Quentin Tarantino is undeniably a smart director in both senses of the word. He is very knowledgeable about cinema and often tributes great films in some way or another (This film, for instance, the title homages Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time… films). He’s also a smart filmmaker with a unique vision. Whether you enjoy or despise his featuring of over the top violence, there’s no denying that whenever he makes a new film, people get excited. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was one of my most anticipated films of the year, and while I found my anticipations met with extraordinarily well, I find myself in the mysterious position of being even more anticipated for how audiences will react to this film.
The first important thing to know before going into this film is that Tarantino is not the kind of director who will stick to the script. He’s a rulebreaker which reveals itself in the “narrative” of Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, because at times, it will feel like there is no narrative, no beginning, middle & end so to speak. Rather it will feel like a collection of well-written events and moments in time. If you’re someone who likes structured films, the chances are that you may be bored by this, you may feel the film is slow. However, that’s one of the geniuses of Tarantino, he can make moments that feel out of order and turn them into an entertaining, interesting experience, this film is the absolute showcase of that.
Of course, how can you talk about Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood without talking about what may well be the cast of the decade. Not only do we have talent like Margot Robbie, Al Pacino, Damian Lewis, but for the first time the acting paring of Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, Finally! You know already that these two are expected to steal the show and they do so magnificently.
DiCaprio is Rick Dalton, an actor made famous by starring in TV westerns, who’s struggling in the 1960’s golden age of American cinema. Pitt stars as Rick’s stunt double Cliff Booth who is also struggling as a result of Rick’s lack of success who is more his personal assistant than his stunt double. This pairing has been in the minds of people for a long time, debating over would they work well with each other. What a pairing. Dicaprio and Pitt make the friendship between their characters effortlessly perfect, you enjoy being in their company and them coming to terms with their usefulness in an evolving industry.
Everything that is signature to a Tarantino film is present in this film, albeit I got more feet than I bargained for, as well as his take on violence, but that is mostly saved for the final act of the film. This final act is the other reason why people flock to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, to see Tarantino’s take on the Manson Family and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). The film gives you enough time to mentally prepare yourself for its climactic scene, every time you see Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate on screen, she’s always bubbly, enjoying her success. There’s a great scene where she watches herself in The Wrecking Crew in a cinema and she’s laughing with people around her. Her scenes always make the audience feel sympathy, but it only works if you are aware of the tragic real events of what happened to her.
You can do all the mental preparation you want for the final act; it still won’t be enough for what Tarantino has in store, and the way Tarantino makes it. The way Tarantino showcases cinema violence is done so in a cathartic way. It’s always directed to the morally wrong rather than caused by, we’ve seen it done to Nazi’s and slave owners/traders, now we see this therapeutic violence again directed at other morally wrong people.
Why I am looking forward to hearing reactions to this film is because of the previously stated division in a structured narrative, but also because of the tempo of the film. While we all know Tarantino for high tempo action, ever since The Hateful Eight he’s taken a slower approach to progression, one which I never particularly enjoyed in The Hateful Eight. Considering the almost three-hour runtime, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood will feel as though we’re not learning the characters quick enough.
In some instances that may be true, there is a point made about Cliff’s past that sounds to be something quite huge towards understanding his character, but it’s rarely brought up again since it’s first mentioned. Even Sharon Tate, the happy, in her prime actress is just that, a happy character. I wish I could have learned more about her behind the glitz of Hollywood, maybe even venturing into her relationship with Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha).
Is Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood Tarantino at his finest? I’d find it hard to place this over the likes of Pulp Fiction or Reservoir Dogs but in the broader picture, this film is a great triumph. It does really depend on whether you’re comparing to other Tarantino films or comparing it to all films this year. The cast and performances are second to none, the strive towards periodical accuracy is commendable and it’s got almost even Tarantino signature in the book. That goes without mentioning a great soundtrack to accompany scenes.
There’s also something bittersweet about this film. This is Tarantino’s ninth film, meaning if what Tarantino set out is true, that means there’s only one more film in the works. If this really is the near goodbye to a phenomenal director, let’s hope he can boldly go where no director has gone before.