Review: Once Upon a Time In Hollywood

Credit: Sony

Graham Peacock

Quentin Tarantino’s ninth feature, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, is perhaps the most “Tarantino” film of his career — and in more ways than one. Though his intense love for film history and pop culture have always been at the forefront of his work, never before has this love been so tangible and infectious.  It occupies every frame of the film, overshadowing even the iconic ensemble of Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, and Margot Robbie. His signature trademarks are also present with an abundance of sixties music and film nods, and a gratuitous amount of close-ups of feet – which at this point feels more like gleeful self-parody than anything else. But aesthetics aside, Once Upon a Time In Hollywood is a deeply personal examination of not only Tarantino’s own legacy, but of the uncertain future that lies ahead for a devoted cinephile and his concerns as the teenagers inspired by his Pulp Fiction days become the new future of Hollywood. 

The film follows Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a struggling star of Western TV who loses his fame as Old Hollywood fades away and New Hollywood begins its takeover. In extracts from Dalton’s career, we see him as a flamethrower-wielding soldier who sets a group of Nazis alight à la Inglourious Basterds, and later as the villain in a sombre Western that echoes The Hateful Eight.  It’s these self-referential moments that draw parallels between Dalton and Tarantino.  By Dalton’s side is his stuntman/best friend, Cliff Booth, played incredibly well by Brad Pitt in what is a career high for the actor, providing ample comedic relief — particularly in an already infamous scene involving Bruce Lee.

In a moment early on in the film, the two mourn the impending loss of their careers to younger stars as Booth drives a tearful Dalton up to his home in the Hollywood Hills on Cielo Drive — an address deeply ingrained in the American psyche, synonymous with paranoia and tragedy.  On Cielo Drive is the home where Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), her unborn child and three of her close friends were murdered by three Manson Family members in 1969, which in Once Upon a Time In Hollywood’s world is next door to Rick Dalton’s home.  Within the opening act, Tarantino rebuilds late sixties LA in all of its hedonistic glory, and foreshadows the impending horror to come.

The movie takes a day-in-the-life approach to these characters, using them to explore ideas about the counterculture and the shifting nature of Hollywood.  Many will complain about the film’s runtime: clocking in at almost three hours with a second act that admittedly lags. But again, that’s the beauty of watching a film that isn’t concerned with forming a tightly controlled narrative.  It feels more like short vignettes that could be watched in any order, which, though frustrating for some, is refreshing to see a major film in this era allow the focus to be purely on the existence of these fascinating, cartoonish and heart-breaking characters.  Regardless of your thoughts on the second act, the film is worth seeing if only for the insanely paced third act which makes for one of Tarantino’s best. Without revealing anything, it brings back the energy in droves, with a thought-provoking ending that only Tarantino could pull off and which plays on your mind for days.  

This being a Tarantino film controversy was bound to follow, and in the current climate backlash against Once Upon a Time In Hollywood’s depiction of Sharon Tate was inevitable.  If shown all at once, Robbie’s actual screen time would maybe equal ten minutes, and in many of her scenes her lines are scarce. Whilst I was initially disappointed by how little we saw of Robbie’s enchanting performance, Sharon Tate serves more as a symbol within the narrative as opposed to a focal character. Rather than exploit the figure of Tate into a longer storyline, Tarantino uses her intoxicating ambition and tragic story to highlight the impending disaster that awaited the end of the sixties. Though many will leave disheartened if they came for Robbie, the end product is a respectful depiction of a talented woman who is often reduced to no more than a victim. Overall, whilst the film may lose momentum along the way and is definitely not for everyone, lovers of Tarantino and cinema history are bound to have a great time with Once Upon a Time In Hollywood. And with only one more film left, it’s hard to imagine how the filmmaker will create a movie that better encapsulates everything that has made his legacy so strong.


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