Just a quick note that this review contains more significant plot spoilers than are usually included on this website. In short: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is an excellent film by Quentin Tarantino that embraces in full his personal filmmaking style – but does contain some problematic elements that provoked a slightly ambivalent reaction when I watched it.
1969. Actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo Di Caprio) worries that his career is over. While casting agent Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino) urges him to take up an offer to shoot spaghetti westerns in Italy, Dalton spends his time making guest appearances in other stars’ television shows while being driven around town by his former stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Meanwhile, new neighbours move in next door to Dalton: director Roman Polanski and his actress wife Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie).
Quentin Tarantino is a writer/director driven by a sense of historical reference and pastiche. It is a technique that has resulted in a string of fantastic films over the past 25 years or so, whether riffing upon Hong Kong martial arts movies, spaghetti westerns, grindhouse horror flicks, or World War II action films. His detractors see this collage activity as a sign of a lack of talent; in my opinion such criticism displays a lack of understanding of the post-modern process. A Tarantino feature not only celebrates film history, but interrogates and transforms it. Other filmmakers may inspire the likes of Pulp Fiction, Django Unchained, or Kill Bill, but none of those same filmmakers could have made Tarantino’s works like Tarantino.
This bower bird approach to filmmaking hits its apotheosis with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Set in 1969 Los Angeles, the film is liberally soaked in screen culture. It feels like there is a movie or TV poster or billboard in every shot. Every scene gets littered with pop culture references, or images of famous actors. The film’s entire environment is essentially a Disneyland for the Tarantinos of the world. No matter your opinion of the man’s films, it is worth noting that this – his ninth feature – is the most Tarantino-esque Tarantino film of all time.
What that means for the viewer is a love letter to 1960s Hollywood, spread out in a series of long, dialogue-rich sequences. It is all remarkably self-aware, regularly hilarious, and packed with multiple layers of references for the culturally obsessed. Di Caprio absolutely nails his role as an insecure and terribly vain minor celebrity, one whose genuine talent is regularly obscured by simultaneously self-doubt and self-importance. A lengthy series of scenes dedicated to his guest starring on a western pilot likely represent the film at its height, and feature great guest performances by the likes of Luke Perry, Timothy Olyphant, and Nicholas Hammond. Tarantino once again shows a fabulous penchant for casting under-appreciated talent.
Brad Pitt arguably has an easier role than Di Caprio, in that his laidback retired stuntman persona does not require him to be as regularly unlikeable as his co-star. Overall he is a tremendously fun character to watch. At the same time his character is saddled with oddly unpleasant beats – notably a flashback implying he murdered his wife, and a deeply misjudged scene in which Cliff ridicules and beats up an arrogant and over-confident Bruce Lee (Mike Moh). It feels tonally wrong at best, and at key moments somewhat racist. He does, however, feature in the film’s very best scene, in which Cliff finds himself deep inside the community of Charles Manson’s assembled ‘family’ at the disused Spahn Rance. In his nine-film career Tarantino has never directed a sequence as genuinely unsettling and tense as this, and shows a talent I would desperately love to see him fully embrace.
The presence of the Manson Family in the film – and the proximity of Polanski and Tate to Dalton’s house – foreshadow the real-life Tate murders of 8 August 1969. It hangs over the film like a worrisome spectre, overshadowing the more comedic vignettes that comprise the rest of the work. It is the closest thing to an actual narrative that the film has, with Margot Robbie delivering a pitch-perfect portrayal of the iconic actor. Her dialogue is limited – something journalists made an issue about at the film’s Cannes premiere – but it helps to fix her in the film as less of a character and more of a narrative symbol. The murder of Tate and her houseguests by Charles Manson’s followers has been widely seen as the event that ended an era, with the free-wheeling and liberal 1960s giving way to the more conservative and grounded 1970s. Tate’s presence exists as an act of foreshadowing – an effective promise that the good times enjoyed by Dalton and Cliff are coming to an end.
The film’s climax sees Tate’s murderers spontaneously change their minds, and enter Dalton’s house next door instead. They unwittingly run into Cliff, who with his dog kill all of the murderers bar one – who is burned to death by Dalton using a movie prop flamethrower in the backyard swimming pool. This violent change of historical fact – exaggerated to comic effect – echoes an identical trick employed by Tarantino in his war film Inglourious Basterds. In that film, the unexpected derailing of the facts achieves a superb comic effect, because it involves the death of Nazis and Adolf Hitler – at this stage in history easily abstracted villains whose deaths can be easily accepted as black comedy. When it comes to messing around with the brutal killing of innocent people by a personality cult, the response feels much less clean-cut. It is much more difficult to gain the abstract framing, and the overtly comical violence feels deeply disturbing as a result. Tarantino’s chosen climax does allow his fictionalised 1969 to go forever, but it is at the expense of a much more considered and thoughtful reality. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is mostly outstanding, but its directors own penchant for mockery becomes his own worst enemy.