part of it is a kind of homage to an era – western TV pilots; B-grade drive-in movies; hippies; spaghetti westerns. Part of it is an examination of an actor (Leonardo Di Caprio) doing what he can to deal with his inevitable obsolescence. Part of it is a fawning, almost voyeuristic appraisal of the latter part of the life of Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). Not much of it feels like a Tarantino film, at all.
It’s hard to fully comprehend what this film is; it’s like Tarantino has in his mind a vision for what he wants, and has an idea, a concept that he wants to explore without being bound to the conventional notions of plotting – or to his own catalogue of screen credits, replete with fast-talking, sharp dialogue, acute angles, and quirky soundtrack choices. This is a film of concept, of an idea; it’s one more of ‘feeling’ than narrative.
There are a couple of sequences in the film that really does show him at the peak of his powers: one, amid the film’s midsection where Pitt’s stuntman finds his way to the movie ranch where the Manson family has set up shop. Determined to see the owner and ensure he’s not being abused or exploited, he’s confronted by Squeaky Fromme (Dakota Fanning) and makes his way down a hallway to where George Spahn (Bruce Dern) is sleeping. There’s an element of tension in the telling that’s as good as anything Brian De Palma’s ever done.
Also on The Big Smoke
- A near-mute (and barely included) Sharon Tate defines Tarantino’s ‘Hollywood’
- Blade Runner 2049: A film of someone else’s half-memories, half-done
- The power of the movie monologue
I can’t give enough kudos to Di Caprio and Pitt – two sides of a very different coin. Di Caprio as Rick Dalton, a once-famous TV star, and the guy who would have gone on to become a movie star to the degree of Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson or Clint Eastwood, had it not been for bad luck, circumstance and what appears to be a crippling lack of self-worth. He’s superb in this. Then there’s Pitt, the world’s most laid-back dude, hanging around Leo because what else is he going to do. This is a multi-layered character, both easy going and quite clearly seriously dangerous. Pitt absolutely nails the performance and gives one of his career-best pieces of screen work.
Then, there is the film’s climax, a sequence so charged with an unexpected energy that it makes you consider how Mia Wallace felt on the floor of Lance’s house when Vincent Vega gave her a shot of adrenaline directly to her heart in Pulp Fiction. In a film which for the past two hours had breezed by with a sun-kissed calm, accompanied by classic late 60s tunes on the radio and dance numbers at the Playboy mansion, not much of what’s on-screen bore a close resemblance to anything Tarantino had done before. Tonally, narratively – it was the exploration of a day in the life of three different people in Hollywood at the end of the 60s.
Tarantino has perhaps been hoisted on the petard of his own genius, that we walk into a new film of his – this being his ninth – expecting more of the same when the fact is that this could not conceivably be more different.
Then the Manson family shows up, and all hell breaks loose. Like in his Inglorious Basterds, Tarantino doesn’t stick to the letter of history – it’s not his job to – but again ponders the notion of ‘what if?’, considers the idea that these dangerous hippies showed up and were met by a different set of circumstances or motivations. Nothing about the film’s preceding two hours prepares you for what happens. It’s like a moment of sunny daydreaming is suddenly interrupted by the most heinous, confronting nightmare.
And, again, this is perhaps Tarantino’s MO for the whole thing. Many have written about how Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is a love letter to a bygone era; its sets, props, and costumes are a testimony to this. But much like how the 60s did come to a crashing end, the end of this innocence the night Sharon Tate and Co. were murdered in their house. So perhaps the truth here is about the film as it is about the 60s; everything was unfurling as you see, people just going about their days and then BANG, out of nowhere, carnage.
There are aspects of the film that meander, and it doesn’t have the same crack and dynamism of his previous work. Tarantino has perhaps been hoisted on the petard of his own genius, that we walk into a new film of his – this being his ninth – expecting more of the same when the fact is that this could not conceivably be more different. While his previous eight entries all stand the test of time and can be praised for varying levels of genius (or the absence of, take your pick), the one thing that Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood has going for it in spades is the fact that it sticks with you.
I can’t say I’ll go back to it, or have it eventually join my DVD collection of Tarantino’s works. But…perhaps it bears repeat viewings to get all the subtleties and nuances, like how the songs on the soundtrack underscore the narrative and themes. Or just how good the two leads are. Or just to see how complex and masterful his grasp of cinema can be; how he can take you one place, try something different, and then body slam you back into his twisted universe.
Say what you will about the film, but ‘forgettable’ isn’t it.