‘One Upon a Time’ is Tarantino’s Warmest in Ages, But Still Bites
On the surface, Quentin Tarantino’s 9th film, the awkwardly punctuated Once Upon a Time in... Hollywood, is another period revenge fantasy. After avenging, at least on celluloid, the historical atrocities of the Holocaust in Inglourious Basterds and Slavery in Django Unchained, Tarantino has set his sight on the Manson Murders.
In August 1969, on the hottest night of the year, 26 year-old model and actor Sharon Tate was brutally murdered along with four of her friends in her Hollywood home by members of the Manson Family, a cult lead by notorious serial killer Charles Manson. Tate was an emerging star, she was married to acclaimed Polish filmmaker Roman Polanski, and she was eight and a half months pregnant. The horrific incident had a domino effect on Hollywood and American consciousness at large, effectively ending the 60s counterculture movement.
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Tarantino’s latest is about the murders, but also not. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a laid back, warm-hearted and genuinely sad film that lacks the seething anger and righteous drive of Inglourious and Django. The story here follows has-been TV and film star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double, go-to errand guy, “more than a friend, less than a wife” Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) over three eventful days in 1969 Hollywood. Rick happens to live next door to Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and we see enough of her for the information to act like a ticking time bomb.
The film, however, is in no hurry to get there. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is the least plot focused Tarantino joint yet. It is more concerned with soaking in mood and character at a lilting pace. The period detail is remarkable, as expected, and the film genuinely inspires you to seek everything it is touching upon.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is also Tarantino’s most straightforward movie in years, which means a lot of his stylistic tics are missing, for better or for worse. The wonderful soundtrack is perfectly era appropriate. The movie references are too; his characters here chew over Golden Age classics, TV serials and Spaghetti Westerns. The editing here is mostly linear and understated, which is refreshing because Tarantino has failed to recreate long time collaborator Sally Menke’s magic ever since she passed away in 2010.
The USP of the film is DiCaprio and Pitt turning in career best performances. Their camaraderie is fantastic, with no hint of starry illusions. DiCaprio plays Rick like a wounded deer, someone who bursts into tears at any reference to his fading career. He stammers and blubbers like a fool, making the audience wonder if he ever was great.
Which leads to my favourite sequence in the film, when Rick is having a tough day at a shoot. After trashing his trailer and pulling his hair, Rick tries to regain his composure and psych himself up for the next scene. He delivers a perfect take, with just the right amount of affectation and improvisation. In that moment it doesn’t matter that he’s playing a bit role in a TV pilot. The film has us cheering on a character who we know to be an anxious, insecure mess but we still want him to give a hell of a performance. And he does.
It’s interesting that Tarantino chooses to make the one of his movies that’s more about movies than any of his movies, an homage to actors. He has great love and respect for performers, and there is a reason huge stars flock to the filmmaker. The man is a real actor’s director and manages to extract performances that others rarely can.
Pitt meanwhile, will walk away with the film. Cliff is a real charmer, and arguably the more traditional ‘hero’ of OUATIH. He is a pro. A real cool cat. He is cocky. He is loyal. He cleans up Rick’s messes and has his back all the same. He can kick ass. In one key scene Cliff takes on the Bruce Lee and gains the upper hand.
Tarantino really builds him up, until he throws in a few dark details that complicate things. It works disturbingly well. I was genuinely upset that the film would toss out these icky instances involving Cliff, until it dawned on me that all of it was a trick. The filmmaker gives us a character that is impossible not to like, then lets us in on secrets we instinctively refuse to believe. It’s a tell when Cliff indulges a young hippie girl before rejecting her advances since she’s a minor. A softer (I hesitate to say lesser) filmmaker would have him say no to her because she is a child. Instead, Cliff frankly states, “I ain’t going to jail for some poontang.” Tarantino’s rascals are rascals with a capital R.
Rick and Cliff are amazing together, but the film gives them such rich inner lives that we don’t mind when they’re apart. Sharon, meanwhile is less of a character and more of an ethereal presence. Robbie is endearing in the part, and does a lot with her limited (by design) screentime.
The film becomes unbearably tense as it nears the fateful night of Sharon’s demise. At one point, one of Manson’s drugged out followers comes up with a realisation.
It’s a fascinating, meta line of dialogue informed by who speaks it and what they are going to do. The filmmaker couldn’t have made his position on on-screen violence clearer. Is it a bit convenient considering the brutal violence to follow in this film? Perhaps.
At this point a Tarantino film comes designed to give you mixed feelings. What is a relief then is the kindness and emotional sincerity that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood displays, a far cry from the cynical misanthropy of Tarantino’s last, The Hateful Eight. The filmmaker’s nostalgia for a dying era may be cheesy, but it’s way too real.
Come for the lovely scene where Rick and Cliff grab beers and watch an episode of FBI Rick is guesting in. They crack the kind of jokes only longtime friends would laugh at and Cliff praises Rick’s jumping technique.
Stay for the final shot, which is hopeful but still carries a melancholic air. The title card appears; this is a fairy tale.
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